The New Poor: The Changing Realities Of Poverty And Underemployment In Modern America

By @FrederickReese |
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    George Lamb, a homeless man, looks for used clothes at  Sacred Heart Community Center in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2010. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

    George Lamb, a homeless man, looks for used clothes at Sacred Heart Community Center in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2010. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

    (MintPress) – The British novelist J.K. Rowling once said of her experiences with poverty, “Poverty entails fear and stress and sometimes depression. It meets a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts that is something on which to pride yourself but poverty itself is romanticized by fools.”

    America’s perceptions of poverty have been shaped by the media, by political rhetoric and propaganda and from sheer ignorance and a lack of interest. For the average American — who regularly deals with work, children and the noise and hustle of everyday life — little time is actually spent thinking about those who are suffering and have less.

    Since 2008, the national rate of those who are below the poverty line has risen steadily. The realities of hunger and of lack of basic human necessities affects our neighbors, our families and communities, and they are not limited to any specific demographics or population.

    Poverty affects everyone.

    According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2011, the poverty rate was 15 percent, or 46.2 million Americans. In the United States, the threshold for poverty was $11,484 as of 2011 for an individual and $17,916 for a family of three or more. The alternative measurement — which utilizes enrollment statistics in various governmental programs and in public assistance distributions — places the poverty rate at 16.1 percent, or 49.3 million Americans.

    In 2007, the poverty rate was 12.5 percent.

    According to the Cagney Institute at the University of New Hampshire, child poverty in 2011 reached 22.5 percent, with 16.4 million children living in poverty — with 6.1 million being under the age of six. Forty-five percent of all American children live in families with income less than twice the federal poverty line. Researchers involved with this study find this trend to be troubling. “It is important to understand young child poverty specifically, as children who are poor before age 6 have been shown to experience educational deficits, and health problems, with effects that span the life course,” reported the researching team.

    In California, more than 1 in 5 children now live in households with incomes below the federal poverty threshold, with 1 in 3 black and Latino children or children raised by a single mother being impoverished. This is a 21 percent gain from 2008 levels.

    The median annual household income in the United States dropped in 2011 for the second consecutive year to $50,054, a decrease of 1.5 percent from 2010.

    In what is now being called the Great Recession, the severe jump in poverty and unemployment rates belay the extreme shift the economy took in such a short period of time. From 2008-2009, the poverty rate rose from 13.2 percent to 14.3 percent, with 3.7 million people becoming impoverished in a 12-month span. Over one-third of all people in poverty in 2009 were children. Over one-third of all black children and one-third of all Hispanic children were in poverty as of 2009. The real median income for working-age households fell by $754 in that timespan, while the average African-American household saw an income cut of 4.4 percent.

    For many, the recession brought a new reality. Food became more expensive, basic commodities people counted on — including gas and electricity — became costlier as the dollar grew weaker, and for many, it became harder to make do. Jobs became harder to get, wages were frozen or cut, benefits were slashed.

    For some, the struggle to make ends meet became impossible. The call for austeric controls on governmental spending threatened unemployment compensation, low-income health insurance, housing and nutritional assistance and Social Security — all hedges that insulated not only the poor, but also the elderly, and which prevented millions from joining the poverty ranks. Despite these protections, for millions, the question of where the next meal will come from is a constantly-asked one.

    There is no one face of poverty. As reported in the Christian Science Monitor, Linda is a full-time worker in West Virginia, surviving on $1,030 a month with no benefits. “I can’t afford fresh fruit or low-fat meat. I can’t get cauliflower or green peppers,” she says. When she does buy food, “I buy things that stretch longer.” While she feels she makes enough to survive, “What I feel,” she says, “is anxiety. I felt it just this morning. It’s constantly in the back of my mind: ‘Am I going to have enough to pay the bills?’”

    A paper published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research suggests that the American economy “has lost about one-third of its capacity to generate good jobs,” which is defined as a job that pays at least $37,000 a year and offers health insurance and retirement benefits. According to the National Employment Law Project, more than 40 percent of the jobs added to the economy between 2008 and 2010 were low-wage jobs. Furthermore, six of the top 10 highest growth jobs by 2020 are low-wage jobs.


    The realities of poverty

    Americans’ attitudes toward poverty are changing. In a 2001 National Public Radio poll, about half of those surveyed believed that the poor were not doing enough to pull themselves out of poverty. This attitude was reflected in the 2012 presidential campaign, when former Republican nominee Mitt Romney infamously suggested that 47 percent of the American public would not vote for him because they “believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. [...] My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Today, most people see poverty as a reflection of the times, as reported by RH Reality Check.

    Craig B. is a 51-year-old Salvation Army missionary from Minneapolis, Minn. Originally from Chicago, Graphic shows new census poverty data by age groupIll., he found his way to the Salvation Army there in part due to work therapy at the Salvation Army’s donation center. Not finding what he was looking for in Chicago, Craig sought to take a Greyhound to Bloomington, Ill., but ended up in Minneapolis due to a purchasing mistake with no family, no resources and no job.

