For most of my adult life I have worked to end the violence of poverty. The most frustrating part of this work is entrenched misperceptions among at least half of Americans about “the poor”.
Poverty is multidimensional and not confined to any group of people, while its historic prevalence among “minority” populations is tolerated by American culture as if a natural condition of families in its grip. There is nothing natural about poverty. Poverty results from policies, practices, and prejudices.
The dictionary defines poverty as “The state of being extremely poor” and poor as “lack of enough money to live at a standard considered normal by society. During this pandemic, many more Americans are experiencing poverty–perhaps for the first time. Some might have become homeless except for the national moratorium on eviction during the COVID19 pandemic. Losing a job and having few or no savings, usually substantial debt — describes at least half of Americans today. Are they poor due to laziness or lack of ambition? No. They are poor due to circumstances beyond their control. COVID 19 for example created widespread unemployment and/or work at low hourly rates that are below living standards. The pandemic revealed the lack of resilience to events that strike at being able to work. Most Americans are running just ahead of an economic and health avalanche of poor outcomes.
Poverty in America draws on stereotypical associations with minorities or poor whites (lazy, unmotivated, less able). Poverty is endemic racism resulting in less opportunity to obtain a good paying job and poor education in neighborhoods that receive less funding for schools and public amenities such as grocery stores, parks, clinics, public transportation, libraries and museums, and so on, that build resilience and provide opportunities.
Yet there are other forms of poverty that we typically do not recognize– other dimensions of the poverty elephant in the room of democracy.
Poverty of justice is a pernicious form that is being scrutinized now in the face of blatant racism in police practices that single-out black citizens as culprits and typically resulting in outright murder on public view. This is a form of poverty that has been present for 400 years in America but never identified as such. Lynching is present today.
The hard truth is that poverty of justice arises from a poverty of soul among citizens who do not resist the violence and work to eliminate injustice of any kind in the Republic of America. This is another way of saying it: you are either part of the problem or part of the solution.
James Baldwin defines the “Negro story” of White America (aka “the Indian problem”) as emotional poverty among white people who need to perpetuate a myth of superiority to maintain white hegemony.
A new form of poverty is lack of access to the Internet and lack of technology (computer, printer, cell phone). The pandemic created a chasm among school children and college students by virtue of the an unequal access to these basic tech resources. Americans of means have been content to allow poorer kids to find these resources at libraries and other public institutions that closed during the pandemic. Students dropped behind richer contemporaries during the pandemic while wealthier families were able to keep their children progressing and even excelling with homeschooling by at least one or two parents at home or able to keep working at home. So, technological poverty is a new form arising that will further divide who progresses and who does not unless Americans intervene to bring everyone along in access to technology. This would mean we have a spiritually enlightened perspective, another important dimension of equality for all, and also an economically smart policy.
Another important area of “poverty” that has received scrutiny from researchers and sociologists is the basic need of human beings for a “roof over their head”. A house–so fundamental to Americans as essential to well-being and wealth-building–is denied to many citizens through unfair loan practices and keeping people working at below living wages, making it impossible to buy that first house. I think of all the college grads with student loans on their backs like Sisyphus from the Greek myth whose punishment was to carry a heavy stone on his back up a mountain with no end in sight. That seems a ready financial metaphor for all Americans under the age of 50 today.
What’s so important about safe housing? Today we know that it is the best predictor of a person’s physical and mental health. Stable housing is a basic human need, and it’s just silly that something like that need be stated at all, like the need for food. Yet, if you study the issue, it is true that America has an affordable housing crisis across the nation. A form of societal poverty that with all the wealth sucked up into this system, we have failed to provide even that guarantee. Once upon a time we as a society guaranteed it with the GI bill, with fair loan and hiring practices, with laws that worked to assure a great education for every child. But, much of that has been stripped away as white culture got scared again. The gig could be up on the perceived conceit of greed and privilege as their working dynamic.
Until we see all the dimensions of “poverty” as a creation of how we treat each other, we’ll always have poor among us. But, that is not inevitable, only probable, as long as American citizens tolerate it.