Article 43


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Demonizing The Poor


“Poverty is the open-mouthed, relentless hell which yawns beneath civilized society. And it is hell enough.”
- Henry George, Progress and Poverty, IX

“The poor in Resurrection City have come to Washington to show that the poor in America are sick, dirty, disorganized, and powerless--and they are criticized daily for being sick, dirty, disorganized, and powerless.
- Calvin Trillin, “U.S. Journal: Resurrection City,” The New Yorker, June 15, 1968, p. 71

“People look down on the homeless poor, because it reminds them of America’s downfall.”
- Anonymous


When all else fails, demonize the poor

By Amanda More
The Examiner
July 12, 2012

The centuries-old legend of Robin Hood dates back to at least 1261. Known for robbing the rich and giving to the poor, he has been held up as a heroic figure in literature, even if his ethics are questionable. The 2011 movie Tower Heist has a similar plot in a modern, corporate setting.

The ever-widening abyss between the rich and poor in this country demands a real-life hero who would speak up for the poor in this country. Instead, we have leaders who would prefer to take from the poor to give more to the rich. We spent billions of tax dollars on corporate bailouts which would supposedly “trickle down” to prevent foreclosures and save jobs, all the while cutting back on food stamps, unemployment insurance, and other government “benefits” for the poor. Those who benefited the most—already making millions every year—gave themselves bonuses and took paid vacations. Governors such as Florida’s Rick Scott took an additional 3% out of the pay of teachers, police officers, and fire fighters, claiming that everyone needed to make sacrifices to help balance the budget. Immediately after, he granted hundreds of thousands—in a few cases, millions—of dollars in tax breaks to the biggest corporations in the state. (For comparison’s sake, few public employees make more than $50,000 per year. CEOs make an average of over $11 million annually.)

And yet, these leaders continue to draw support and votes from the masses.

In what is reminiscent of divine right claimed by the kings of old, the rich perch atop their pedestals and declare themselves as fit to rule, fit to be in control, and worthy to legislate the lives of the rest of us. After all, they could only get where they are through hard work. The poor got where they are because of having too many children, doing drugs, and not wanting to work.

And there you have it: To insist that the rich create jobs in this country instead of sending them overseas, to insist that the rich keep their money in American banks, and to insist that the rich pay their fair share of taxes, this is class warfare and socialism. To demonize the poor—this is only to tell the truth.

Cracking down on the homeless “problem” is necessary. (Not solving it, mind you—just cracking down.) Forbidding religious groups from feeding them, making sleeping on the streets illegal, raiding homeless camp sites, shutting down boarding houses, and basically criminalizing being alive without a place in which to live is a growing movement to demonize the poor. There are an estimated 46.3 million people in this country living below the poverty line. An estimated 600,000 people—one-third of which are veterans—are homeless.

As for the growing unemployment rate, particularly among the disabled and those who have been out of work for longer than six months, the best way to “help” these lazy fools is to cut back their unemployment insurance. After all, the only reason they are drawing unemployment is to “get handouts” from the government. No responsibility is placed on employers. Employers are free to discriminate based on disability, length of unemployment, and reason for unemployment, because they must invest in the “least risk” individual. Meanwhile, the poor continue in a downward spiral. No job means no paycheck. No paycheck means no home. No home means no address to put on an employment application. Next!

Meanwhile, a woman hunched over a shopping cart containing everything she owns in this world, or a man standing on the side of the street in tattered clothes begging for loose change, is the problem in this country. These lazy fools who want everything handed to them. Not the rich who refuse to give back to the country that helped them get where they are.

The reasons for poverty in this country are varied and complicated. A two-income family brought down to one income due to death or disability. A man who has worked for twenty years in the same job only to be laid off and unable to find work. A woman who has fled to the streets to escape her abusive spouse. A child born on the streets because his grandparents threw his teenage mother out of the house. A teenager living in an alley because his parents don’t accept the fact that he is gay. None of these people choose to be where they are. None of these people should be blamed for their situation. All of these people deserve a second chance at life.

Next time you call assume an impoverished person is lazy or a drug addict, remember that you are only a paycheck away from joining him.




Why Demonize The Poor

By Jim Jordal
Winds Of Justice
November 23, 2006

What does it mean to “demonize” some person or group? It means to equate them--or their behavior--with evil. It means to blame them for their unfortunate circumstances. It means to judge them solely responsible for whatever is wrong with society. It means to believe that if they would only change their values and behavior things would be all right. It means to separate or isolate them as in “the other side of the tracks” mentality. It means to identify those demonized as “different” in some socially, politically, or economically significant way. And above all, it means to refuse to accept any personal responsibility for whatever problems they or their group exhibit.

The United States has a reputation among so-called “developed” countries for BLAMING AND SHAMING its poor. Ask your friends why people are poor, or why poverty persists. All too often you’ll hear the standard answers: They’re lazy. They won’t take a job if it demands hard work. The have addictions. They’re sexually immoral. They like to be poor. Their families are dysfunctional. They don’t value education. In other words, their culture is deficient because it allows or even encourages behaviors that contribute to poverty, and minimizes those behaviors that could lead to increased economic success.

And even if your friends recognize the error implicit in many of these views, you’ll probably hear something like “Well, we can’t do anything about the poor because, after all, doesn’t the Bible say ‘The poor you have always with you’ “? You thus run head-on into complete DENIAL of any personal responsibility for either the poor or the causes of their poverty.