    Roger B., 51, is also a Salvation Army missionary from Minneapolis. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, he was a telemarketer until he was laid off. With the economic situation tanking in Ohio, Roger moved to Minnesota in search of better opportunities and to find a way toward a better existence after issues with chemical dependence.

    MintPress was given a chance to discuss at length the realities of poverty with these two gentlemen.

    One of the more prevalent points made during these discussions is the importance of faith. As both of these men are affiliated with the Salvation Army — a religious organization — the notion that faith plays an important part of both men’s philosophy is not shocking. However, in discussion, it was presented that both internal faith in oneself and external faith in one’s relationship with the universe is essential. In almost all portrayals of poverty in the media, faith has been shown to be the coping factor more often than not. Craig best presented the sentiment, “When it comes down to money, anything like that, I figure that everything will work itself out. Right now, I’m trying to get myself together, and by doing that, I’m just letting go and letting God handle it.”

    Another key point that came out during the discussions is the reality that poverty is a label applied after-the-fact in analysis of a situation. To those who are in the situation at the time, it’s their normal state of being. In the rush to classify people into categories, it becomes easy to forget the obvious: that these are people, worthy of dignity, respect and acknowledgment.

    There is a sense, during conversation, that there is a notion of blame toward the government, but not for a lack of services:

    Mint Press News (MPN):  .. I have done a lot of projects in which a common response is that a lot of people don’t realize that the resources are available. Nobody had ever explained to them what is available and what is not. Do you feel that way?

    Craig B. (CB): Yeah, because they don’t, honestly, reach out and tell you. … You have to search. It’s like pulling teeth. … It’s just like the people don’t have kind hearts anymore. … But I found out a few things, and I had to pull teeth to get it. But that’s basically what it is. It’s out there, but they don’t know how to go and get it.

    Roger B. (RB): Basically, being a single black male, I have no children and I’ve never been married or anything, and it has been quite hard. As far as government assistance and stuff like that, they really have nothing for a single individual. It’s very hard.

    In a recent article published by MintPress, it was revealed that among the main complaints against the government by new veterans is the complicated, serpentine network of programs and services they have to travel — typically, by themselves — in order to find the specific care they need. The fine reality is that — on the federal, state, local and philanthropic level — there are enough services and resources to adequately address most of the issues facing those who are poor or are financially struggling. The problem lies in the fact that most people are not aware of these programs and are not aware of how to apply for these services. The most essential part of the equation toward helping the populace is outreach — someone has to tell the people that the services are available.

    Unfortunately, many programs rely on the lack of public knowledge to keep operating costs low and to effectively stretch shrinking budgets. As such, many of the most needed services cannot be counted on to court the public directly, and there are simply not enough social workers to get to everyone who needs help.

    Roger adds, “People just don’t have jobs, maybe, to give you. I don’t know, but I hope it changes. I’m 100 percent behind Barack Obama. I think he’s very superior. I think he can only do so much. I think it has to be a domino effect. When one door opens, they all open. But the government, for me, has not really let me down. It’s just being single, they don’t really have a lot to offer a single person.”


    Society and poverty

    An issue of importance to the interviewer was the societal take on poverty. In light of other concerns — such as politics and the latest celebrity gossip — society tends to ignore the suffering of those without.

    MPN: Do you feel, in general — and I’m speaking in very broad terms — that the public, in general populations, does not understand the concerns and the pains and the needs of those who do not have enough? Do you feel that there is some kind of general sympathy felt by the people? Or do you feel that the people just completely do not understand the situation?

    CB: They don’t understand the situation. If it’s not in their face, they don’t get it.

    RB: Yeah. The world is changing, you know, it’s a different world. As we roll into 2013, it is a very type of world that every man must stand on his own bottom, his own tub. And everybody is just for self. And yes, I think, people, if they don’t know about it and they probably don’t … If it’s not in their backyard, then really their concern is not there. But the world has changed a whole lot, I can say that. It’s not the same world we’re living in.

    MPN: Do you feel that the news and the media — the way that they present poverty, homelessness and poor people — have anything to do with it? For example, you might see on the news a story about people being poor, but in general, you won’t hear anything about that in the news. Do you think that has something to do with the people’s ignorance?”

    CB: Yeah. Again, I say, if it’s not in your face, it doesn’t matter. … The homeless here in Minnesota are way different than anyplace I’ve ever been. Like in Chicago, we got a place called Skid Row. There’s only one little section that Skid Row holds. … In Minnesota, Skid Row is the whole downtown area. So, I know it’s in their sight. I know they see it. Like I said, I’ve only got four months here, so I’ve got to sit back a little longer and do some more evaluating. … Homelessness is a very depressing state of mind, and some people would just probably rather not be bothered with that. It’s very depressing. I’m around it, and it does have this pall, seeing that every day. It’s very depressing. Maybe they just choose not to want to be a part of that. I, myself, I would imagine there are other areas in Minnesota that are not homeless. I can take one area, Minnetonka, I did not see homeless at all. That area was very prosperous and very productive. So, the media, I imagine that maybe they go to Lake Minnetonka and see the beauty of Minnesota. Because I’m not going to say that that’s their job to come down here and look at this, because it can somewhat be depressing.

