Myths and Lies About Poverty in America

“The poor will always be with us,” say the cynics.

No doubt, some will always be wealthier than others. We wouldn’t want to live in a society that forced all to be equal. But poverty isn’t inevitable. The 30 million people in America who lived in poverty even before the pandemic when unemployment was at record lows needn’t exist in that state.

Too many myths and lies cloud our understanding of the poor. Most poor people are not black. More are white than black, female than male, young than old. More have a high school education. Some graduate.

Poverty in America used to be far worse; about a third of Americans lived in poverty in the 1950s. Poverty was reduced, dramatically, by Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. The war on poverty was defeated not by poverty, but by the war in Vietnam, which sapped resources, attention and will.

Most poor people work when they can. They take the early bus. They do the hardest jobs for the least amount of money. They bear the most amount of stress. They care for the children of others. They tend to the sick. They serve food in restaurants. They sweep the streets. They clean bedpans beneath hospital beds that they cannot lie in when they get sick. Many are essential workers who are at greater risk in the pandemic.

When the pandemic forced the economy to shut down, millions lost their jobs — and their health care at work, if they had any. Over 30 million still draw unemployment, with over a million new applicants each week as companies continue to lay off workers. Many more children are hungry.

Public policy — the “stimulus checks,” the enhanced unemployment insurance, the expansion of food stamps (SNAP), the partial moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, the aid to businesses if they kept their employees on payroll — saved millions from poverty.

Now those benefits have expired, but the unemployment remains high. Many companies are declaring bankruptcy. Many are slashing payrolls with permanent, not temporary layoffs.

Again, public policy could help. The House passed another rescue package — the HEROES ACT — that would provide another round of stimulus checks, sustain enhanced unemployment benefits, continue the expanded food stamps, extend the payroll protection subsidies and provide aid to states and localities to avoid the layoffs of millions of public employees.

The Republican Senate refused to act — and refused to compromise. Senate leader Mitch McConnell put together a $1 trillion alternative but didn’t even try to get his members to support it. Twenty Republican senators opposed doing anything.

The nonpartisan Urban Institute noted that a second round of stimulus checks alone would keep 8.3 million people out of poverty from August to December. The extension of enhanced unemployment benefits would keep 3.6 million out of poverty. The continuation of food stamp expansions would keep about 1.7 million out. If all three were enacted, 12.2 million people would be kept out of poverty for the rest of the year.

Mitch McConnell refused to act. Donald Trump, the great “deal maker,” refused even to get involved. After the benefits expired, McConnell finally decided to pass a bill out of the Senate, but his Republican colleagues would support only about $300 billion in new money for a bill that did not include the stimulus checks, did not include the SNAP benefits and limited unemployment assistance to $300 a week, half of what it was in the first rescue package. They voted to put millions of Americans into poverty.

Public policy matters. We could eliminate poverty in this country with sensible policy. Raise the minimum wage to a living wage; empower workers to organize and negotiate a fair share of the profits they help to produce. Guarantee affordable health care for all. Provide affordable housing for all. Provide high-quality pre-K and quality education for all. Add a jobs guarantee, so that instead of forcing workers onto unemployment when the economy slows or their company goes belly up, they can move to a public job doing work that is necessary — from retrofitting buildings for solar heating to caring for our public parks to providing care for the elderly and more.

Let’s not fool ourselves. America has millions of people in poverty because Americans choose not to demand the policies that would lift them out of poverty. Because corporate CEOs choose profits and bonuses over fair pay for their workers. Because small-minded legislators are more responsive to those who pay for their party than those who are in need.

This isn’t complicated. The recent decision to block action on a second rescue package is a decision to increase the number of Americans in poverty, the number of children who go hungry. The Bible teaches we will be judged by how we treat the “least of these.” We should shudder at that judgment.

Jesse Jackson is the founder of Rainbow/PUSH.