All these beliefs owe their persistence to small truths greatly magnified into major causes. Yes, some of the poor do exhibit many of these shortcomings. Yes, you can find all these dysfunctions somewhere among the poor. And yes, they do cause some poverty, but not the vast bulk of it.

It’s human nature to evade responsibility. In fact, it’s so rare for anyone in the public eye to accept personal responsibility for any unfortunate event as to be newsworthy if it happens. We practice deceit in every facet of life. Politicians disclaim responsibility, demonizing the other party for all evil. Teachers blame low grades on students who won’t learn. Parents blame children for misbehavior. Police blame criminals for crime. And we all blame someone else for most of our societal problems.

So WHY DEMONIZE THE POOR? Because it’s easy to do; it’s convenient; it’s emotionally and intellectually satisfying; and besides, they are powerless to resist the lies and half-truths spoken of them.

Demonizing the poor takes many forms and has many faces. Most common is the misperception that the poor are RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR OWN PREDICAMENT. A corollary would be that if the poor would only stop behaving in such irresponsible manners, they would no longer be poor.

The common view that if the poor would work they wouldn’t be poor ignores THE REALITY that only entry-level jobs are available to the poor. These jobs pay so little that a family of four would need three full-time jobs just to rise to a minimum standard of decent food, clothing, and shelter (forget about such frills as health insurance, education, entertainment, travel, transportation, emergencies, and saving for retirement).

In Nicaragua several years ago we heard one native speaker describe his people as potters, painters, musicians, carpenters, bricklayers, clerks, laborers, and truck drivers--who ALSO HAPPEN TO BE POOR. Do you get the difference between that view and ours? He saw his people as legitimate, respectable persons who happen to be poor. Their poverty was not their identifying characteristic, as it is in the U.S.

It should be instructive for those of us CLAIMING THE BIBLE as our final authority to consider what it says about the causes of poverty. There are about 2,000 Bible verses relating to poverty in some manner, but I can count only 28 that blame it on faulty personal behavior. So, if most poverty is traceable to something beyond human behavioral frailties, what are the major causes according to Scripture? Literally hundreds of verses trace poverty to haughty, powerful persons using existing social, economic, political, and even religious systems to rob, oppress, enslave, and marginalize the poor. A few verses for your consideration would be Psalm 94:20, Isa. 10:1-2, and Amos 5:11-12. Use your margin references to trace these concepts elsewhere, and you’ll see what I mean.



Why Do We Hate the Poor?

By Alden Loury
Huffington Post
November 4, 2008

No, really, we can’t stand poor people.

We pass by them on downtown street corners as if they weren’t really there. We price them out of our “new” neighborhoods--also known as their “old” neighborhoods--with little remorse. We don’t drive or ride public transportation through poor parts of town. We shun stores when too many poor folks start shopping there. In other words, we don’t want to talk with them, live with them, travel with them or even shop with them.

We often ignore the poor. Think of all the talk you’ve heard about poverty during this year’s historic presidential campaign. Think hard.

Can’t remember any substantive debate on the topic? That’s because it didn’t happen, which is ironic considering the campaign’s emphasis on our nation’s economic crisis.

Amid all of the talk about bailouts, stimulus packages and mortgage relief plans, nobody is talking about the folks in need of an economic lifeline more than any of us. During the four presidential and vice-presidential debates this year--where, in all, more than 60,000 words were spoken--the word “poverty” was never mentioned. The words “low income” and “the poor” were each mentioned just once--but not in a direct question or response about poor people.

However, the “middle class"--the darling segment of America in this year’s campaign--was mentioned 28 times during the debates. “Main Street"--a veiled reference to the middle class--was mentioned an additional nine times.

Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden described the middle class as America’s economic engine and talked about how we needed to get the middle class “back on track.” Gov. Sarah Palin identified herself as a “Mainstreeter” and said her family was among America’s middle class. Sen. John McCain fell in love with Joe the Plumber and proclaimed that we were all like Joe.

But no one has stood up so prominently for the millions of Americans who would gladly switch places with Joe.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 38 million Americans living in poverty in 2007. If America’s poor all lived in one state, that poor state would be the nation’s largest. California’s estimated population in 2007 was about 36.6 million. I can’t imagine a presidential campaign that didn’t make a stop in California. So why has this campaign never visited Skid Row? If we can talk about helping the middle-class in these tough economic times, why can’t we talk about helping the poor?

Apparently, talking about helping the poor has become some kind of political kiss of death evidenced by the monumental policy shifts in social programs the past dozen years or so, counting everything from the reform of welfare to the demolition of public housing.

It seems that our “War on Poverty” has become a war on the poor.

It should be noted that this year’s presidential campaign has focused on providing health care, tax relief and more jobs--things that would certainly help the poor. But no one dared to utter a direct call to aid America’s poorest citizens the way we’ve heard that call for the middle class.

Poor people aren’t poor simply because they don’t try hard enough. And middle-class folks aren’t struggling right now just because the economy tanked. If the poor can be held accountable for their economic situation, so should the middle class. And if America is a better place with a strong middle class, it would be an even better place if the poor were able to join the ranks of the middle class.

Skills, circumstances and opportunities are often the difference between the poor, the working class and the middle class--not desire and effort.

Just 65 percent of impoverished adults at least 25 years old had high school diplomas in 2007; compared to 87 percent of their counterparts above the poverty line. While middle-class America is feeling the pinch from the hundreds of thousands of jobs that have been lost, the unemployment rate of impoverished Americans was nearly 24 percent in 2007--nearly four times the rate for the rest of Americans.

