When studying the extent of world poverty one of the last places you might think to look is America. Widespread poverty does exist in the USA; it may not have the same consequences as it would in an African nation but people feel it nonetheless. The other important point about America is that this is where both the United Nations and the World Bank are situated and from where they get the dominant philosophy that forms their thinking.
West Side Story a film produced in 1961, was rightly a smash hit. It was a modern re-enactment of the Shakespearian play Romeo and Juliet with a twist that highlighted the predicament of immigrants and gang culture. One of the principal songs was ‘America’.
Girls: “I like to be in America. Ok by me in America. Everything free in America.”
Anita: “Life can be bright in America.”
Boys: “If you can fight in America.”
Girls: “Here you are free and you have pride.”
Boys: “As long as you stay on your side.” www.filmsite.org/
The American dream: come to America and get rich. Everyone can be rich in America or that’s how the picture was painted and millions desperate to better their life chances followed that dream. Still today millions flock to the country with their hopes and aspirations tied in their Dick Whittington knapsack.
- Read the story: www.longlongtimeago.com/llta-folktales
As with all dreams some turn sour and some remain a pipedream. For others the dream was realised and that fired continued hope. That is America, the most successful capitalist country in the world and likely to be for a long period to come. George Friedman: The Next 100 Years. There is always a ‘but’ because with every bright side there is a dark one and poverty fills the latter slot.
The Roaring Twenties gave way to the Great Depression of the 1930s when the reality of poverty haunted many American hearts. With the advent of the Second World War, an industrial surge spread optimism throughout the land and Americans thought they had defeated the blight of poverty. The hope did not last; in 1964 President Johnson, announced the ‘War on Poverty’. From that point on, by fits and starts the fortunes of the poor fluctuated.
Today, Americans wake up to one of the highest rates of poverty in the country’s history: 46.9m, the fourth consecutive increase, and a trend likely to continue. www.worldhunger.org quoting from www.census.gov/ As with everywhere else on the planet the recession brought about by the banking collapse of 2008 has added greatly to those seeking work and in need of welfare. However, poverty numbers have been growing for years.
“Five decades ago, we accepted Harrington’s thesis that the idea of poverty in a prosperous nation such as ours is a moral outrage. Today, poverty isn’t on the radar of our elected officials and few seem concerned that poverty is returning to levels not seen in decades.” Randolph T. Holhut, www.american-repoter.com/
- Michael Harrington: The Other America: Poverty in the United States.
An equally damning point to the ‘moral outrage’ expressed above comes from a study by Dr Amy K. Glasmeier, www.povertyinamerica.mit.edu/ when she suggests that “The United States is a nation pulling apart to a degree unknown in the last 25 years.” The silver bullet of this analysis comes with the time frame, for the work was published in 2006, two years before the banking crisis of 2008. This would certainly make one ponder whether politicians were paying attention! In a qualifying statement she writes, “Families, children and working adults are making less income and enjoying fewer protections today.” The story continues, “Persons in the top 20 per cent of the population earn 19 times more than persons in the bottom 20% of the population.”
If this was an isolated report, you might question its validity and seek to authenticate the data used. Unfortunately for American politicians the report seems well balanced and is indicative of other information out there.
“Medium [average] income has changed very little over the past 30 years. Adjusted for inflation, the middle-income family only earned 11% more in 2010 than they did in 1980, while the richest 5% in America saw their incomes surge 42%.” CNN.com
“Since 2000 the poorest Americans have only got poorer.” Huffingtonpost.com 2010/12/21
Further supportive evidence can be gleamed from Paul Osterman, labour economist at MIT;
“Over a period of time, it’s not that the American economy has necessarily performed badly, the country has grown richer but the shift in income has gone to the top.”
This gives credence to an earlier observation in the NY Times, “… growth alone is an insufficient indicator of national well-being.” (2006) World Bank please take note.
With unemployment doubling between 1990 / 2010, from 7,047,000 to 14,825,000, www.census.gov/ surely the most uneducated of politicians and government officials could work out that a steady increase in unemployment automatically generates a similar rise in welfare needs and that hardship is around every corner. Or perhaps these guys are the ones picking up the fat pay cheques and so turn a blind eye. It certainly supports the view expressed by R.T. Holhut that; ‘…poverty isn’t on the radar of our elected officials.’
