Poverty & Wealth

The Missing White Poor

A famous white poor person. (photo by Dorothea Lange)
You may have heard about how last week, Paul Ryan made some unfortunate remarks about poverty, blaming it at least partly on, well, lazy black people: "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular," Ryan said, "of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with." The reason many people got angry about this is that when we talk about poor white people, nobody suggests that it's a product of a pathology that lies within those particular people. Republicans may think persistent poverty in rural areas is a regrettable thing, but they aren't delivering lectures to those people about their "culture." It's kind of a generalized version of the fundamental attribution error —people like me are poor because of conditions outside themselves, while people unlike me are poor because of their inherent nature. Ryan's words set off...

What Is Left?

A response to Harold Meyerson

I was not surprised by the substance of Harold Meyerson’s criticisms of my recent Harper’s essay (“ Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals ,” March 2014). I have known for some time that he and I disagree fundamentally on the reasonable scope of a political left in the United States and, correspondingly, whether one actually exists and/or how to go about building one as an effective social and political force. I was somewhat disappointed, however, at the tired hook to which he tethered his criticism. He characterizes me as viewing the political scene “from space” or a “stratospheric height" which leads me to miss crucial details on the ground. That’s just dismissiveness masquerading as evaluation. I could characterize him as limited by the myopic perspective of the inside-the-Beltway crowd, which renders him incapable of seeing the patterns that those details form and reflect. No doubt, each of us would be to some extent correct about the other, but that doesn’t...

Greyhound Therapy

In many of South Jersey's counties, homeless people seeking services are offered a one-way ticket to Trenton or Atlantic City.

Flickr/Germeister
Flickr/Germeister W hen Thomas Jones, a native of Asbury Park on the Jersey Shore, wanted to get clean and straighten out his life, service providers in his county gave him a one-way ticket to Trenton, 60 miles away. “In Asbury Park they didn’t have assistance—no shelter, no soup kitchen,” he said. “They just push you out to Trenton or Atlantic City.” Other homeless men recounted similar stories. When they got out of prison or lost their jobs and couldn’t keep up with the bills, they sought help. Instead, they were offered one-way bus rides to the Trenton or Atlantic City, home to the Trenton and Atlantic City Rescue Missions, the only two comprehensive shelters for adults without children in the southern half of the state. The practice—shipping homeless people off to cities better-equipped to provide services—is common enough in southern New Jersey that it’s come to be known as “Greyhound Therapy.” It’s difficult to quantify given that it’s not an official policy and there is no...

Paul Ryan: A Poor Man's Savior of the Poor

AP Images/Charlie Neibergall
AP Images/Charlie Neibergall W isconsin Republican Paul Ryan, chair of the House of Representatives Budget Committee, spent the fall touring poor neighborhoods in an effort to rebrand the GOP as the true saviors of the poor. It was both an effort to mark the 50 th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, and to salve the wounds his party felt after its 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney put on a monocle and proclaimed the nation to be full of moochers while giggling maniacally over vichyssoise at a fancy dinner party. (OK, he didn’t do that, but he did do this .) Monday, Ryan released a report on the federal programs meant to help low-income Americans. He means it to be a critique of most of those programs, and use the report as a platform from which to argue for reform. If his previous budgets are a guide, he wants to turn most federal programs into block grants for the states. If our history with welfare reform tells us anything, block grants would mean funding for,...

The ACA Can't Fix Our Mental Health Crisis

AP Images/Bob Wands
AP Images/Bob Wands A s more people sign up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act, the next few months will usher in a fundamental change in mental health care. Under the ACA, insurers are for the first time required to cover mental health and substance abuse treatment as one of ten “essential benefits.” This is good news for the millions of Americans who suffer from some form of mental illness but don’t seek treatment. The question now is whether the country’s mental health infrastructure is equipped to deal with an avalanche of new patients. The answer? Probably not. Mental health care is saddled with two problems: It’s expensive and inaccessible. A 2012 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that more than 18 percent of American adults suffered from some form of mental illness in the past year . Of the forty percent who sought treatment, more than one-third paid for it out-of-pocket. To put this in perspective, only about 16 percent of...