Anyone who believes the poor don’t try hard enough hasn’t seen the guys on Chicago street corners in sub-zero weather selling everything from Streetwise to socks to dashboard ornaments. They haven’t talked to ex-felons who’ve filled out more than 40 job applications--and keep going despite receiving rejection after rejection. Single moms raising a family on a minimum wage-income may be the hardest-working people in America--but no one ever talks about them that way.

I don’t think it’s the poor who’ve given up on making a better life for themselves. I think it’s that the rest of us have given up on the poor.



Demonizing the homeless leads to fear and violence
We must work together to find solutions

By David Christiansen
Lexington, Kentucky News
August 12, 2012

In the dark and early morning of Aug. 27, while sleeping behind a building near Winchester Road in Lexington, a 61-year-old homeless man was set on fire. He is in intensive care at University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital but is expected to survive.

The police have no suspects in this hate crime.

But the incident is not considered a hate crime because current law does not include homelessness as an eligible category for such an offense.

The National Coalition for the Homeless is seeking to change that. As part of the organization’s ongoing effort to highlight this type of crime, it publishes a biannual report detailing its research into hate crimes committed against homeless people.

In the most recent edition, “Hate Crimes Against the Homeless: Violence Hidden in Plain View,” they tabulated these crimes from across the country. Kentucky is barely noted in the statistics, with just three incidents in the past 12 years (California had 225 and Florida 198).

These statistics exclude any acts of violence committed by homeless individuals against one another, and a crime is included only if the attack was primarily motivated because the victim was a homeless person. The scope of the problem is highlighted in the report as follows:

“Homeless people are treated so poorly by society that their attacks are often forgotten or unreported. In 2010 alone, 113 incidents resulted in 24 deaths. Since 1999, The National Coalition for the Homeless has recorded 1,184 acts of violence that have resulted in 312 deaths.”

Another section of the report seeking to understand factors associated with these hate crimes says many cities have enacted severe anti-camping, panhandling, feeding and other laws criminalizing homelessness.

Many of these cities “are also cities where hate crimes against homeless individuals have frequently occurred. One possible explanation for this is the message that criminalizing homelessness sends to the general public: ‘Homeless people do not matter and are not worthy of living in our city.’ This message is blatant in the attitudes many cities have toward homeless people and can be used as an internal justification for attacking someone who is homeless.”

Homelessness in Lexington has been accorded increased attention recently, with a number of ordinances proposed and now under review, including a nuisance ordinance to give police more options to control unwanted street behavior and an ordinance change that requires any group planning to open a daytime drop-in center for homeless people to undergo greater public scrutiny before being allowed to proceed.

In addition, the city’s Board of Adjustment is moving forward with closing the Community Inn, a shelter for homeless men and women operated under the auspices of Emmanuel Apostolic Church.

The mayor recently established a Commission on Homelessness to address these and other homeless issues in Lexington. Given concerns about increasing violence against homeless people and public policies that seek to criminalize homelessness, it seems far better for our city to approach concerns regarding homelessness in a collaborative and compassionate way as an inclusive community and not slip into the ugly and hostile patterns to which some cities have succumbed.

As we increasingly move toward objectifying homeless people as “them” and not “us,” we risk our sense of community.

It is time to better appreciate the words spoken by Kentucky’s most famous native son, Abraham Lincoln:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Our city will be far better served by allowing ourselves to listen to “the better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln suggested, as we seek to understand and find solutions for homelessness.
Demonizing our homeless neighbors as the enemy will only lead to more fear, hatred and violence.



What America’s Most Vulnerable Need: A Bill of Rights for the Homeless
Paul Boden, a homeless rights advocate for 30 years, is helping groups around the country draft legislation to help the homeless.

By Evelyn Nieves
January 11, 2013

Homeless shelters began opening en masse three decades ago, but the crisis is only getting worse. In a survey of 25 cities from every region of the country, the U.S. Conference of Mayors found more than half are experiencing a spike in homelessness. A majority of the cities said families seeking shelter were turned away for lack of space and that they expect an increase in homeless families. Yet more and more cities are addressing homelessness not by creating housing, but by banning activities such as sitting, sleeping or lying down in public, effectively making being homeless illegal.

This year, advocates for the homeless are fighting back. Until new policies and programs address the causes of homelessness--a lack of affordable housing, lagging incomes that have not kept pace with rising housing costs and the severe cuts in housing assistance programs for the poor - the nation must stop treating our most downtrodden fellow humans like criminals.

Last June, Rhode Island became the first state in the nation to pass a Homeless Bill of Rights, banning discrimination against homeless Rhode Islanders and asserting their right to use public parks, transportation and buildings like anyone else. In California, a Homeless Personsג Bill of Rights and Fairness Act (AB 5) was introduced last month by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat, Similar bills are expected to be introduced in several other states, including Massachusetts and Oregon.

Paul Boden, an advocate for poor and homeless people for 30 years, helped draft the California legislation as organizing director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), a coalition of homeless advocacy groups from several Western states. Boden will be criss-crossing the region and the country in the coming months, working with groups hoping to help draft homeless rights bills.

