Kansas City is a little bit plainsy, and a little bit Southern, straddling the Missouri-Kansas border. It is an old city, especially compared to others west of the Mississippi, fueled in its early years by farming money and trade from settlers heading west. Kansas City proper is on the Missouri side, and Kansas City, Kansas, or KCK, sits like a stepchild on the other side, absorbing most of the urban core’s poverty and crime. The cities themselves have some of the fastest-growing poverty rates in the country, but in the suburbs, the number of low-income families has more than doubled since the start of the Great Recession.
At the peak of economic boom times in 2000, the U.S. child-poverty rate reached a historic low of 16.2 percent. Even then, UNICEF ranked the United States as having the second highest child-poverty rate out of 26 rich countries. The United States had a child-poverty rate twice Germany’s, five times Sweden’s, and nearly ten times Denmark’s. The only country scoring worse than the United States was Mexico.
The recession and its lingering aftermath helped drive an estimated 2.8 million additional American children into poverty, raising the nation’s share of poor children to one of the highest recorded in nearly 50 years. The increase in the child-poverty rate of four percentage points between 2007 and 2011 to 22 percent was the second largest four-year increase since modern recordkeeping began in 1959. The percentage of children living in low-income families—with incomes less than twice the federal poverty line—increased even more rapidly, from 39 percent to 45 percent. Strikingly, almost half of all children are poor or near poor in a nation boasting one of the world’s highest per-capita incomes. The child-poverty rate was unchanged in 2011, the latest year for which data are available, despite the fact that the recession nominally ended in 2009. In numbers, 16.1 million American children live in poor families, and 32.4 million live in low-income families.
This week, the Senate and House committees in charge of agriculture passed farm bills—mammoth bills that will last for five years if passed and signed—and sent them to their chamber floors. The bills handle farm policy, but the vast majority of their spending goes to a program that has proven a rich target for a Washington drunk on spending cuts—the food stamp program. The House bill would lower benefits across the board, cutting a fourth of the program’s $80 billion budget. The Senate bill would trim $4.4 billion from food stamps. Many of the cuts in both bills come from getting rid of a program that allowed states to streamline the ways they provide assistance to the poor.
When Anne Marie Slaughter launched the latest battle in the Mommy Wars with her Atlantic cover story “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” which inspired a barrage of features about retro wives—young, high-achieving professionals leaving their careers to take care of children at home—the subtext was that work often isn’t worth it for women. Not only do women face real barriers to advancement, but their paychecks barely cover the cost of childcare. Real, quality childcare costs more in most states than tuition at public universities. In 22 states and D.C., the average cost of infant care in a center was more than the median rent in 2012.
The first time Breanna found herself homeless, she’d left her mom’s house when she was 12 because her stepdad didn’t like her and her mom never took her side in fights. That had left her sharing a room in a Motel 6 with her father and sick grandmother near her high school in Jefferson County, Colorado. A short, slim, dark-haired Latina, she’d grown up in the area, and most of her family was there; it’s where she felt at home. In the motel, though, her dad, who was a drug addict, would occasionally beat her. “My Grandma would tell him I deserved it,” Breanna says. “I never understood why I deserved it.”
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.
The “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.
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.
Michael 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.”
There's not a single state in the country in which the rich pay a higher percentage of their income in state (though not federal) taxes than the poor. According to a state-by-state scorecard from the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED), only Washington, D.C. has an equal tax burden for its wealthiest and poorest citizens.
As Washington fights about which benefits to cut for low-income families, the Heritage Foundation throws an assist by arguing – in typical conservative fashion – that poor people can’t be poor if they own consumer electronics and air conditioning:
When Jamie Holmessays that poor people lack "willpower," he isn't disparaging their work ethic or blaming them for their situation. Rather, he's trying to explain the dynamics that keep poor people impoverished. As Holmes explains, individuals seem to have a finite capacity for exerting willpower, and every choice depletes it. In particular, poor people face a huge number of "tradeoff decisions" for every financial choice they make; to buy groceries or pay rent, to buy medicine or pay for utilities, etc. According to Holmes, this constant stream of difficult choices diminishes the capacity for willpower and self-control, and makes poverty that much more difficult.