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Poverty in America: the Deepening Crisis

Bernie Sanders has put inequality at the center of the 2016 presidential elections.  However much the corporate media attempt to turn the election into a personality contest between Clinton and Trump, inequality will not go away as the defining domestic election issue.  Whoever are the two major party presidential candidates, they will have to address the deepening problem of inequality.

The Occupy insurgency of 2011 put inequality onto the American political agenda, redefining class struggle in terms everyone could understand – the 1% versus the rest of us.  Sadly, only one major political campaign has followed — the push for a $15 minimum wage – and it has been fought by grassroots campaigns at the local and state levels by labor unions, NGOs, community groups and ordinary workers.

The concept of inequality, of the 1% vs the 99%, is a powerful metaphor that makes clear the structure of wealth and power defining American life today.  Sadly, while framing the problem confronting the nation, the concept of inequality doesn’t delineate the forms of economic, political and moral tyranny impacting the lives of an increasing number of Americans.  To illuminate the deepening crisis the U.S. is undergoing as capitalism restructures its useful to reframe the notion of inequality in terms of poverty.

Often forgotten, a half-century ago Michael Harrington published The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962) that helped put poverty at the center of the national political agenda.  In his first State of the Union address following Pres. John Kennedy’s assassination, in January 1964, Pres. Lyndon Johnson called for an “unconditional war on poverty.”  He appointed Sargent Shriver, JFK’s brother-in-law and director of the Peace sinsexsubCorps, to lead the campaign.

Harrington called for a campaign to fight the systemic “culture of poverty,” the underlying racism and inequality, that institutionalized poverty.  Unfortunately, the Johnson administration adopted a more band-aid policy, targeting direct aid to those it identified as the most needy.  Nevertheless, over the following two decades, these efforts helped reduced by half the official level of poverty in America.  However, those days are long gone.

Poverty is a form of social powerlessness.  The poorer you are, the weaker you are, the harder your life; everything is about survival.  Poverty can be analyzed in two complementary ways – who and where.  By “who,” poverty refers to people based on their gender, race and age; by “where,” poverty refers to the location it is experienced, whether in cities, suburbs or rural areas as well as different parts of the country.  Both who and where are relative concepts reflecting the social structure of inequality.

* * *

Poverty is an endemic feature of American capitalism.  As tracked by the Census Bureau in a September 2015 study, “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2014,” the U.S. has witnessed 11 periods of “recession” over the last half-century, including: 1948-1949, 1953-1954, 1957-1958, 1960-1961, 1969-1979, 1973-1975, 1980, 1981-1982, 1990-1991, 2001 and 2007-2009.  One consequence of the capitalist boom-bust cycle is repeated upswings in the poverty rate.  According to researchers at the University of Michigan, the poverty rate hit 22 percent in the late-1950s, involving nearly 40 million Americans. The rate peaked in 1959, hiting 22.4 percent, the highest in the post-WW-II era.

The same year that Pres. Nixon took the U.S. off the gold standard, 1973, the poverty rate hit its lowest level over the last half-century – 11.1 percent, involving 23 million people.  Like a rollercoaster, the poverty rate increased to 15.2 percent in 1983, then fell to 11.3 percent in 2000, jumped to 15.1 percent in 2010 and has now flattened out at 14.8 percent.  In 1964, when Pres. Johnson called for a “war on poverty,” the rate was 19 percent.  Has the 15 percent poverty rate become the new normal?  Does this mean that a 0 percent poverty rate is no longer conceivable?

In 2014 median household income was 6.5 percent lower than in 2007, the year before the Great Recession hit.  In ‘14, the median household income was $53,657, unchanged from 2013; median household income peaked in 1999 at $57,843.  The U.S. economy has stagnated in the wake of the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and income for a majority of Americas (57.1%) was flat during the period of 2009-2012.

In ’14, the poverty threshold was $24,000 and between 2009 and 2012, more than one third of the population (34.5%) suffered, in the Census Bureau’s word, “at least one spell of poverty lasting at least 2 or more months.”

So, which Americans suffer poverty the most and where do they reside?  According to the Census Bureau, in 2014 Asian households had the highest median income of $74,297; non-Hispanic white households was $60,256; African-American household income was $35,398; and Hispanic household median income was $42,491.

In terms of geographic location, households in the Northeast had the highest median household at $59,210 and the West at the $57,688; those with the lowest were in the Midwest at $54,267 and the South at $49,655.  Households within metropolitan areas but outside principal cities had the highest median income at $61,600, while households outside metropolitan areas had the lowest income at $45,482.

Sadly, full-time workingwomen earn about four-fifths (79%) of wages earned by male workers and nearly one third (30.6%) of female-headed households were in poverty; male workers are earning 2.2 percent less in 2014 than in 2007.  Most disturbing, in 2014 the poverty rate for children under 18 was 21.1 percent, while the rate for those aged 18 to 64 was 13.5 percent and the rate for people aged 65 and older was 10.0 percent.

The Census Bureau notes as an aside, “The official poverty thresholds developed more than 50 years ago do not take into account rising standards of living or such things as childcare expenses, other work-related expenses, variations in medical costs across population groups, or geographic differences in the cost of living.”  If such factors were included, poverty in the U.S. would be far worse.

* * *

Capitalism is a system of plunder and those who suffer most are the poorest, the weakest, those least capable of defending themselves.  The few safeguards against domestic plunder that have emerged over the last century of reformism, be it government safety nets, union organizing or nonprofit programs, never fully protect those most vulnerable from the tyranny of wealth and power that determines American life.

The poor pay dearly for their poverty.  Most troubling, their lives are insecure, a constant struggle not simply to make ends meet but to live day-to-day.  Little can be taken for granted, whether a job, a home or one’s health.  Education is a luxury; obesity a common condition; drug use – and overdoses – a way to blunt the pain; suicide increasingly is a way out; and mortality rate for the poor are on the rise.

Poverty in America continues to be a hidden crisis, at once widespread, deepening and evermore painful.  In 1964, Pres. Johnson called for a “war on poverty” and now, a half-century later, one can only hope that Mrs. Clinton — if she wins in the November beauty contest — will champion a 21st century “war on poverty,” but one that addresses what Harrington identified as the systemic “culture of poverty,” the underlying racism and inequality that institutionalizes poverty.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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