For Boden, who co-founded the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness 25 years ago, ordinances designed to drive homeless people from public spaces are akin to laws that once discriminated against African Americans, Japanese Americans and the disabled. At a time when even cities considered liberal and tolerant have laws curbing the activities of the unhoused, homeless rights bills are likely to face tough public opposition. The California measure, for example, would grant legal protection to homeless people engaged in life-sustaining activities on public property, including sleeping, panhandling, urinating and collecting and possessing good for recycling, even if those goods contain alcoholic residue.

Editorial writers have sneered at the bill. The San Francisco Chronicle called it a non-starter ... an absurd reaction to restrictions on homeless conduct and tough-love ideas. The Merced Sun-Star called it a nightmare scenario. But Boden says that by putting the laws that criminalize homeless people in a historical context and exposing how they do nothing to solve homelessness but much to demonize society’s most stigmatized members, the bills could turn the national discussion around. He spoke about the Homeless Bill of Rights strategy advocates are planning to use to force cities into moving the discussion away from homelessness as a public nuisance and toward solutions to homelessness.

Evelyn Nieves: Why a Homeless Bill of Rights?

Paul Boden: The Homeless Bill of Rights is an attempt on our part to validate in law that people regardless of their housing status have a right to exist in public space. More and more and more, we see private security, business improvement districts and policing programs with sit-lie or loitering or jaywalking or sleeping or park closures, where it really has come down to we don’t want you in this community.

In the outreach that we did to over 850 homeless people in 13 cities, by far, sleeping, loitering and sitting on the sidewalk are the major offenses homeless people say they are committing. Im talking 82 percent of the people say they were harassed, cited or arrested for sleeping, 77 percent for loitering.

We did a bunch of research and looked back at a lot of old laws: the Jim Crow laws, the Ugly Laws. They used local ordinances, they used state misdemeanors to target a specific sub-segment of the community. There were sundown laws where you were literally told: “Don’t let the sun come down on you.” You could come in during the day and work as a laborer, but when the sun came down, so did you. We have historic images: “Hey, Jap, don’t let the sun come down on you.” That was Northern California. Or, “Hey, nigger, don’t let the sun come down on you.” That was Southern California. They were very direct and very specific.

The Ugly Laws were about disabled people in public spaces. The first city to pass the law was 1867 in San Francisco; the last city to take it off their books was in the 1970s in Chicago. And just what we see with the sit-lie laws, these laws spread from town to town.

So this reactionary approach by local governments criminalizing the presence of a specific subset of a community has a long history in this country. It has different names but every 30 or 40 years we seem to go through this cycle.

Today, it’s homeless people; tomorrow its going to be someone else. And so our attempt now is to do the public education work, to show people that we have a history of doing this. Not only is our attempt to stop the criminalization of poor and homeless people today, but to create law that says never again are we going to let you create local laws that discriminate against a specific set of the community. No one could sit there and tell us, “Oh, that wouldn’t happen.” “Well, it has happened before, its happening now and it sure as hell is going to happen again unless we proactively do something to make sure that it doesn’t happen.”

Nieves: About the California Bill of Rights: You acknowledge that the bill is likely to be amended several times over. But as it is written, it would prohibit bans on public urination and sleeping on stoops. That doesn’t seem likely to survive the amendment process, does it? People will say they don’t want people urinating in front of them or sleeping in front of their property. Or they don’t want someone panhandling in front of their business.

Boden: Then let’s deal with poverty, lets deal with homelessness, let’s deal with whatever the issue is but to say that I don’t want to see this person therefore I’m going to create laws that makes this person’s presence illegal.

Part of our bill calls for hygiene centers, to be connected to health centers that already exist. We don’t want people urinating or defecating on the streets. I would agree with that. We want to create healthy, housed, hygienic communities. We’re all for that. 

So lets open up alternatives, and then if the person chooses not to access the alternatives, then, well, dude, you’re on your own. But right now, if someones got to go to the bathroom, go to go to the bathroom. Its not easy to find a public restroom, one that’s not for customers only. If were going to make it illegal for people to perform that life-sustaining activity, you can’t just say to them, Hold it in. That doesn’t work. If we’re going to make it illegal, its just humane to say, “Here’s an alternative.”

I’ve been to shower centers and they have long lists every day of people who wait for hours and hours to take a shower. It’s not that people don’t want to take a shower, it’s that there ain’t nothing there for them. I was just in Portland and there was a four-hour wait for a shower program. So its not that people don’t want to be clean.... We create that alternative and voila! Just like we build housing and sure as hell people will fill it....

Ill never forget HUD (Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) doing a two-year, $4 million study that found that families that had Section 8 vouchers where they could afford a place to live--98 percent were in that housing two years later. Duh! This is not rocket science.

WeҒre 27 years, 30 years, into our homeless programs—thats disgusting. That is absolutely disgusting ... because we know the cause and effects.

Nieves: Why do you believe there is still so much homelessness?

Boden: The massive $54 billion a year—a year!—in cuts in affordable housing programs; the 30,000 to 100,000 units a year of rural housing that are no longer being developed; the mortgaging off of our public housing stock; the demolition of our public housing stock; the 900,000 units of Section 8 housing that have disappeared. These are cause and effect. When you take funding away, when you take units off the market from people that are incredibly poor, you are going to create homelessness. It is as true as any recipe you could ever get from any cookbook. That’s the recipe for homelessness. That is cause and effect. This started in 1979 and the cuts really came in 1982, and the spring of 1983 is when we started building homeless shelters in this country. Cause and effect. Its clear.

