July 1, 2021
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary the definition of poverty is straightforward. Being poor is lacking “a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions.” According to the US Department of Health and Human Services “people and families are considered poor when they lack the economic resources necessary to experience a minimal living standard.”
Poverty is not a moral failure. It is just not having enough money.
For the millions of men, women, and children living in poverty, their present and future lives are deeply harmed because they cannot afford the basics of a very modest life.
Just think about yourself trying to make ends meet for a family of four on with an income under $30,000/year, the “poverty line.”
That level is less than half of what the Institute for Policy Studies estimates that that family needs in the Chicago area because “it costs $7,136 per month ($85,638 per year) to secure a modest yet adequate standard of living.”
Eliminating the human pain of this societal failing should be simple, especially in a country as wealthy as ours. We can afford to make sure that people have enough money to pay their rent, buy their food, have a way to get to where they need to go, see a doctor, and meet all the other sundry costs of life.
Just make sure they have enough money; cash is the antidote to poverty.
Brookings recently published its assessment of the impact of existing income support programs, like social security and SNAP. Their conclusion: they do work. “Social insurance has been shown to dramatically reduce rates of poverty in the US, especially among children and older adults. In 2019, social insurance programs cut the poverty rate in half — as measured under the anchored Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) — from 22 percent before certain program benefits are counted to 11 percent. However, inequality in the U.S. remains very high, especially when compared to other advanced OECD countries. The United States is not only among the countries with the greatest inequality before taxes and program benefits; it also is the country with the widest inequality after these policies are taken into account.”
Studies of the impact of the recent cash transfers that were central parts of COVID-19-inspired emergency assistance found they had the same impact. According to an analysis of US Census Department data by the University of Michigan’s Patrick Cooney and H. Luke Shaefer “material hardship in U.S. households fell sharply following the passage of the COVID-19 relief bill in late December 2020, and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in March 2021…food insufficiency fell by over 40%, financial instability fell by 45%, and reported adverse mental health symptoms fell by 20%. Declines in material hardship were greatest, in percentage point terms, among low-income households but also evident higher up the income distribution. Data from the past year suggest material hardship among U.S. households fell following the implementation of robust federal income transfers and rose in the absence of government action. •We believe the success of the federal government’s relief measures may be due to the speed, breadth, and flexibility of its broad-based approach, primarily relying on cash transfers.”
Yet conservative voices, seeking to drive national policy, continue to debate strengthening this framework so that it reaches those who are still left out. We continue to battle political leaders who see the poor as failed human beings. They believe they are poor not because our system has left them out but because they just are not responsible enough to manage their lives and are not trying hard enough to meet their needs.
As Shaefer recently explained to the New York Times, “critics of such aid often warn that the needy might waste it…the size, speed and variety of the hardship reductions vindicated the use of broad cash relief…Cash aid offers families great flexibility to address their most pressing problems, and getting it out quickly is something the government knows how to do…”
The venom of those who fight to keep cash away from the poor is hard to understand.
An extra $300/week in unemployment benefits that was part of the COVID Recovery effort gave workers idled by the pandemic a degree of support that was good for them and good for the entire economy. Now as they and the economy is beginning to heal, leaders in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming are ending this extra assistance early because they believe that employers need cheap labor and by cutting off this assistance they can force workers back to work. They explain that workers’ lives have been made TOO good, that we are spoiling people who just are not being responsible. A small amount of additional assistance, they say, is ruining these people‘s lives, and is encouraging lazy people to be lazy and refuse to go back to work.
These are the same voices that battled just months ago to defeat efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15/hr. or $31,000/year. Just reaching the poverty line for a family four was moral jeopardy!
These are the same voices that are untroubled by business models dependent on a continuing supply of low-wage workers. A model that depends on a system on a system that Francine D. Blau, an economist at Cornell University described to the New York Times as one built to thrive “on the backs of those it will not pay a decent wage. “The labor market’s deeper problem is the proliferation of low-paid jobs with few prospects for advancement and too little income to cover essential expenses like housing, food, and health care. The pandemic focused attention on many of these low-wage workers, who showed up to deliver food, clean hospital rooms, and operate cash registers….The pandemic put their lives at risk and we began to wonder if we are adequately remunerating a lot of the core labor we need to function as an economy and society.”
These are the same voices that defend a tax system that allows the wealthiest to pay at lower rates than these low-wage workers; that allows many of the wealthiest to pay no income tax at all.
These are the same voices that ignore the systemic racism of low-wage work and poverty.
For them, poverty is a moral problem. An individual failing.
They are right, it is a moral problem. But not of those who suffer but of those who have the power to end poverty and choose not to do so. A nation that prides itself on its common purpose cannot allow so many to victims of its own iniquitous economy. A nation that prides itself on its moral fibers cannot treat so many so badly, as if their private bank accounts are more important than lives.
It is time to stop seeing the poor as problems of their own making. It is time to ensure that everyone who does work earns a living wage. It is time to ensure that our safety net protects all and does it with a smile of support and not a scowl of disapproval.2021-poverty-projections