Arkansas's Medicaid Folly

AP Images/Brian Chilson
On Tuesday, the Arkansas state legislature failed to renew a bill authorizing its expanded-Medicaid plan, an innovative approach to Obamacare that allowed the state to use federal funds to purchase private insurance for the state's low-income residents. Arkansas's unique plan was a compromise between the state's Democratic governor, Mike Beebe, and the Republican-led legislature, and made the state one of the few ultra-conservative ones to bother expanding Medicaid. In the 25 states that didn't expand, many of the poor are still doing without insurance, because the federal subsidies weren't designed to kick in until people made above a certain threshold. If Arkansas doesn't renew its Medicaid program, more than 87,000 people who've gotten insurance this year will suddenly lose it again. Opponents are complaining that the plan is expensive. To begin with, the entire cost is paid for by the federal government until 2016, and after that the state will never chip in more than 10 percent...

Needling for Change

AP Images/Jae C. Hong
AP Images/Jae C. Hong F or the first few years Liz Evans worked at the Portland Hotel Society, a network of homeless shelters in central Vancouver, she would arrive at her job already exhausted. On her morning walk through Downtown Eastside—a neighborhood infamous as the poorest zip code in Canada—she stepped over drug addicts passed out in doorways and sidled around alleys where people would cook dope and shoot up in broad daylight. It was 1993, and Vancouver was in the throes of an HIV epidemic. Tens of thousands of impoverished injection drug users were crammed into a fifteen-block radius. The Portland Hotel Society was one of the few housing projects in the city that welcomed drug addicts, and working there felt like triage. Evans, a nurse, trained her staff to intervene when the residents overdosed. “It was such a painful time,” Evans says. “These weren’t people who were partying or using drugs to have fun. They were poor and sick and dying.” Desperate for a solution, city...

Why Can't You Miserable Commoners Be Happier With Your Lot?

This is the look of satisfaction Tom Perkins gets right after shouting, "Release the hounds!" (Flickr/JD Lasica)
Venture capital billionaire Tom Perkins may be new to the trolling game, but he made an absolutely spectacular debut when he wrote to the Wall Street Journal a few weeks back warning that resentment toward the super-rich in American society reminded him a lot of the Nazi campaign against the Jews. Then last weekend, he followed that bit of wisdom by proposing that the wealthy ought to get more votes than the unwashed masses, since they pay more in taxes. "The Tom Perkins system is: You don't get to vote unless you pay a dollar of taxes," he said in a speech. "But what I really think is, it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes. How's that?" That, you're probably saying, is abominable. Why not just let the richest one person choose the president? He's got the most money, so he's obviously the wisest and has the greatest interest in government, right? Although Perkins might not be too pleased with that outcome, since the richest person...

How Big Banks Are Cashing In On Food Stamps

AP Images/Rich Pedroncelli
AP Images/Rich Pedroncelli T he Agricultural Act of 2014 , signed into law by President Obama last Friday, includes $8 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over the next decade. One way the bill proposes to accomplish these savings is by reducing food stamp fraud. When the new farm bill is enacted, many of America’s hardest working families will experience cuts in services and have trouble putting food on their family’s table. But there will be major gains for an industry that most Americans might not expect: banking. Banks reap hefty profits helping governments make payments to individuals, business that only got better when agencies switch from making payments on paper—checks and vouchers—to electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards. EBT cards look and work like debit cards, and by 2002, had entirely replaced the stamp booklets that gave the food stamp program its name. SNAP is the most well-known program delivered via EBT, but they also carry...

Stress, Poverty, and the Childhood Reading Gap

AP Images/LYNN HERMOSA Most Americans think education is the key to upward mobility, that all we need to do to break the cycle is to help the next generation do well in school and rise into the middle class. A growing body of research, however, is showing that poverty and hunger can harm children’s cognitive development. The challenges of poverty, and the often-violent neighborhoods poor children live in, are impeding their progress in school. Late last month, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that works to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children in the United States, released a report that added evidence to that idea. It showed only a fifth of low-income fourth-graders were reading at a proficient level, compared to more than half of high-income children. What’s alarming for researchers is the fact that every subject in every class after third grade requires a textbook and critical-reading skills for full engagement in the classroom. Children already need...