Nieves: Why isn’t the focus on building or creating affordable housing?

Boden: Youll hear: “Oh we can’t afford it, we cant afford an entitlement.” But we’re allowing $120 billion a year in homeowner mortgage deductions. So we can afford it. We can make it equitable, we can make sure that we add housing as a right, and we choose not to do that. 

Nieves: You co-created the Western Regional Advocacy Project—WRAP—seven years ago after leading the San Francisco Coalition for the Homeless for nearly 20 years. Why?

Boden:WRAP was an attempt by a bunch of local organizations on the West Coast--we were going to be one of several regional offices of a national endeavor to combat homelessness. The national endeavor didnt play out, but the West Coast groups said to hell with it, we want to create a voice that speaks to our issues ... and that speaks to what we see is the simplicity and the directness of what the alternatives are.

If we can make it so that local governments lose the option of merely finding punitive and criminal programs in order to get rid of homeless people, we can begin working with them on solutions. But so long as we allow local governments to use the police to use outreach teams connected to punitive programs, to use business improvement districts that have ambassadors to remove homeless people, nothing will get done. Right now, how we’re approaching it in this country is to say if we can make it disappear, we’ve solved the problem. And we say this is inhumane, unconscionable.

This Homeless Bill of Rights will not eliminate homelessness, it will eliminate one arm--the policing, punitive aspect of dealing with the problem.

Rhode Island’s version of the Homeless Bill of Rights does not stop the criminalization. It has important pieces. But they did not go into the depth of eliminating the punitive laws in order to shepherd that bill through. We have the first version which is almost identical to ours, and as it got amended as it got watered down.

Were now talking with 20 groups throughout Massachusetts to talk about doing a bill there. Oregon is already working with us. By the end, we’ll have something all the states can use. The bills will be different. Hopefully our messaging and our outreach will get tighter and tighter as we go from state to state.

Nieves: Do you find a lack of urgency about homelessness when you travel the country?

Boden: The assessment of homelessness on a broad scale is that its worse than it has ever been and the sense of urgency that this is a crisis is gone. It’s become a welfare problem. I don’t think that the sense or urgency is gone from the organizing side. WRAP is seven years old. We’ve got over 800 downloads of our organizing tool-kit, were educating statewide housing groups. I don’t see that the organizers have any less sense of urgency. But I think that for whatever reason there is a locked in assumption on the local government level that the days that government might actually expend money on solutions are gone. Government should want people to be educated and healthy and housed. Why wouldnt government say we’re only as healthy as the weakest person in our community?

Every day the shelters are full. Every day 300 people got to the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center to get a bed. People start lining up at 2 in the morning. Thats how much people are trying to get some kind of assistance.

San Francisco’s homeless program started in 1982. Hey dude, its been 30 years! The idea that 30 years later all these homeless people don’t want to access these services that keep turning people away are just lame excuses. Everybody can point to somebody who doesnt access services because they’d like to make it about the individual. But those who refuse are the exceptions.

We didn’t have a homeless program prior to 1982. What is different about us? I don’t believe our DNA is different. What is different is that housing, money and assistance for the poor have disappeared. Since 1995, 360,000 units of public housing have been lost. The Dept. of Education says we’ve topped a million homeless children in our nations schools. So many people are dying in the street. So many people are beating each other up over their conditions on the streets. They can keep trying to put this under a rock, but it’s imploding.

Evelyn Nieves is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. She has been a reporter for both the New York Times and the Washington Post.



4 Bogus Right-Wing Theories About Poverty, and the Real Reason Americans Cant Make Ends Meet (Hard Times USA)
We have an economic crisis that is kept out of sight and out of mind.

By Joshua Holland
January 22, 2013

When is a secret not at all secret? Consider the fact that one in three Americans are poor, if we define it as struggling to cover the basic necessities of life. That’s according to a Census Bureau analysis, and it was reported in the New York Times, but I have yet to hear a politician or pundit make reference to this eye-opening reality of our vaunted “new economy.”

In 2011, the Census Bureau took a new look at the “near-poor” - Americans with incomes between 100 and 150 percent of the poverty line. They found that this group, most of whom earn paychecks and pay taxes, represented a whopping one in six U.S. households - a figure that was almost twice as high as had previously been thought.

When those under the poverty line are added, Census found that a stunning 33 percent of the population was struggling to make ends meet in 2010. Analyzing the Census data, the Working Poor Project SUGGESTED that the number of near-poor, which they define as those making between 100 and 200 percent of the poverty line, continued to inch up in 2011 as many returning to work in this sluggish recovery have been forced to settle for lower-paying service jobs.

Nearly four years after economists tell us the “recovery” began, ALMOST HALF of all American households lack enough savings to stay above the poverty line for three months or more if they should find themselves out of work. Another third are living paycheck to paycheck, teetering on the brink with no savings at all.

It would require a lengthy sociological treatise to fully explain why this isn’t considered a huge national crisis. But one part of the equation is the existence of a long-standing and ideologically informed project by the right to portray the burden of living in or near poverty as a liberal delusion. In these narratives, which come in a variety of forms, the poor have it pretty darn good - good enough that we really shouldn’t spend much time thinking about them.

For these conservative think-tankers, pundits and politicians, obscuring America’s grinding poverty and spiraling inequality is an exercise in service of a status quo that works pretty well for them, but not for most families.