    Craig offered the closing theme to the interview, “We’re people who came into hard times. We’ve fallen, we’ve striven to get back up. And we’re just ordinary people who needed a change.”


    The experts’ take

    MintPress invited several professionals working in social advocacy to offer their opinions on the issue of poverty today. Steven Sadleir is a consultant and speaker and the author of “Money & Power: The Secret History.” He has experience as an economist, international banker and fund adviser. Janelle Leppa is the director of family housing programs for the Simpson Housing Services in Minneapolis, Minn.

    In conversations, the notion of the “new poor,” or the segment of the population that fell below the federal poverty level as a result of the 2008 mortgage crisis or more recent economic upheavals, was discussed. Sadleir defined the “new poor” as “all of us affected by the financial crisis and bailout. It includes those who worked their whole lives and ended up losing everything they own in the end as well as those newcomers to the job market who find few opportunities. According to the New York Times, the new poor crosses most demographics excepting those in the highest income brackets (whose earnings are higher than ever) and those already poor.”

    Sadleir continues, “The new poor are the direct and deliberate result of economic policies that favor the rich and squeeze the middle classes; via tax and securities laws the wealth didn’t ‘vanish,’ it ‘changed hands.’ I don’t think the new generations of newly poor will have the opportunities previous generations had, but the economy will still cycle up and down.”

    When asked if the government was doing enough to support the poor and struggling and if private investment toward resolving the situation has been significant enough, Leppa said, “I certainly think that more can be done in terms of public and private investments. I also see a lot of signs of hope. I believe that the focus on education for babies on up has increased and needs to continue to increase if we want to see the next generation escape poverty. Too many poor children enter kindergarten behind their peers and stay behind.”

    In regards to improvement the lives of the impoverished young, Leppa states, “Our youth too often do not see a pathway to a prosperous future for themselves. Parents and other adults are often lacking the education and/or skills to obtain employment that offers a livable wage. I believe that low cost and high quality childcare needs to be available for every low income child. Our school-age children need to attend schools with the resources and staff to support their need to do more than a year’s growth in a year. Low income high school students also need a greater level of educational investment that leads to clearer pathways out of poverty, and parents already in poverty need more training and education options so they can obtain jobs.”

    Sadleir took a more confrontational approach to the question, “Our government is owned by the banking cartel. Just look at all the Federal Reserve’s, JPMorgan’s and Sachs’ people in the Cabinet. The president and government do as they are told by those who hold the purse strings. … In my opinion, presidents are puppets, Bush, Romney or Obama were put into office by giant money that owns them. This is what America needs to realize: What has really happened?”

    Sadleir continues, “The poor have been ignored and there is much that can be done to help them. For instance, provide tax incentives for companies to hire both skilled and unskilled labor for U.S. citizens: jeans and shirts, building projects, localized agriculture, etc. We simply do an economic needs analysis. This would greatly help everyone in our economy.”

    When asked if there is a “solution set” available that could reverse the trends that created the “new poor,” Sadleir adds that “three fundamental things that need to change. 1) Eliminate lobbying – politicians should not receive money from corporations or lobby’s. 2) Eliminate the Federal Reserve and their bogus notes, and have the U.S. Treasury issue U.S. dollars backed by the gold, silver, oil and other assets of the nation and have full transparency as to what money is being lent for and to whom. Right now, a private banking cartel controls everything. 3) We need to regulate our securities markets again and divide the securities companies from banks. The government has been used as an instrument to make the elite very rich and the rest of us much poorer.”

    While Sadleir’s “game-plan” may seem extreme, most experts believe that it is within our capabilities now to drastically reduce, and possibly end, poverty in America. At repeated times through history, Americans have chosen to put the needs of the poor first — with Johnson’s administration with the creation of Job Corps, Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid, the food stamp program and the Pell Grant program, and with the Clinton administration with expanded tax credits, increased federal funding for childcare, reforms to welfare and a raise of the national minimum wage — with each attempt netting a drop of the national poverty rate of at least 4 percent. What is needed now — more than anything — is leadership and the will to help.

    Sadleir closed his arguments with, “When enough people are educated as to what is really going on, they will put pressure on their elected officials to represent their interests and curb the influence the elite have through their control of money. Thomas Jefferson warned us of what is happening today, we only have to understand what is happening.”

    Ayrton Senna once said, “Wealthy men can’t live in an island that is encircled by poverty. We all breathe the same air. We must give a chance to everyone, at least a basic chance.”  Poverty — even when denied or ignored — is a reality, a fact of life.

    It will not end until America does something to end it.

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      • Sally

        This is a really, truly excellent article about the newly poor. Well articulated and not just facts but a good understanding about what needs to be done to ‘fix’ it. Thank you for writing on this pressing topic.