Poverty & Wealth

Downward Spiral

(Flickr/401(K) 2012)
We've heard a lot about jobs in this presidential election cycle. The idea being, I suppose, that once people have a job, regardless of the wages or the hours, they can bootstrap their way to the top. Probably for similar reasons, we don't hear much about poverty. So long as there are jobs around, political rhetoric seems to say, being poor is a choice. While both campaigns will spend many many millions on ads telling you about jobs, I doubt we'll hear much about economic mobility in America or pathways to escaping poverty. Just because there's little talk, however, doesn't mean there isn't a terrifying problem. The latest report from Pew Charitable Trusts looks at economic mobility across generations, using real child-parent pairings. As I wrote yesterday, the findings are bleak. While children earn more than their parents did at their age, adjusted for inflation, the rich are getting richer faster than everyone else. That means that while you may be making more than your parents,...

The Myth of Rags to Riches

In the latest version of SimCity, a computer game that let's you pretend to be an urban planner, city residents are born into an economic class and there they remain for life. This may have been done for simplicity's sake, but the scenario makes the popular computer game disturbingly similar to the situation of most Americans. The latest report from Pew Charitable Trusts, "Purusing the American Dream," deals a stunning blow to any romantic notions of bootstrapping your way to the top. It turns out only 4 percent of those raised in the bottom 20 percent ever climb into the top 20 percent. Rather, people raised on one rung of the income ladder are likely to stay pretty close to it as adults. As the report notes, "Forty-three percent of Americans raised in the bottom quintile remain stuck in the bottom as adults and 70 percent remain below the middle class." The report, from a non-partisan group that's far from ideological, shows that while in absolute numbers, the vast majority of...

Don't Blink

I've talked in the past about how unconscious bias works—and how it's an aspect of some very healthy parts of our brains and bodies. For very good reasons, we all navigate by intuition, habit, and practiced behaviors every single day. Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer have written about these neurological facts beautifully and well. Every parent knows how time-consuming it is to have to articulate and teach habits we don't even realize we navigate by. Walk on the right and pass on the left. The fork goes here and the knife and spoon go there. It's not polite to say that in public. You can't take that until you pay. Turn your head this way to breathe while you're swimming. That truck means that person delivers the mail. Don't talk back to the people in airport security. If our brains had to sort consciously through every action, behavior, and category (the way parents have to explain things all day) before we could act, we'd be paralyzed. If we didn't practice thinking in categories—...

Where Work Disappears and Dreams Die

In Gary, Indiana—the former “Magic City” of industrial might—jobs have left, and so has almost everything else.

(Flickr/slworking)
N ot all teenagers are as lucky as J’Len Glass. He trusts his parents. He knows they will always tell it to him straight. Yet the 15-year-old, who wants to be a doctor, can’t help being skeptical of his elders’ veracity—or at least of their memories—when they tell him that his shrinking, economically depressed hometown of Gary, Indiana—Steel City—was, once upon a time, a wonderful place to raise a family. That it had good public schools and well-maintained city parks and streets. That there were department stores, restaurants, movie theaters, nightclubs, and crowded office buildings up and down Broadway, its main thoroughfare. That a young guy could go outside, play some ball, flirt with girls, and not worry about getting killed in a drive-by shooting. That he could graduate high school, and if he didn’t want to go to college or join the military, he could just stay put and make a decent living in one of the smoke-belching steel mills that ringed the city and provided paychecks to...

Why It's Still in States' Interests to Expand Medicaid

(Flickr/ernstl)
For supporters of the Affordable Care Act, it was hard to hear—over the cheering—anything besides the fact that the Supreme Court today kept the law almost entirely intact. But the Court did make a slight change to a crucial part of the ACA: Medicaid expansion. Under the law, by 2014, states are supposed to extend their Medicaid programs to cover people under 65 with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty line. An analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that means 17 million more people would have access to health care over the next 10 years. Before today, it looked like states didn't have much choice in the matter. If they didn't make the necessary expansion, they would lose all federal Medicaid dollars. In their brief, states argued that wasn't much of a choice—federal Medicaid grants simply constitute too much money to lose. Back in February, Timothy Jost had a very helpful explanation of the states' argument on this point in Health Affairs . As he...