1. But the poor have color TVs.

Consider the BOILERPLATE CONSERVATIVE COLUMN about how many wondrous household appliances the average low-income household owns. Back in the 1930s, this argument goes, poor people didn’t have running water, but now they have color TVs, so life is good.

As I writethis, MY LOCAL CRAIGSLIST offers multiple televisions, a dining set, several treadmills, a mountain bike, an oven (with hood), a blender, a coffeemaker, a slew of couches and beds, a piano, a hot-tub (needs repair) and a complete stereo system, all free to anyone who will pick them up. We live in a consumer economy that creates an abundance of surplus and rapidly obsolete goods, and people who struggle to put food on the table can nonetheless get their hands on all manner of electronics for nothing.

2. The poor have lots of room to enjoy poverty.

A similar argument holds that in the United States, poor people have more living space, on average, than low-income households in other developed nations. As the Wall Street Journal was EAGER TO POINT OUT, “The average living space for poor American households is 1,200 square feet. In Europe, the average space for all households, not just the poor, is 1,000 square feet.”

Perhaps that’s true, but it’s also divorced from context. There is a simple matter of population density at work: in the core states of the European Union, there are 120 people per square kilometer; in the United States, we only have 29 people per kilometer. And the average is a bit misleading as it includes the rural poor low-income households in tightly packed urban centers don’t tend to have 1,200-square-foot apartments.

3. The poor are actually rolling in money.

A new and equally distorted argument entered the conservative discourse just recently. It holds that poor families receive $168 per day in government benefits - more than the median weekly income in this country. If that were true, low-income households in the United States would enjoy quite comfortable living standards.

But as I noted last month, that number is INFLATED BY AROUND EIGHT-FOLD. The claim originated with Robert Rector at the Heritage Foundation and then underwent some revisions on its journey to Republican congressional staffers, and finally to the conservative media. It gets to that number by counting things like federal aid to rebuild communities after natural disasters as “welfare,” including programs that assist the middle class and the wealthy and then dividing the costs of all these programs by the number of households under the poverty line, despite the fact that many more families benefit from them.

4. Its just how they are.

And then there are the ever-popular cultural explanations for poverty. This is a storyline based on confusing correlation with causation - a rookie mistake in any introductory college class.

The Heritage Foundation, for example (it’s Robert Rector again), sees a lot of poor, single-parent households, and WOULD HAVE YOU BELIEVE that the main causes of child poverty are low levels of parental work and the absence of fathers.

But this gets the causal relationship wrong. The number of single-parent households exploded between the 1970s and the 1990s, MORE THAN DOUBLING, yet the poverty rate remained relatively constant. In fact, before the crash of 2008, the poverty rate was lower than it had been in the 1970s. So, as the rate of single-parent households skyrocketed, poverty declined a little bit. Saying single-parent homes create poverty is like claiming the rooster causes the sun to rise.

As I’ve NOTED in the past, this is an essential piece of the “culture of poverty” narrative, and it is nonsense. Jean Hardisty, the author of Marriage as a Cure for Poverty: A Bogus Formula for Women, cited a number of studies showing that poor women have the same dreams as everyone else: they often aspire to a romantic notion of marriage and family that features a white picket fence in the suburbs. But low economic status leads to fewer marriages, not the other way around.

In 1998, the Fragile Families Study looked at 3,700 low-income unmarried couples in 20 U.S. cities. The authors found that 90 percent of the couples living together wanted to tie the knot, but only 15 percent had actually done so by the end of the one-year study period. And here’s the key finding: for every dollar that a man’s hourly wages increased, the odds that hed get hitched by the end of the year rose by 5 percent. Men earning more than $25,000 during the year had twice the marriage rates of those making less than $25,000.

Writing up the findings for the Nation, Sharon Lerner noted that poverty itself “seems to make people feel less entitled to marry.’ As one father in the survey put it, marriage means not living from “check to check.’

Why People Are Really Poor

During a period of less than 20 years beginning in the early 1980s, the American economy underwent dramatic changes. It was a period of policy-driven de-unionization and the offshoring of millions of decent manufacturing jobs. The tax code underwent dramatic changes, as CEO pay sky-rocketed and the financial sector came to represent a much larger share of our economic output than it had during the four decades or so following World War II.

And our distribution of income changed dramatically as well. During the 35 years prior to Ronald Reagan’s election, the top one percent of U.S. households had taken in an average of 10 percent of the nation’s income. When Reagan left office in 1988, those at the top were grabbing 15.5 percent of the pie, and by the time George W. Bush took office in 2000, they were taking over 20 percent of the nation’s income.

We can either believe that this shift was a result of changes in public policy (combined with new technologies), or that in just two decades there was some sort of rapid cultural decline among everyone but those at the top of the economic heap.

All of the false narratives are intended to distract from the structural causes of poverty and inequality, and they ignore two simple and indisputable truths. First, contrary to popular belief, we don’t all start out with the same opportunities. The reality is that in the United States today, the best predictor of a newborn baby’s economic future is how much money her parents make.

It also ignores the fact that living in an individualistic, capitalist society carries inherent risk. You can do everything right Ԗ study hard, work diligently, keep your nose clean but if you fall victim to a random workplace accident, you can nevertheless end up being disabled in the blink of an eye and find yourself in need of public assistance. You can end up bankrupt under a pile of healthcare bills or you could lose your job if you’re forced to take care of an ailing parent. Children ֖ innocents who aren’t even old enough to work for themselves are among the largest groups receiving various forms of public assistance.

