As growing income inequality continues to divide the nation into the have’s and have not’s, more and more families are finding themselves having not. For too many, the tight rope of financial stability has frayed and as we are realizing, more is dangling in the balance than dollars and cents. America’s future is on the line.
With many struggling to survive without basic necessities, like quality education, meaningful employment, affordable housing, nutritious food, or accessible healthcare, poverty is the contemporary atrocity that challenges our most fundamental American values; that everyone is created equal and endowed with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.*
Today, liberties are constrained by access to resources, the plight of the poor is hardly a pursuit of happiness, and for many, their very lives are at risk. Just look at this graph that illustrates the association between income and life expectancy. I guess rapper 50 Cent had it right. In America, if you don’t get rich, you will certainly die sooner, trying or not.
The implication here is that poverty not only threatens the health and well-being of a growing population of Americans, but its persistence also threatens the foundation of our democracy. So, at a certain level, understanding the impact of poverty is central to understanding what it means to be an American today.
So let’s talk about it. What do you know about poverty?
Take this 10 question quiz from Marketplace public radio and see how you stack up!
How’d you do? Post your score or thoughts on this exercise in the comments below!
Now that you’ve seen the facts and figures, let’s look at what those numbers mean.
To understand the impact of poverty, we have to engage the context and ask the right questions. For example, take the statistic that says, “of all working age people living in poverty, about half (7.2%) had full or part-time employment in 2010.” I took this fact directly from our handy quiz link above. You can translate that figure into a number of questions. One question might be, “Why don’t poor people work harder to lift themselves out of poverty?” Or if you are Paul Ryan** you might ask, “Why don’t poor people value work?” These questions create value-laden assumptions about individuals and communities and ignore the local systems that contribute to poverty.
Better questions might be, “What is the relationship between employment and poverty in the United States?” “If half of the poor are already working, what role do for-profit corporations play in the perpetuation of poverty?” “Should conditions of employment include provisions for basic needs, like a minimum wage that approximates local housing costs or health insurance coverage for part-time employees?” “How does race, gender, or educational status influence opportunities for upward mobility?” These questions interrogate the economic, political, and social systems that disseminate resources, structure local opportunities, and define the face of poverty in the US. Asking questions in this way allows us to formulate an actionable agenda to address poverty.
It is time to transform the national conversation around a topic that is literally redefining what it means to be an American. Today, the long reach of poverty extends throughout every state and city in this country, influencing lives from cradle to grave, and intimately shaping the ways we live, work, and play. If all meaningful action starts with knowledge, what’s your poverty IQ?
* Here, I should clarify that the Declaration of Independence specifically declared “all men” created equal. This of course purposefully excludes women and people of color. Slaves were not considered people until 11 years later, when it was decided they would be 3/5 of a person. This was known as the three-fifths compromise.
** Paul Ryan was quoted on the Bill Bennett Morning Show in March 2014 indicting “a culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” Here, he conflated institutional failures with cultural pathology. Given his influence over the federal budget, it is concerning to hear him voice this deep misunderstanding of the forces of poverty in the US. Charles Blow, an op-ed columnist at The New York Times addressed this point here. For a bit of a longer read on the nuances between culture and poverty, check out this beautifully written piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an op-ed columnist from The Atlantic.