A Student-Loan Solution We Should Be Talking About

(Flickr/Philip Taylor PT)
Tuesday, Senate leaders said that they had reached a deal to freeze student-loan rates at 3.4 percent —rather than allowing them to double on July 1. It's welcome news for the millions of students in this country who rely on such subsidized loan rates to help pay for school. But the deal doesn't get at the overwhelming national problem of student debt, which, at more than $1 trillion, now exceeds credit-card debt in the country. Among the factors that contribute to those numbers is the problem of remedial coursework. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2007-2008, "approximately 36 percent of first-year undergraduate students reported that they had ever taken a remedial course." That spikes up to 42 percent among undergraduates at two-year institutions. In some states, the proportion of students needing those courses can be dramatically higher; in Colorado's community colleges, the remediation rate was 58 percent this year. That means students are taking extra...

Tom Corbett's Scary Plan for Pennsylvania Welfare

(Flickr/401K 2012)
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett's first stab at a budget for this year left the education community shaking. The Republican had balanced the budget in part through deep cuts not only to the state's colleges and universities but also to school districts. That's terrifying news for a state where some districts are already considering ending kindergarten to balance budgets. Miraculously, thanks to unexpectedly high tax collections, the state's schools have been spared the chopping block. But Corbett's other proposal, major funding cuts for human services, still looks alive and kicking. State lawmakers only have until Saturday if they want to pass a budget on-time. Over the weekend, according to The Patriot News , the governor and GOP leadership agreed to spend $26.66 billion —$1.5 billion more than Corbett's initial draft. But the governor is pushing the legislature to approve a proposal that would combine several human services programs into single block grants. The change also come...

Mismeasuring Poverty

The way we determine who needs help blocks many poor people from receiving the assistance they need.

(Flickr/Wolfgang Lonien)
T he “facts” about poverty can be deceiving. In her magisterial book Behind the Beautiful Forevers , Katherine Boo tells the stories of the inhabitants of a Mumbai slum on the edge of a sewage lake who lack jobs, housing, running water, health care, education, and police protection. It is not unusual to see rats and frogs fried for dinner, feet covered with black fungus, and maggots breeding in wounds wrought by trash-picking. Yet, Boo writes, “almost no one in the slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks. … [They] were thus part of one of the most stirring success narratives in the modern history of global market capitalism.” Some success. Our government’s own count of the poor, while not denying their existence, also minimizes their number—not by undercounting them (though that’s a factor, too) but by setting the poverty bar so low that tens of millions of poor Americans are not accounted for. This miscategorization not only paints a picture of a more prosperous...

The State of Poverty in America

The problem is worse than we thought, but we can solve it.

(Flickr/John Collier Jr.)
We have two basic poverty problems in the United States. One is the prevalence of low-wage work. The other concerns those who have almost no work. The two overlap. Most people who are poor work as much as they can and go in and out of poverty. Fewer people have little or no work on a continuing basis, but they are in much worse straits and tend to stay poor from one generation to the next. The numbers in both categories are stunning. Low-wage work encompasses people with incomes below twice the poverty line—not poor but struggling all the time to make ends meet. They now total 103 million, which means that fully one-third of the population has an income below what would be $36,000 for a family of three. In the bottom tier are 20.5 million people—6.7 percent of the population—who are in deep poverty, with an income less than half the poverty line (below $9,000 for a family of three). Some 6 million people out of those 20.5 million have no income at all other than food stamps. These...

Seeing What No One Else Could See

Fifty years ago, Michael Harrington’s The Other America awoke the nation to the prevalence of poverty in its midst.

(Fred W. Mcdarrah/Getty Images)
(Fred W. Mcdarrah/Getty Images) Michael Harrington in 1964 M ichael Harrington’s The Other America , the book that first documented the existence of pervasive poverty within the postwar United States—then congratulating itself for being the world’s first majority-middle-class nation—struck American liberals like a thunderbolt after its publication 50 years ago. It became required reading among college students, particularly for that exceptional group of young people who went south, at considerable risk, to register black voters in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. It was required reading for journalists, labor activists, and Democratic reformers. It was read in the White House, where it provided at least some of the impetus for the War on Poverty. Martin Luther King Jr. joked with Harrington that “we didn’t know we were poor until we read your book.” Harrington’s was one of three books published in 1962 and 1963 that changed the way millions of Americans thought about the world...

The Geography of Getting By

Vendors in Los Angeles' MacArthur Park fight for their right to sell.

