Uncategorized · May 20, 2022 0

Poverty is not a character flaw

Marty Levine

May 20, 2022

Income and wealth inequality are subjects that I have returned to again and again over the last eight years. I have lamented how our nation has ignored the millions who are allowed to struggle while wealth is hoarded by a smaller and smaller slice of the population. I’ve tried to turn a spotlight on our collective disinterest in the lives of those who live in poverty; those left to struggle with  “insufficient wealth to meet the necessities or comforts of life or to live in a manner considered acceptable in a society.”  I’ve wondered how we are able to still believe that the answer to this challenge is to trust the silent hand of the marketplace to find the answer to poverty. I have wondered why is it so hard for this nation to just ensure that every one of its citizens is not poor?

As much as we claim to revere the wisdom of our nation’s founders, the men who declared that “all men are created equal,”  we seem not to want to be guided by their vision. We are happy to ignore them and structure our nation to protect the privilege of the few with wealth and the political power that it purchases by keeping others beneath their feet.

When it comes to money and wealth, we have created an unequal system that sees some as worthy and many as not; that sees some as deserving and many as not. As a nation, we refuse to consider that we have created a public policy system that results in millions of people with insufficient wealth to meet the necessities of life. Poor people are unable to put food on their tables, have a safe roof over their heads, access or receive necessary medical care.

We tell ourselves that poverty is an individual failing. Those without enough money do not work hard enough; they do not have the right work ethic; they do not have the right skills; they are just getting what they deserve. We believe they cannot be trusted with money because they will just fritter it away with their irresponsible ways. We tell ourselves that if those people want to live a more secure life, they just have to do what all upstanding Americans have always done and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

This has been the logic conservatives and Republicans have used in the decades-long, and largely successful effort to undo the New Deal’s wave of expanded social safety net policies. As the suffering of those years faded in our memories, those who feared that their ability to horde wealth would be threatened galvanized decades of effort to focus attention on these “unworthy poor people,” who were also too often not white.

We even manipulate the meaning of poverty so that the number of men, women, and children struggling to afford the basic necessities of life is kept small. We define poverty at a level that ignores the actual cost of those necessities and comforts. Right now, the federal government says that a single adult is poor only if their annual income is under $12,880/year and a family of four is poor only when their annual income falls below $26,500/year. We set a federal minimum wage at $7.25/hour (equal to a full-time salary of $15,080/year.)  You just need to look at what it costs to rent an apartment, buy food, pay for childcare or commute to work in your community to recognize how systemically we wiped away the economic struggle of millions so that we can ignore what we need to do and justify what we choose not to do.

Four years ago, Joy Pullmann executive editor of The Federalist, made it very clear how those driving the conservative political engine see poverty in a screed she penned bemoaning attempts to do more to combat poverty. “A single mother who has two children and works merely 30 hours per week at the minimum wage will earn enough income to place her family above the federal poverty level, the study says. Without two Republican-instituted measures that subsidize lower-income Americans through the tax code — the Earned Income Tax Credit and the child tax credit — that mother would have to work 55 hours a week to pay her family’s own bills above poverty level herself at a minimum-wage pay level. That means she’d have to spend 46 percent of her waking hours working to support herself and her kids without tapping other Americans’ earnings at all, assuming eight hours of sleep a night. I wouldn’t exactly call that too much to ask before one lays claim to other citizens’ earnings. A couple wherein each partner works full time at the minimum wage, the study says, “won’t be poor no matter how many children they have” (emphasis added).”

For decades I have understood that giving people money will, for most people, ease the burden of poverty. Yet our national policies are guided by the errant belief that the poor are undeserving and cannot be trusted to make decisions about their own welfare and they need to be protected from themselves. Holding on to this bias makes it easy to ignore the growing body of evidence that shows us that even small amounts of cash given with no strings make a significant difference. Our paternalism to be true to ease our consciences and protect our own wealth even when the data we have in front of us tell us cash makes a difference in people’s lives. And that when given, they use it responsibly.

Just months ago, we refused to see that an expanded earned income tax credit had dramatically reduced the number of children who lived in poverty.; Despite ample evidence of its positive impact, we permitted the program to die and the numbers of impoverished children to return to the higher levels of the past.

We callously ignore the data coming in from the growing list of local public and private programs that have modeled what happens when we just give people in economic distress cash. A recent article by Kristen Griffith in the Chronicle of Philanthropy catalogs a long list of these efforts. “These results from a Washington DC effort are typical. “Urban Institute study of the program showed that 54 percent of the recipients spent all or almost all the money on rent or mortgage payments, and 42 percent spent all or almost all of its funds on food. Participants also reported having better mental health and lower hunger rates than other people with low incomes in the city and around the United States.”

And so, millions are allowed to struggle because we refuse to take any responsibility for their plight. We choose to listen to the counsel of the wealthiest among us who defend their privilege and their fortunes from fair taxation, taxation that would level the economic playing field. This will only end when we can take the blinders away, and see that poverty is a systemic failure, not a character flaw. This will only end when we are ready to live by the precepts, we say we as a nation hold dear.

Unfortunately, I am not holding my breath.