An obvious connection with the material above and whenever I have looked at poverty is one of ‘income distribution’. The criterion raises its ugly head every time in places like; Chile, Brasil, Kenya, Chad, and now the most prosperous of all nations, America. To emphasize the point, NBC news highlight an important fact, that nearly 25% of those considered to be living in poverty are in work. Their problem is low wages, so low they fall below the poverty threshold. Inplainsight.nbc.com/
Another tantalising little statistic worth a mention is that 33% of the poor work in the service sector which is notorious for poor wages and part time work. A more damning statistic on income distribution comes from the ‘economist.com’ (Nov: 2012) when it reports that in the last three decades, “…hourly wages rose by a paltry 0.2% annually.” And from 2007 to 2011, wages fell for the bottom 70% of US workers. It would be interesting to know the inflation rate for that same period, though I doubt that wages kept pace.
Hopefully for many, poverty is a temporary phenomenon and soon they will find a better job or get a job. Sad to say, but for many others it goes from bad to worse. In a study by the university of Indiana it states that 4million have reported being out of work for 1 year or longer. (guardian.co.uk). It is extremely difficult to get back on the road again when you haven’t got a grub stake.
There are those who cannot help themselves such as children and mothers left with a growing brood. In 2010 it was reported that 16.4m children lived in poverty. npc.umich.edu/poverty/ . The economist.com gives a more depressing picture when it informs us that child poverty rates in America are higher than those of: Japan, Europe and Canada. There are a number of reasons for this, chief among them being ‘income distribution’. However,
“Deteriorating family structure among the poor threatens to trap poor children at the
bottom of the income ladder for life.”
This chilling statement has been brewing in America for a long time and is supported by significant data from educational sources. A timely warning comes from, Timothy Smeeding, Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin;
“We’re risking a new underclass.”
CNN.com brings some clarity of a ‘trap’ that the poor may stumble into with a set of figures on poverty rates; couples:6.2%
single mothers: 31.6% single fathers: 15.8%
Such figures have been latched onto by one group; “By increasing work and marriage, our nation can virtually eliminate remaining child poverty.” www.heritage.org/ If only the world was so simple! While the statistics tend to lend a modicum of understanding to their view, with the high incidence of single parents; the figures cannot tell the whole story. We don’t know if a partner has died or just ran off because they could not handle the responsibility.
Moreover, it would be cretinous to suggest a mother become dependent on another man and furthermore, where do you find someone to take on that kind of responsibility? The second point made regarding ‘increasing work’; I am sure that there are a large number of people out there who would jump at the chance of a job, problem is, there’s not that many about. Fat cats have farmed them out to places such as China; are the boys at ‘heritage’ going to demand they are brought back?
A further observation must be made here on the epoch-making solution to ‘child poverty’. Imposing an illusion from a bygone era; no matter how much you hanker after it, is not a solution that will save tomorrow. It is reminiscent of chasing a rainbow’s end.
Suburbs are perhaps an unlikely place to find poverty as opposed to in rural areas and the ghetto but that is what is happening. A study, by the Brooking Institution, brought to our attention by Emily Badger, has shown that poverty is spreading deep into the suburbs. The Urban Institute are mapping the spread of the poor in many cities. www.businessinsider.com/poverty-in-america
The Economic Policy Institute have carried out a survey of 615 communities and found the cost of living to be more than double the threshold set by the government, based on a family of four.
Family of four: $23,497 Single person: $11,172 (2012) www.census.gov/
Billions of dollars are spent trying to help people stand still. Food stamps alone are estimated to have cost $76bn in 2011, more than double the 2008 figure. More than $350bn is spent annually on programmes serving low income families. www.econlib.org/ Add the loss of revenue through tax receipts. Buying less and saving less. The cost of crime and medical care, all add up to a substantial sum. Who’s picking up the tab? Can such vast amounts of money actually hold back the economy from growing or do we just pile up the debt?
Looking up from the bottom of the ladder the United States does not seem as ‘united’ as some would like to think. Poverty is making America into a divided society. That poverty is now nesting in the suburbs should act as a warning, for here resides the potential leadership of revolution. Politicians can pay heed or continue to camp out in the woods with their friend Bigfoot.
Detroit City, once the ‘motor city’ has filed for bankruptcy. (July 2013) Thousands of buildings lie derelict, crime has spiralled, and hope has wandered off. Manufacturing jobs that were the rock for so many breadwinners have been moved abroad to exploit the cheap labour. The once solid citizens must look elsewhere for recompense.
New songs may be sung of peoples troubles. The ‘Blues’ may return as a social force as minorities stagger from the force of the knock of poverty. I can hear the distant sound of Woody Guthrie
This land is your land. This land is my land
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.
As families wake up in their downbeat jalopies; wondering where they can get a free meal and a wash: in some far off place other decisions are being made. The UN and the World Bank delegates having lunch in a 5 star venue***** are deciding how to end world poverty.