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Poverty in America

Poverty in America             Gerry O'Shea

Official statistics reveal that over 40 million Americans are living in poverty with about 25% of children deemed not  meeting basic living standards in food or housing or healthcare - in  many cases failing in all three vital categories that determine a person's ability to enjoy a full life.

The recent Republican budget directed multiple billions to large corporations and  to millionaires and set aside big increases for the  Defense Budget, which last year exceeded the defense allotment of the next six countries combined. Some middle class taxpayers are promised that when everything falls into place they will see modest increases in their take - home pay. As for the poor, their food, housing and medical programs will be cut back, in some instances substantially, in an effort to pay for the windfall going to the top earners.

How can one explain the dismal treatment of poor people in the richest country in the world? This is a tough question to answer, especially when one considers that the various Christian churches have strong and vocal representation at all levels of government. Their founder, considered by Christians to be a man with the mark of divinity, stressed repeatedly that he was on the side of the poor and marginalized.

 The official policy of the largest Christian group, the Catholic Church, urges that governments should show a preferential option for the poor. This mandate is completely disregarded in America and one rarely hears any prophetic pulpit voice raised in protest, condemning this shameful and morally reprehensible situation where the rich are mollycoddled and the plight of poor families is neglected.

Elections are the lifeblood of every serious democracy, and, unfortunately, poor people don't vote in large numbers. A recent Pew study suggests that only around 20% of people identified as "financially insecure"  go to the polls in a presidential election. So the speeches of political candidates, understandably, are larded with rhetoric about middle-class issues and concerns, with very few references to the needs of the poor.

Americans are mostly not sympathetic to those at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. They give great credence to the bootstrap stories of people who started with nothing  and through diligent work habits moved up to home ownership and family members attending college. The people that do not negotiate their way to a better life for whatever reasons are often judged to be lazy. Their indigence is somehow spoken of as  proof of a flawed character.

Americans love successful businessmen who validate the American dream. They are rich and highly-regarded for their hard work and business acumen. Money talks and the culture even suggests somehow that the affluent person possesses  superior character traits.

A recent UN-sponsored study points out that most multi-millionaires and billionaires have inherited significant wealth; only a little more than a third actually qualify using the imaginary bootstrap approach. The same study suggests that the American Dream should be changed to the American Illusion because in our time  workers in the United States have the lowest rate of social mobility in any of the rich countries.

Inequality is part of the woof and weft of American life. The well-off need the poor and destitute to validate their own success. They luxuriate in the community prestige that comes with large  homes, fancy yachts and expensive cars. They are poster boys of American capitalism. Tough luck on the losers!

Some historians argue that FDR'S New Deal policies in the 1930's saved the capitalist system because in the early years of the century and  through the Great Depression there were no government safety net policies to help workers who were laid off or were too old to continue in a job.

The introduction of Social Security  brought a sense of dignity to many old people's lives especially when Medicare benefits were added. It is estimated that without these programs today more than half of retirees in America would be living in poverty.

The United States devotes a mere 1.5% of its budget to anti-poverty programs, much less than in Western Europe and the Nordic countries.  What Europeans call the social wage - non-monetary benefits provided by the government for workers - is way down the priority list for American legislators.

For instance, the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) may not be renewed. It covers healthcare for 9 million students of limited means. A conservative senator, Orrin Hatch from Utah, applauded  the program but then said that he didn't know where to find the money to fund it. SNAP, better known as the Food Stamp Program, which is so important for poor families, is also being reduced, and under the mercurial Ben Carson, top man in Housing and Urban Development(HUD), the housing budget for the poor is being slashed.

Only 14% of ordinary workers in America have access to paid family leave. Workers earning $75,000 or more have twice the chance of some benefit in this area than employees on $30,000 or less. One in four new mothers in this country have to go back to work just ten days after giving birth.

Surely the most damning and disgraceful statistic relates to the fact that, unlike every other Western country, millions of American families have no health insurance.  

George Bernard Shaw was the great socialist voice of the Victorian era. He railed against the idea that the size of a person's  bank account defined the content of his character. He loudly decried the baleful effects of malnourishment and crowded tenements  especially on young people. His words are still very powerful and continue to resonate today: "We tolerate poverty as if it were  a wholesome tonic for lazy people." He argued that it was, in fact, a blight in any community that cries out for generous social and economic policies that uplift people.


Gerry O'Shea blogs at                                                      


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