Poverty is prevalent. The idea of what is “poor” equals one person living off of $11,000 or less a year. It’s $15,000 for a single parent with one child and $23,000 for a family of four. According to the Census Bureau 50 Million Americans fit this threshold. 50 Million.
Now, the “near poor” (according to the Bureau) is when an individual makes $11,000-$17,000 a year. These workers would be (for example) the associates stocking your shelves in one of those big box companies, or serving your happy meal in one of those fast food restaurants. The Bureau counted an additional 51 Million people living in the “near poor” bracket.
This means roughly 100 Million Americans are either poor or are on the brink of being poor. One medical emergency, one catastrophic natural disaster, one check from being “poor”. To help you put this in context, 100 Million Americans is one out of three of us.
When put in these terms it is hard to understand how we as Americans can let, what is in essence, a country of citizens flounder in the stressful, unhealthy world of poverty. However, the proverbial boot strap myth has so engrained itself into our psyche that we are unable to recognize our ignorance and lack of human decency when we ignore our neighbors only to our ill-conceived benefit. In 2010, South Carolina’s former lieutenant governor shared his ideas (which he learned from his grandmother) about how to deal with a population he perceived as un-boot-strappable:
“She told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or person ample food supply… You’ve got to curtail that type of behavior.”
If only this was an anomaly, but this however is slowly becoming the norm. To suddenly equate human beings to animals when they reach a different standard of societal “worth” has been a standard-bearer of the nativist, the extremist, the fascist propaganda. To equate humans to cattle, or to monkeys or to stray cats is to vilify and call their “behavior” as beyond the human experience. To say the poor is just another animal that we need to curtail their breeding and deny their freedoms and NOT a result of ALL of OUR choices and behaviors as a society is not only ignorant but unnecessarily cruel.
Food Stamps. The cry is that this continues the suckling of the poor on the teat of America. The cry is that the recession is over, that the market is lifting and whomever is still clinging to this socialistic/communistic agenda has to be lying and ripping us off. This “recession is over” is not true for the populace, however it might be true for the market. Since 2000 the rate of poverty has risen from 11.3% in 2000 to 15.1% in 2010 to a whopping 18.1% in 2011. Yes, in one year 3% more Americans slipped into poverty. How can a recession be over when so many of our population is being flung into poverty and then vilified for their “choices”.
Not keeping in mind the trend of more people slipping into poverty, some get angry with the rise in Food Stamps, and other Welfare Programs. Not understanding the difference between “the market” and “main street” they cannot connect why more people are signing up for these programs, or are staying on the programs longer than they ever have. When the $180/month (which is the norm for Food Stamps- we are not talking bucko bucks here!) is the difference between dinner and malnutrition for this population of the poor, and when we are talking of denying this meager helping hand we are not understanding how close each of us are to this situation. When people complain that the very people who are receiving such benefits are not contributing, because they pay little to no income tax, you have to remind them it is because people with low incomes are people with low incomes- too low to owe federal taxes. The myth of them not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps is DIRECTLY influenced by them NOT HAVING bootstraps!
This disconnect also stems from people conceiving the poor and near poor as “too affluent”. We have a vision of what poor and near poor “looks like”. It is equated with homelessness, dirtiness, lack of concrete goods. We want our poor to be recognizable. We want our poor to be severely downtrodden before we consider them poor. We get angry when the poor or near poor does not fit the mold or “ideal” poor person. Regardless of how “boot-strappy” a poor person can get. Scrimping and saving to get that pre-paid cell phone, because HELLO you cannot get a job, housing, and pretty much anything in the world without a cell phone anymore. A cell phone does not equal wealth. We get angry when poor people wear clothes. We want our poor to look poor, so when someone has “brand name” clothing (regardless that you can find “brand names” at goodwill and other second-hand stores) it flies in the face of the idea of what poor looks like. Regardless that the fashion industry touts seasons so strongly that the wealthier amongst us has the privilege of discarding their clothing after four months of wear to get the latest “style”, we want to shake our fists, complaining that our tax dollars are going to their wardrobe. (Never mind that Food Stamps can’t purchase said clothing to begin with.) It is intolerable to us that poor people can barely afford their apartments, but if they were TRULY poor- wouldn’t they be homeless already? (Never mind that we habitually ignore the homeless population, and even if they did “act the part” we would still vilify them and find a way to schlep the problem off to someone else.)
The cycle of us verses them needs to be broken. THEY are US! Too many of us are closer to this line of poverty than we care to think, imagine or recognize. Too many of us know someone first hand that is either living in this bracket of poor or near poor. Too many of us can count how many paychecks we are from sliding into poverty. If so many of us are living here, where the edge of the plateau is, and so little of us are high on the mountaintop of the 1%, then how can we separate ourselves from the struggle. You are a part of this struggle, because the more of us that slide into poverty VISCERALLY affects your life: your schools degrade, your cities lose valuable income so that the amenities you hold dear disappear, more people in poverty means more chances are needed to be taken to break even (meaning crime goes up). Do not tolerate people around you feeding into the myth that the well-being of one of us doesn’t affect the well-being of us all. Do not tolerate people around you spreading more lies about the poor and near poor. Help them see how close they are to being held in that bracket themselves. Do something to help the poor and near poor in your world. Volunteer your time, use your resources, help someone by providing a bootstrap of your own to them. Because as Dickens says below: “They belong to all of us.”
Special Thanks goes to Jim Hightower and his Hightower Lowdown. It is a monthly newsletter that continually forces me to see issues in new ways. He provides insight and humor on a variety of social and political topics. I cannot recommend his work enough! Visit his website, subscribe to the newsletter. His website also gives great advice of how to get involved in the many issues he tackles!