(AP Photo)
A mile west of the polished-granite and tinted-glass towers of the Los Angeles skyline, in the dense Central American hub of MacArthur Park, there is a street called Little. It is exactly that, a one-block nub, sandwiched between Wilshire on the north and Seventh on the south, bookended by stop signs, leading to nowhere. Iron bars run down the east side of the sidewalk, shielding an elementary school from intruders; on the west side, more bars, these topped by diamond-shaped barbs, guard the rear of an apartment complex. You could drive past Little Street a thousand times and never notice it, much less have reason to turn here. Every weekend since last December the city has sealed off Little with plastic Department of Public Works sawhorses. A vinyl banner, designed with clip art of a rainbow-swaddled cornucopia, stretches across each set of barricades. “ArtGricultural Open Air Market,” the sign says, a portmanteau of artesenía and agricultura that, in any language, requires some...

Post-New Deal America Needs Unions

(Flickr/Kheel Center, Cornell University)
One of the unfortunate consequences of the still more unfortunate failure of the unions’ effort to recall Wisconsin governor Scott Walker earlier this month is the gloating and schadenfreude that’s come forth from labor’s enemies. Some comes straight up, as in this column from Charles Krauthammer. Some comes with the caveat that private sector unions are fine in their place, but public sector unions have no place at all, an opinion expressed in this blog post from Chuck Lane. (I confine myself here to offerings from my Washington Post colleagues, but they’re representative of the breed.) As I noted in my response to Lane, it would be nice if these defenders of private-sector unions had bestirred themselves to join the battle for labor law reform in 2010, since under the current labor law, workers effectively have no protection from being fired when they seek to join a union. As it is, Lane, Mickey Kaus and their fellow union critics endorse private-sector unions in the abstract, but...

How Should Voter Purges Work?

(Flickr / dailyfortnight)
The mess that is Florida's voter-purge effort keeps growing by the day. Both the ACLU and the Department of Justice are suing the state, which in turn is suing the federal government. After the state's Division of Elections declared it had found around 182,000 noncitizens on voter rolls, the state sent letters to 2,600 people of them asking if they were citizens. Those who failed to respond risk being removed from the lists. The trouble, of course, is that 500 of them proved to be citizens . Less than 100 have so far been proved ineligible to vote. Because the list examines citizenship, Hatians and Latinos are disproportionately targeted. In the meantime, the 182,000-list looms in the background, though it has not been publicly released. As legal tensions boil over, the effort has been put on hold in just about every county . But with less than 90 days until the state's primaries, many worry there will be complications when people go to vote. The debacle, however, brings to mind a...

Pressing On the Upward Way

A profile of life in one of the country's poorest counties

(Chris Wilson)
This piece from our July/August Poverty issue won the July Sidney award from the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Read an interview with the author about her piece here . Chris Wilson B y her second semester of college, in the spring of 2008, Sue Christian was about as tired as she’d ever been in her 40 years. It wasn’t that her studies kept her working hard; she was used to long hours. It wasn’t that she was missing her salary; she was already good at fretting over bills. It wasn’t that the daily trip from her home in Booneville, Kentucky, was more than an hour long, a drive that, when rains washed out a one-lane bridge, took her over the nauseating Hatton Holler Mountain. It was more that, listening to lecture after lecture in crowded classrooms with people half her age, Sue felt her brain was stretched as far as it would go. “I thought, ‘I’m so dumb, I’m not good at college,’” she says. “Professors seemed to be more focused toward that age group fresh out of high school. So, if you’re...

Wisconsin Recall: A Conservative Case for Election Day Registration

(Flickr/Katri Niemi)
As the nation waited for the Wisconsin recall results to come in, Twitter began to light up with conservative claims of voter fraud. "Please @ me with any stories of #WI #WIrecall voter fraud," tweeted conservative radio host and pundit Dana Loesch around 11 a.m . She noted stories on busing voters in across state lines and on supposedly suspicious high turn-out rates. "It's not 'fraud' if you didn't cheat enough to rob voters of the lawmakers they choose," she wrote. Others joined in. "@GovWalker needs to make sure he wins by an amount greater than the margin of fraud," tweeted @RickMoore. "Early results show #TomBarrett leading #ScottWalker amongst dead voters, illegal aliens and cartoon characters," tweeted @rovibe71. "Dems really need to embrace honesty for 'change' and rename themselves 'The Vote Fraud Party". [sic] Disgusting" wrote @Furrystoat. These tweets all arrived as news was breaking of huge turnouts around the state and pundits were speculating about a close finish. When...

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