Article 43


Saturday, October 01, 2005

A Poverty Of Understanding

By Nancy Cauthen
September 30, 2005

In the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and the contribution of various governments to the catastrophe - we suddenly have national leaders talking about poverty.  Not surprisingly, they’re simply talking past one another.

For starters, they can’t agree on the nature and depth of poverty in the United States.  Using the federal government’s official poverty measurewhich is about $16,000 annually for a family of three and $19,000 for a family of four17 percent of the nation’s children are living in poor families.  Thats 12 million children, and the number is increasing.

Perhaps most stunning is that 7 percent of children - 5 million live in families with incomes of less than half the poverty level.  That’s a paltry sumless than $8,000 for a family of three and $9,600 for a family of four.

These are the official statistics.  But just about everyone agrees that the feds’ current measure is woefully out of date.  We measure poverty by a standard set more than 40 years ago. Data collected in the 1950s indicated that families spent about one-third of their income on food. Poverty is still measured by multiplying the cost of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s economy food plan by three.

Our national poverty figures obscure dramatic variation by place and race.  In New Hampshire, 7 percent of children are poor, whereas in Arkansas, the figure is 25 percent.  About 10 percent of white children live in poverty, while roughly 30 percent of African-American and Latino children do.  Before Katrina, 38 percent of children in New Orleans were poor.

Of course these days, food comprises far less than a third of an average family’s expenses, while housing, child care, heath care, and transportation costs have grown disproportionately.  Whats more, the official poverty measure doesn’t take in account government benefits, payroll and income taxes, or work-related expenses such as child care and transportation.  Does a national poverty standard make sense in a country where the cost of living varies substantially not only from state to statesay, from California to Kansasbut also between cities and rural areas within states?

Most analyses - including those from the U.S. Census Bureau - suggest that taking all these factors into account would increase poverty rates.  No administration has wanted to take on this burden, so we continue to measure poverty by an irrelevant metric.

But research indicates that it takes an income of anywhere between one and a half to three times the current poverty level to meet basic family needs.  Using twice the poverty level as a proxy, 38 percent of the nation’s children - some 29 million are living in families with inadequate incomes.  The bottom line is that by any reasonable standard, we have a big problem.

So what can be done?  First, we’re long overdue for an intelligent conversation about why the richest country in the world has the highest poverty rate among advanced democratic nations.

They’re simply aren’t enough jobs that pay decent wages, especially for those who lack a college degree.  We spend far more money on medical care than other nations, yet we have 44 million people without health insurance.  Our neglect of public education leaves many graduates unprepared for work or for college.  And mounting tuition means that higher education is increasingly out of reach.  Many of our preschoolers languish in child care settings that lack appropriate supervision, stimulation and nurturance, their caregivers often making poverty-level wages themselves.

These realities also make maintaining a middle-class existence more precarious. Many middle-income families are merely one crisis - a medical emergency, job loss or divorce away from financial ruin.  Fewer employers offer the kind of job stability they used to, and fewer provide employees with pensions and affordable health care.

The divide between the affluent and average working American familieslets not forget that the majority of poor families have at least one worker - is most clear when it comes to assets.  The richest 5 percent of American households control nearly 60 percent of the nations wealth, while the bottom 40 percent have less than a percent. What’s more, low and middle-income families are increasingly saddled with debt.  Given an inability to make ends meet, not to mention the spiraling cost of housing, millions of Americans are literally mortgaging their futures.

Only after we acknowledge this growing divide between the well-heeled haves and everybody else can we begin to have a meaningful dialogue about policy.  We need to confront two major challenges.

We need a bold agenda that supports working families so that parents can once again aspire to providing their children with a better future.  This means addressing stagnating wages and families need for workplace flexibility.  It means improving public education including integrating our schools not just across race and ethnic lines but also across income and increasing access to higher ed.  It means figuring out how to make decent housing, health care and child care affordable for all.  It means rebuilding our public institutions and national infrastructure.

A clear lesson from the New Deal and Great Society is that the most successful programs - Social Security, Unemployment Insurance and Medicare target people across income.  In contrast, means-tested programs tend to be meager and stigmatizing.  As the saying goes, programs for poor people are poor programs.

The second challenge is to address the needs of the most disadvantaged.  Before Katrina, more than half of New Orleans residents did not own their homes; one in five households did not have a car, and eight percent had no phone service.  Families trapped by this kind of deep poverty - and living in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poor people need more than the Band-Aid approaches that have passed for anti-poverty programs in the past.

Thousands of Americans have been prompted by Katrina to ask what kind of society we want to have.  Rising inequality and the near absence of any meaningful level of social mobility belie Americas promise of equality, opportunity and justice for all. After 25 years of talk about personal responsibility, it’s time to talk also about the obligations of government to its citizens.

Dr. Nancy Cauthen is deputy director of the National Center for Children in Poverty, the nations leading public policy center dedicated to promoting the health, economic security, and well-being of America’s most vulnerable children and families. NCCP is a non-partisan, public interest organization that creates knowledge to find solutions at the state and national levels.




“Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
- Nelson Mandella

“Poverty is the worst form of violence.”
- Mahatma Ghandi

“Poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn’t commit.”
- Eli Khamarov

“Women do two thirds of the world’s work. Yet they earn only one tenth of the world’s income and own less than one percent of the world’s property. They are among the poorest of the world’s poor.”
- Barber B. Conable, Jr.

