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Perspectives on Poverty



Approaches to Dealing with Poverty         Gerry OShea

I read recently in the Irish Independent newspaper that Ireland has been ranked among the worst countries in Europe for providing paid maternity leave. The league table used in this study showed that new mothers in Ireland get up to 52 weeks off work between pregnancy and aftercare with a maintenance allowance of 245 punts – around 260 dollars – paid to them weekly for the first six months.

By comparison, Bulgaria rates as the best European country for maternity entitlements. New mothers there are assured of 58.6 weeks of paid leave with the central government shelling out 90% of their salary during their time away from their job. Norway also scored well, paying mothers at least 80% of their wages for 49 weeks after giving birth.

 In America only 23% of private companies provide any coverage for their employees going through the challenges of pregnancy and birth – and even that small proportion of the workforce is allowed, on average,  a mere 8 weeks at home.

Any pediatrician will testify to the abundant research which shows the crucial importance of nurturing babies in the early months of their lives. So, it is clearly good public policy to facilitate parental time with newborns. Yet, any proposal in Washington to mandate time off work for new parents is dismissed by Republicans as a socialist infringement.

 Such proposals helping parents of newborns should win immediate acclaim from the pro-life community, but they have not been heard on this important issue. Surely, their concerns are not confined to the unborn.

The Biden administration’s reaction to the covid pandemic included payments to various vulnerable groups including small businesses and struggling families. These were temporary responses to the national health crisis, but for many political leaders the child benefit program was meant to continue. Among the voices favoring continuation - with some minor changes - was Senator Mitt Romney, the Utah Republican.

It was part of the Build Back Better program proposed by President Biden which passed the House of Representatives with the full approval of Democrats but without a single Republican vote. It would have been carried in the Senate also along party lines except Democrat Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia felt the bill was poorly structured and too expensive. His vote effectively ended the program.

The failure to extend the benefit was particularly galling because according to most analyses it had been a remarkable success. Researchers in Columbia University estimate that the payments kept 3.8 million children out of poverty.

Other studies found that the benefit reduced hunger and, not surprisingly, lowered financial stress, especially for single mothers. The main beneficiaries lived in rural states which received the most money per capita. Also, the Biden bill made the benefit fully available to the poor who previously lost part of the benefit because they were not earning enough. Experts call this sensible change “full refundability” and it especially helps struggling single mothers as 70% of them previously received less than the full benefit.

 Again, one wonders how pro-life spokespeople can tolerate the position of their representatives in the House and the Senate depriving the poorest children in the country of an important, proven family-enhancing subsidy.

Bruce D. Meyer, an economist from the University of Chicago, led a team of researchers who claimed that providing such child benefits could discourage people from working. They contend that programs like this one could have a negative effect on the “labor supply.”

Analyses of the data does not affirm this conservative worry. In fact, some researchers point out that a generous child-support program  allows more people to return to work because the new benefit  is often  used to pay for child care.

Senator Roy Blunt, a senior Republican from Missouri, expressed his reservations because he felt that giving poor people more money to spend would cause inflation and increase the national debt. The senator and his party colleagues had no problem unanimously passing the last Trump budget a few years ago which massively benefited the richest 5% of the population and added over two trillion to the national deficit.

Anyway, the shameful net result, thanks to Joe Manchin and every single Republican member of the House and the Senate, was the defeat of an important progressive bill that offered a helping hand to poor and middle-class families.

Americans make up less than 5% of the world population, but we enjoy more than 20% of international wealth. We far outstrip all other countries in the number of residents who are millionaires and billionaires while the United States’ record in confronting the scourges of homelessness and hunger can only be described as abysmal.

According to official records 10.5% of households are considered “food insecure.” The same 2020 statistics reveal that 17.3% of American children live in poverty, and in states like Texas the numbers exceed 20%.

Poor people anywhere have a higher risk for mental illness and for chronic disease. They have lower life expectancy by comparison with  people in the well-off community where members avail of proper medical care. Social security experts point out that poor people have a significantly lower life expectancy than the rest of the community.

Lack of means explains why children in comfortable homes have far easier access to books than their counterparts on the other side of the track. Encouraging young children to read a variety of books highlights the most important determinant of later scholastic success. Also, poor children are twice as likely than their more affluent classmates to have unhealthy levels of lead in their blood.

Capitalists propound an unusual theory to justify the huge disparity between the rich and the poor in America. They blame the people at the bottom for not dragging themselves up to a higher echelon. They are marked as lazy and unambitious by comparison with the high-fliers – most of whom, by the way, reach plenitude because of inherited money.

The rich have their stories about the American Dream and how they used their talents to reach the top or somewhere close. They feel that just because they have a lot of money they should not get high tax bills. In reality, ordinary workers pay a higher percentage of their earnings to the government than the top earners do.

Poverty is really a moral issue, a matter of right and wrong. And, America is identified as a religious country with high church attendance. We hear that the country is grounded in Judaeo-Christian thinking. However, the clear central theme of both biblical testaments focuses on justice and fair treatment for the poor.

 In Sweden, just 1.1% of the population goes to church or synagogue, but their public policies have all but eliminated poverty, and the rich are still doing ok! Why is America so different?

Gerry OShea blogs at


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