The reality, despite the spin from the conservative movement, is that poverty in America is very real, and it’s anything but fun.



America’s Poor Are Demonized To Justify Huge Cuts in Government Programs
Many low-income Americans work extremely hard but need food stamps and other support to make up for low wages.

By Greg Kaufman
June 30, 2013

In the following interview with Bill Moyers, Greg Kaufmann, poverty correspondent for The Nation, says the poor in America are stereotyped and demonized in an effort to justify huge cuts in food stamps and other crucial programs for low-income Americans.

“People are working and they’re not getting paid enough to feed their families, pay their utilities, pay for their housing, pay for the healthcare - if you’re not paying people enough to pay for the basics, they’re going to need help getting food,” Kaufmann tells Moyers. “There are a lot of corporations that want to be involved in the fight against hunger. The best thing they can do is get on board for fair wages.”

The following is the transcriptof an interview that originally appeared on


Bill Moyers: Food stamps were at the core of the monster farm bill that went down to defeat in the House of Representatives last week. That bill would have cut food stamps by some $20 billion over 10 years, but that was too little for House Republicans and too much for House Democrats, although Senate Democrats had already agreed to cuts of more than $4 billion.

Here to talk about food stamps and the farm bill is a journalist whose beat is hunger, politics, and policy. Greg Kaufmann is poverty correspondent for The NationӔ magazine and a contributor to our website, Hes also an advisor to the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, founded by journalist Barbara Ehrenreich and the Institute for Policy Studies. Greg Kaufman, welcome.

Greg Kaufmann: Great to be with you, Bill.

Bill Moyers: There are almost 48 million people using food stamps a day, and over recent years that’s a 70 percent increase. What does your own reporting tell you about why?

Greg Kaufmann: Well, the biggest reason, I think, is the proliferation of low-wage work. People are working and they’re not getting paid enough to feed their families, pay their utilities and pay for their housing, pay for the healthcare. We had 28 percent of workers in 2011 made wages that were less than the poverty line. Poverty wages.

Fifty percent of the jobs in this country make less than $34,000 a year. Twenty-five percent make less than the poverty line for a family of four, which is $23,000 a year. So, if you’re not paying people enough to pay for the basics, they’re going to need help getting food.

And food stamps expanded because we went through the greatest the worst recession since the Great Depression. And it did what it’s supposed to do. And now, you know, mostly Republicans are saying, “Why are there so many people on food stamps?” You know, they’re claiming the recession’s over, but we know that most people on food stamps are, if they’re getting work, it’s low-wage work that doesn’t pay enough to pay for food.

Bill Moyers: The farm bill that failed in Congress last week would’ve spent $743.9 billion on food stamps and nutrition over the next ten years. Republicans wanted to cut that by some $20 billion over the same period, ten years. Given that we’re spending $75 to $78 billion a year now on food stamps, do they have a case?

Greg Kaufmann: Well, look, do they make a point that were spending too much? I mean, if they’re comfortable saying two million people should be thrown off food stamps, 200,000 low-income children should not have access to meals, to their meals in school. Hey, they can make that argument all they want. I think it’s out of sync with the values of this country.

Bill Moyers: Here is what Representative Steve King of Iowa said in the debate on the floor at the time the farm bill was up for consideration. Quote, “When we see the expansion of the dependency class in America, and you add this to the 79 other means-tested welfare programs that we have in the United States, each time you add another brick to that wall it’s a barrier to people that might go out and succeed.” What does your own reporting find?

Greg Kaufmann: Boy, I wish he would take a look at this great study done just in November of 2012, that was released. Dr. Hilary Hoynes at the University of California Davis and her colleagues looked at this issue of self-reliance and food stamps.

They looked at the rollout of food stamps county by county and adults who were born between 1956 and ‘81 who were born in disadvantaged families defined as parents not having a high school diploma. And they looked at those people in their adult outcomes who had had access to food stamps when they were young or even in utero.

And they found that the adults, all the adults had significant reductions in metabolic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure. And even more remarkable to me was women in particular had higher earnings, higher income, higher education attainment and less reliance on welfare assistance in general.

All these years these guys have been saying it’s promoting dependence, and it’s been building self-reliance. I wish that the congressman from Iowa would take a look at that study.

Bill Moyers: You watched the debate over the farm bill. You followed it very closely. What did you-- summarize it for me. What was going on there?

Greg Kaufmann: You know, with some exceptions of people who are committed to telling the truth, we heard that this was about the deficit. But food stamps, over the next ten years, are projected to be 1.7 percent of federal spending according to the Congressional Budget Office. We heard this was about fraud, but less than one cent on the dollar of food stamp spending is lost to fraud, less than one cent on the dollar.

And we heard fraud from the chairwoman Senator Stabenow, Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. We heard a lot about this was, you know, rural districts versus urban districts and welfare on the back of farmers. But you know what? The truth is Food Research and Action Center has shown that the percentage of households in rural districts participating in food stamps is the same as the percentage of households in urban districts.

So my big takeaway is that if we don’t insist on a fact-based discussion, these are the kinds of absurdities that we’re going to hear. And we’re going to get bad bills. You mentioned the House bill, but even the Democratic bill started with $4 billion in cuts. Senator Gillibrand had a good amendment, restoring those cuts which she would pay for by reducing the profit that the government guarantees to crop insurance companies. They guarantee a 14 percent profit. She said, “Let’s do 12 percent and not do the food stamp cuts.” Makes sense. Was trounced by Democrats who didn’t want to stand up to the chairwoman and maybe lose their projects in the final farm bill.

