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.
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.
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.
Not 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.