John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Poverty Numbers

Posted on September 21, 2010
I was listening to NPR’s great show, “To the Point with Warren Olney”, last night and the subject was the new poverty numbers. Olney interviewed representatives from various food banks from around the country and then interviewed policy experts from Washington D.C. to give a somewhat balanced view of what is happening in America today.

Dinora Barahona (left), of North Bend, picks out food while volunteer Denise Angrisano assists July 21 at the Mount Si Helping Hand Food Bank. (Photo by Christopher Huber)

Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of the discussion is when one of the regional representatives (this one was from Arizona) talked about how former contributors to her food bank were now customers. Nobody in middle class America wants to hear that story.

By its very nature, American society is insecure. The promise of America is that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can achieve the American dream. The peril of America is that if you have some bad breaks or if you break the rules, you could end up being a customer and not a contributor to a food bank.

These days, that insecurity is getting more pronounced. The economy is changing before our very eyes. Manufacturing jobs are disappearing, either because machines have taken over the work of people or because the jobs have moved to Asia or South America. The business sector is not producing many new jobs, having retrenched in the face of the Great Recession. Service sector jobs are not growing because consumers are not spending as much, because they are worried that they won’t have enough money to pay their mortgages. And the new economy, the one based on social networking, computer innovations, IPad applications, etc, hasn’t fully worked itself out in such a way as to provide jobs for a new generation of low-skilled workers.

If you look at the characteristics of those who are in danger of poverty, some statistics jump out at you. If you are a single mother, you have a much greater chance of being poor. The poverty rate among married people is around 5.8 percent. The poverty rate of one-parent families is around 27 percent. If you are an African-American single parent, the chances are that you are living below the poverty line is about 40 percent.

If you are young, you have a greater chance of being poor. 18% of all people who live below the poverty line are under 18, while only 10% of people above 65 live below the poverty line. So, that means that if you keep living, you have a pretty good chance of not being poor when you die.

Staying in school is the easiest way to avoid poverty. In 2007, the median earnings of individuals with less than a 9th grade education was $16,615 while high school graduates earned $31,337, holders of bachelor’s degree earned $56,826, and individuals with professional degrees earned $100,000.

Staying off drugs is a good way to avoid poverty. Over three quarters of drug users in treatment left school before 16 years of age while 70% of drug users are unemployed.

Poverty is a relative term. Compared to Warren Buffet, I am poor, for example. And so it is with America’s poor compared to the rest of the world. According to Wikipedia: “The 2000 Census indicates that 73% of U.S. poor own automobiles, 76% have air conditioning, 97% own refrigerators, 62% have cable or satellite TV, and 73% have microwaves. There are many homeless and malnourished individuals in the United States, but the poverty thresholds are high enough to include many individuals who live with some modern comforts. Instead of being homeless, almost half (46%) own their own homes with most of the rest renting their homes. On average a poor person in this country lives in a home with 1,228 square feet (114.1 m2) which they often own, and as noted the home is likely air conditioned, with a refrigerator, cable or satellite TV, a microwave not to mention many other comforts.”

Being poor is not just about hunger and homelessness, although there are certainly people who are hungry and homeless. Being poor is also about not being able to keep up with your neighbors or your own expectations.

Inequality is an ever-present part of society. Churchill once said that the greatest vice of capitalism is an unequal sharing of blessing while the greatest virtue of socialism is an equal sharing of misery, and that of course if true. Using government to give everybody an equal chance to succeed is one thing. Using government to make everybody equal is something else entirely.

So, what would a common-sense agenda to fight poverty include?

Well, it would tell people to either stay in school or at least require people who are collecting government welfare benefits to find a way to go back to school and get a degree. It would include a demand that any who get welfare benefits to be drug free, since using drugs is the quickest way to go back into poverty. It would focus first on kids, because kids are the ones who are most likely to go hungry. It would strongly advocate marriage, since single parents are the most likely to be poor. It would make it easier for poor people, especially young people, to get their first jobs by getting rid of the minimum wage. It would include a financial education, so that poor people could gain greater understanding of how they get ripped off by using payday loans and credit cards and how by saving even a small portion of their wages could help them build wealth and equity. It would include a crime control component, because people can’t get ahead if they are worried about their personal safety. And it would include a greater understanding of the role of nutrition, because kids can’t learn if they can’t focus, and they can’t focus if they don’t have the right energy.

Republicans should talk about their plans to fight poverty, because their philosophy is a better one to get people out of poverty and into the middle class than the Democratic philosophy.

Democrats believe that the best way to fight poverty is pour more appropriations into government spending programs that give people an incentive to stay where they are, so they can get more handouts from the government at a later time. They like to bash the rich while they are at it, and focus on the unequal sharing of blessings.

Republicans usually don’t spend much time talking about poverty because they perceive that many of their voters aren’t primarily concerned about that. I think though that they need to address the growing economic uncertainty that is out there, the fear that many feel that they may slip into poverty. But statistics show that if you stay in school, stay off drugs, stay married, and stay focused, that you will do more than fine. You will be able to achieve the American dream.