Bill Moyers: And they weren’t eager to stand up to agribusiness, either, were they? The big factory farms? Weren’t there still a lot of subsidies in that bill for big farms?

Greg Kaufmann: Yeah, what we saw in A Place at the Table in terms of the agribusiness subsidies was consistent in this farm bill, too. And if you look at the donations and I think some other reporters have done this and I know the Environment Working Group has worked on this if you look at the political contributions in the House ag committees to both Democrats and Republicans, and those businesses are giving big bucks to those campaigns.

Bill Moyers: What’s the one most important thing you’d like for us to know about the issue as it plays out in Congress? What’s going on up there when they’re debating the farm bill and food stamps?

Greg Kaufmann: Well, they’re catering to the most powerful interests, just like seems like with pretty much all legislation. You mentioned the agribusiness interests, the crop insurance interests. We aren’t talking about hunger and what does it mean in this country to commit to ending hunger.

Bill Moyers: Why did you take this beat on as a commitment?

Greg Kaufmann: Well, on a personal level, I think I had worked for a Boys and Girls Club in Ohio for a few years and got to know so many of the families there didn’t know what to expect. But all the things I’ve been describing about how hard people work, I mean, that was the first thing that hit me, how hard they work two jobs, how they hard they work to arrange child care, how hard they work to get their kids to a safe place. And I got tired of sort of annual articles on poverty—not at The Nation, “The Nation” has always been committed to covering it.

But when the new poverty statistics would come out, you’d see screaming headlines, “Record Poverty,” oh my god, poverty, poverty. Very few of the articles actually interviewed people who were in poverty. You know, the fact that over one in three Americans, over 100 million Americans are living at just twice the poverty level, so just

Bill Moyers: Which is about what?

Greg Kaufmann: Less than $36,000 for a family of three. That’s crazy. I mean, because we have poverty defined at, you know, at such a low level, $18,000 for a family of three. But really, if you think about poverty as access to the basics that we, that everybody needs food, housing, healthcare, a decent job, you know, education, you know, we know it takes a lot more than that.

Bill Moyers: What’s your own sense of why this is the case, this vast inequality in a country as rich as ours? I mean, what does this say to you, the richest 400 people on the דForbes list made more from the stock market gains last year than the total amount of the food, housing and education budgets combined. I mean, the Walmart corporation made $17 billion last year, $17 billion.

Greg Kaufmann: Right.

Bill Moyers: Paying its workers so little, they have to use government programs to get by. In other words taxpayers are subsidizing Walmart’s--

Greg Kaufmann: Right.

Bill Moyers: - low-income jobs.

Greg Kaufmann: Yeah. I mean, I think not having organized labor plays a huge role in that, the declining unionization rate. I think, yeah, I mean, Walmart’s a great example. Paying employees, helping them sign up for food stamps. I mean, I’m glad that people can get food stamps but, like, why not just pay a wage? I mean, there are a lot of corporations that are, you know, want to be involved in the fight against hunger. And the best thing they can do is get on board for fair wages.

So, yeah, I think there has been turning away from real people and what they’re experiencing in this country. That’s why I was so disappointed as crazy as the House farm bill was, the fact that the Democrats started with a $4.1 billion cut almost made me angrier, because they’re supposed to be the party that’s in touch with people’s real experiences.

Bill Moyers: What do you mean?

Greg Kaufmann: Well, like, why aren’t they talking about that food stamps create nine dollars of economic activity for every five dollars in spending? Why aren’t they talking about what Dr. Chilton talks about, the benefits socially, emotionally, cognitively, physically that’s documented for children, and we care so much about children and what that means for their future opportunities. I mean, the Democrats are supposed to be connected to the experiences of ordinary Americans. And when you start with this defensive wimpy posture of, “Oh, okay, we’ll cut this much,” instead of fighting for what you believe in, we’re in trouble.

Bill Moyers: Our viewers, what would you like them to know about what you know about hunger in America?

Greg Kaufmann: I would like them to know that there are great groups that they can get involved with who are trying to work on this. Witnesses to Hunger, Share our Strength is doing good stuff with communities to get school breakfast programs expanded, New York City Coalition Against Hunger, who, you know, Joel Berg was saying we need to do town halls. We’ve got to pressure all these congressmen to do town halls in every district to make it more visible.

Food Research and Action Center did a great lobbying day involving more people in the community. So, there are groups to get involved with that are really committed to using science and evidence to inform our policy and to pressure the candidates and make this issue more visible.

Greg Kaufmann is a Nation contributor covering poverty in America, primarily through his blog, This Week in Poverty. Through his writing he seeks to increase media coverage of poverty, share new research, elevate the voices of people living in poverty and offer readers opportunities to get involved with organizations working to eradicate poverty.



Book: Poor Bashing
The Politics of Exclusion

By Jean Swanson

The special language of poor-bashing disguises the real causes of poverty, hurts and excludes people who are poor, cheapens the labour of people who have jobs, and takes the pressure off the rich.

Swanson, a twenty-five year veteran of anti-poverty work, exposes the ideology of poor-bashing in a clear, forceful style. She examines how media “poornography” operates when reporters cover poverty stories. She also reveals how government and corporate clients use poor-bashing focus groups. To make the book even more useful Swanson includes key chapters on the history of poor-bashing.


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