Traditionally, we think of poverty as something persistent, unchangeable, hopeless, and enduring. And we tend to view “poor people” the same way. You hear stories on the radio about that guy on the street corner and you hear something incredibly depressing – he served in Vietnam, got a bit messed up, can’t hold down a job anywhere, lost his wife and kids to divorce, turned to drugs and alcohol, has been in and out of rehab centers and jail alternatively for the past 20 years… It goes on like this.
Or you hear about that single mother who has 4 kids, makes $7.00 an hour, and, due to little education, probably will for the rest of her life.
Or that Hispanic lady who cleans rooms at the local Holiday Inn, or the elderly gentleman in the apartment down the street who is currently living solely off his Social Security check. We have all heard of, or personally know, people like this.
Then we hear the national poverty statistics and are saddened to hear that more than 35 million of our fellow Americans are living below the poverty line – a group of people larger than the population of California. In the 90s the poverty rate was persistently about 12.7% of our national population, and it hasn’t fluctuated much. Our response is to either demand that government provide for these people on a long-term basis or to shake our heads with discouragement and change the subject to issues we feel are more manageable, or a little of both. We speak to the problems we can see.
But what is it we are “seeing?” And does it reflect the reality of American poverty?
According to an editorial by George B. Weathersby in the Christian Science Monitor last May, American policy makers and the American public have a largely mistaken view of the state of the American poor. While the “persistently poor” are among us, and often very visible, they make up a much smaller portion of the impoverished than you’d think. In fact, they aren’t really statistically representative at all.
The reality is that those 35 million Americans living below the poverty line are in a state of constant flux. People are falling below the poverty line all the time. But they are also rising above it just as often. An excerpt from the article:
The basic facts are that while millions of people enter poverty (primarily because of a loss of a job or a family breakup) each year, most people remain poor for less than 5 months, and millions of people reenter the labor force and earn enough to rise above poverty. For two-thirds of people in poverty the transition in and out of poverty is relatively quick. For others, especially single parents with small children and the elderly beyond the work force, poverty is persistent for a number of years.
The Panel for the Study of Income Dynamics has shown that the number of people who enter and leave poverty each year from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s was about 8 million. Sometimes this number rose to nearly 20 million people entering and rising out of poverty in a single year. The description of a stable group of people who are poor, with a few becoming poor and a few rising out of poverty each year, is wildly wrong.
Two thirds! Two thirds of our impoverished are not “hopeless cases” and will likely be out of the woods in as little as a few months! The article continues:
Every five years during the past three decades, between 30 million and 40 million Americans have risen out of poverty. This is an enormous accomplishment for the individuals, their families, and the caring society that has supported them. Unfortunately, every five years during the past three decades almost as many people have entered poverty for one or more reasons. But unlike most other developed nations, poverty in America is a transitional process – from acceptable income levels into poverty and back to acceptable income again. Typically, this is a quick transition.
Of course, this still leaves a not insignificant one third of the impoverished in need of assistance on a much longer-term basis. But for decades (if not longer), we have been acting like that one third of “poor people” represents the entire population. Apparently, they don’t, and the entire premise guiding our public welfare programs and charitable donation campaigns may have been deeply misguided all along.
To accelerate the transition out of poverty, government agencies need to qualify applicants and deliver services within weeks of entering poverty or the public expenditures will be largely irrelevant. Long-term support issues of housing, training, and education may be important to the one-third chronically poor, but not to the two-thirds in transit through poverty.
The war on poverty needs to be fought on at least two fronts. First is the quick response, transactional battle of month to month for those at the edge of poverty to sustain or regain employment and family stability – supporting most of the people and most cost- effective support because it leverages their own substantial family and financial momentum. The second is the chronic poor, where there is a different strategy of long-term support and gradual transition.
This picture of American poverty as a dynamic and changing group makes a lot of sense to me. Speaking anecdotally from what I’ve seen as a bankruptcy attorney, and in my conversations with other members of the bankruptcy bar, very few of our clients are truly “hopeless cases” or even close to it. Usually they’ve simply run afoul of a few of the triggering events that Weathersby alludes to: divorce, job loss, bad investment, failed entrepreneurial ventures, heath crises, etc. If these folks can get through the stretch of rough weather they’re currently in, their prospects are actually not that bad.
How did we miss these people all these years?
Well, truth is, they’re darn near invisible. They aren’t begging on street corners, they aren’t in obviously lousy jobs, they aren’t checking in at the homeless shelter each night, and, to be blunt, they aren’t visibly identifiable as illegal immigrants. They don’t set off alarms with our preconceived prejudices. We aren’t programmed to be on the lookout for them.
Furthermore, they aren’t exactly bragging about being below the federal poverty guidelines. Most of my clients are deeply ashamed that their financial situation has gotten so bad that they need a bankruptcy. Once they’re through with it, they just want to move on and forget about it. They almost never become advocates for those who come after and find themselves in exactly the same situation.
Finally, poverty just isn’t as visible today as it was in the 1950s and earlier. Easy credit is almost universally available in America. Anyone can dress respectably, buy food, and put on the appearance of being “well-off.” Truth is, if you met a man making 15,000 per year, and fellow making 60,000 per year at your local supermarket, it’s quite likely that you’d hardly be able to tell the difference between them.
Most poverty in America is apparently truly inconspicuous, if not actively avoiding detection. Yet our preconceived notions of the beggar on the street and the welfare mom prevent us from seeking solutions for the impoverished right under our noses (they could easily be living next door to you). The crushing problems of the visible cases engender within us feelings of hopelessness or cynicism about poverty. Frustrated, we say “I can’t help these people!” Or “hordes of Cadillac-driving welfare mommas are out there today, cheating the system, and will be – FOR ETERNITY!” Over-dramatizing a problem makes it easier to give up on it.
Finally, I would draw your attention to the classic scene in “A Christmas Carol” where Scrooge, having just witnessed scenes of poverty in London, is presented with two horrible, dirty children dressed in rags.
“Spirit! Are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!”
Beware most “this boy.” It’s high time we gave notice to the real problems surrounding us rather than the caricatures presented to us on the 10 o’clock news. Time we stopped being upset and anguished, and started being useful.