“Poverty is everyone’s problem. It cuts across any line you can name: age, race, social, geographic or religious. Whether you are black or white; rich, middle-class or poor, we are ALL touched by poverty.”
- Kathleen Blanco

“It is unacceptable that someone can work full time - and work hard - and not be able to lift themselves out of poverty.”
- Sherrod Brown

“It is poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”
- Mother Teresa of Calcutta

“In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”
- Confucius

“Money won’t create success, the freedom to make it will.”
- Nelson Mandela

“The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied...but written off as trash.”
- John Berger

“ If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.
- Charles Darwin

“The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time.”
- Willem de Kooning

“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”
- James A. Baldwin

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
- Frederick Douglass

“The mother of revolution and crime is poverty”
- Aristotle

“For every talent that poverty has stimulated it has blighted a hundred.”
- John Gardner

“The real tragedy of the poor is the poverty of their aspirations.”
- Adam Smith

“The inevitable consequence of poverty is dependence”
- Samuel Johnson

“Poverty often deprives a man of all spirit and virtue; it is hard for an empty bag to stand upright.”
- Benjamin Franklin

“No man can tell whether he is rich or poor by turning to his ledger. It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich or poor according to what he is, not according to what he has.”
- Henry Ward Beecher

“Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential.”
- Barack Obama

“The poor man is not he who is without a cent, but he who is without a dream”
- Harry Kemp

“They say it is better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable, but how about a compromise like moderately rich and just moody?”
- Princess Diana, Rich & Poor

“The man with a toothache thinks everyone happy whose teeth are sound. The poverty-stricken man makes the same mistake about the rich man.”
- George Bernard Shaw

“The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.”
- G. K. Chesterton

“A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.”
- W.C. Fields

“The honest poor can sometimes forget poverty. The honest rich can never forget it.”
- Gilbert K. Chesterton

“Another good thing about being poor is that when you are seventy your children will not have declared you legally insane in order to gain control of your estate”
- Woody Allen

“Remember the poor - it costs nothing”
- Mark Twain

“The community which has neither poverty nor riches will always have the noblest principles.”
- Plato



Congressman Spends Night In Shelter To Learn About Homelessness

By Scott Keyes
Think Progress
May 13, 2014

In an emerging trend, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), a longtime advocate on Capitol Hill for issues like poverty and hunger, is the latest lawmaker to leave the comforts of his home and spend a night in a homeless shelter to better understand what its like to live at the margins of society.

Last month, the nine-term Massachusetts congressman headed over to WorcesterҒs Interfaith Hospitality Network, a shelter in his district that houses up to six homeless families at a time, to spend the night. He slept on a couch to ensure that no one in need would go without a bed, but spent much of the evening chatting with guests.

He recounted to ThinkProgress the story of a single mother who lived in the shelter with her son. They had been in the shelter a while, giving her son, who has a learning disability, time to adjust to the local school and get comfortable with teachers there. However, when Massachusetts housing officials told the woman that they had found the two a place to live, but it would require them to move two hours away to New Bedford, she was stuck. She didnt want to stay in the shelter, but she also didnҒt want to pull her son out of the good situation hed found in school and put him through the trauma of moving to a new school. She decided to stay in the shelter.

“These are incredible people who love their kids like I love my kids, who desperately want to get out of this situation that they find themselves in, McGovern said. Repeatedly noting how impressed he was by the “doggedness” of people he met in the shelter, he argued “we ought to be praising these people, and instead we belittle their struggle here in Washington.”

Indeed, a common refrain from Republicans on Capitol Hill is that poor people have crafted a “culture of dependency” at best, or at worst are simply “too lazy to work,” as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) recently argued.

“That’s not what I saw,” McGovern said. Most of the people he encountered in the shelter worked, but they were stuck in minimum wage jobs with little hope of making enough to afford rent in Worcester. People would say, “I’m doing everything you tell me to do, I’m out there working, yet Im still stuck in poverty. I can’t get out of the shelter,” the congressman recounted.

In fact, contrary to conservative beliefs about poor people not wanting to work, McGovern met people who kept working even though doing so meant sacrificing some safety net benefits. “They want to be able to provide for kids and put food on the table,” he said. After all, the alternative, he noted, is to sit around and stare at the ceiling.

Massachusetts may be one of the richest states in the nation, but that doesnt mean its immune from the horrors of homelessness. Last year, budget cuts led to a record number of homeless children in the Bay State. The overall uptick in homelessness has led to overcrowding in shelters and forced the states to send thousands of families to motels instead.

Asked what he took away from the experience, McGovern thought for a second, then replied, ғWhat was transforming for me was I came away with not pity for these people, but great admiration for their courage.

McGovern is the third member of Congress recently to spend an extended period of time with homeless people. In December, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) spent a vacation day shadowing a homeless man as he went about his day, and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) spent the night in a shelter in February. Speier has since started a campaign calling on her colleagues to learn more firsthand about homelessness.

McGovern credited the two with helping push him to stay the night at a shelter and argued that more of his colleagues ought to do the same. “This is how you get to know your constituents,” he said."This is how you get to know what its like to be poor. When we talk about food stamps or housing benefits, when we having hearings up here, poor people are never invited. If members of Congress spent the night in the shelter, they would never cut food stamps.”


Posted by Elvis on 10/01/05 •
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