A Mighty Shout in North Carolina

Jenny Warburg
*/ Jenny Warburg G eoffrey Zeger didn’t attend last year’s Moral Mondays, the series of civil-disobedience events at which more than 900 people were arrested at the North Carolina legislature. The weekday occupations, coordinated by the North Carolina NAACP to protest the state’s sharp-right policy turn, conflicted with Zeger’s work schedule. But when he learned that tens of thousands of demonstrators planned to descend on Raleigh last weekend, the private-practice social worker from Durham couldn’t stay away. “Every day I work with people whose unemployment benefits have been cut, and who are trying to get food stamps,” he told me at Saturday’s Moral March on Raleigh. “And a mother who’s working three and four jobs, and who has her children being watched by their grandparents. And they’re struggling. Ten hours a day, I’m working with people who are affected by a GOP legislature.” Zeger’s clients battle anxiety and depression, he says, as their family budgets grow ever more precarious...

Could Postal Banking Be the Next Big Thing?

This doesn't actually have anything to do with postal banking. It's just awesome. (Flickr/grilled cheese)
It's often said that being poor is really expensive, and one of the most painful ways is what millions of Americans have to pay in order to make sure their bills are accounted for. If you're poor, time and money intertwine in ways that people who aren't poor don't have to worry about. When your income and your expenses are right around the same amount, you have to worry about timing constantly. I'm not getting paid for a week, but this utility bill is due in three days, and I have to set aside enough for food and gas—how should I handle that? If I write my rent check on the same day as I get my paycheck, will the former clear before the latter? For many, the only choice to avoid catastrophes like getting evicted or having your power cut off is going to one of the payday lenders and check-cashing operations you can find in every poor neighborhood. And since those payday lenders know their customers have no other options, they make them pay through the nose. As an analysis by the...

Heat or Something to Eat? New SNAP Rules Might Force Poor Families to Choose

AP Images/Gerry Broome
The Senate is expected to vote on the Farm Bill today , which could reach President Obama’s desk later this week. A new version of the bill, which comes up for reauthorization every five years, has been delayed for two years; Congress has simply been renewing the most recent farm bill for short periods of time while the House and Senate fought over the details in the new one. Most of the fights were over agricultural subsidies, but most of the spending in the $100-billion-a-year bill goes to the program formerly known as food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Participation has more than doubled since the start of the recession—from 20 million every month to about 47 million every month —largely because more people qualify for aid. That has led to attacks on the program from conservatives who said the spending levels were “unsustainable,” and the House of Representatives voted in September to cut food stamps by $40 billion. The Senate voted to cut it by $4...

Investing in Stock Buybacks, Not People

AP Images/Richard Drew
One fundamental reason why the American economy continues to limp along is that no one—at least, no one with major bucks—is investing in it. The Obama Administration countered the collapse of private sector investment in 2009 with its stimulus program, which, alas, was partially offset by all the cutbacks in state and local government spending. It’s not been able, however, to get any subsequent investment projects through the Republican House. The private sector—the corporate sector more particularly—returned not just to profitability but record profitability by the middle of 2010, but its profits have neither resulted from nor led to increased investment. To the contrary, American corporations have never sat on so much unexpended cash. Right now, their cash piles total more than $1.5 trillion, and that’s not counting the assets of the banks. The cash is concentrated in the coffers of our largest corporations, many of them tech companies. Apple leads the list with $150 billion...

Now It’s Time to Talk About Chicago’s Tale of Two Cities

AP Images/Charles Rex Arbogast
R ahm Emanuel has a favorite four-letter word for members of the labor movement. When Emanuel was White House chief of staff, he was told that tens of thousands of autoworkers could lose their jobs if General Motors and Chrysler didn’t receive a federal bailout. His response: “Fuck the UAW.” As mayor of Chicago, Emanuel became so enraged during negotiations with Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, that he shouted “Fuck you, Lewis.” (The teachers went on strike for seven days, claiming Emanuel had “disrespected” them, as well as tried to force them to work longer hours after reneging on a promised pay raise.) Few political figures contributed more to the Democrats’ realignment from a party of working people to a party of Wall Street than Emanuel. The New Democrats of the 1990s responded to the weakness of the labor movement by shifting their donor base from unions to socially liberal financiers. Emanuel was Bill Clinton’s point man on shepherding the North American...

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