Poverty is Bad: Stop the Presses!

Is the problem of poverty, or at least covering poverty, coming back in style? Decades of not-so-benign neglect has allowed poverty to molder in America’s cultural basement, and the bad news on poverty in America has been unremitting for years now. The nation currently endures the highest rates of poverty since 1993 at 15.1 percent; child poverty is particularly bad at over 20 percent (those kids should get to work, as Newt might say) and within the nation’s African American community poverty has hit crisis levels, approaching percentages last seen in the late 1960s. Add in the near poor, folks who are technically above the poverty threshold but still just getting by, and the picture would be even more depressing (if more realistic).

Amid all that bad news, however, there is little talk in austerity-addled Washington about a renewed War on Poverty, though much has been said about income disparity and saving the nation’s middle class. That’s really all part of the same package, of course, and it seems that more people are beginning to make the connection. Faithful readers know they can always find dire warnings on poverty here at America and other “niche” social-justicey publishers, but, if I’m not crazy, it seems like the issue has become white hot in the mainstream press recently.


After a number of articles suggesting that members of Congress were so out of touch on the poverty problem because of their own growing wealth (much like their difficulty understanding the health care crisis while enjoying personally perhaps the best health plans in the nation), other recent pieces have blasted the myth of American social mobility which has long been deployed to wave off concerns over wealth (read, power) disparities. Now the Nation, which it must be said, certainly has covered the heck out of U.S. poverty, is beginning a blog series for 2012, “This week in poverty.”

Combatting poverty was a big issue in the 1960s--and it was covered like a big issue--when it was connected to the Civil Rights movement and at least endured as a talking point in the 1970s when deindustrialization ravaged the American working class. In the ’80s and ’90s, however, poverty became the fault of the poverty stricken, too lazy or drug- and alcohol-addled to take personal responsibility and pull themselves up by those mythological bootstraps, too uneducated to handle an oar when that rising water lifted all boats. Welfare reform and the boomtime beginning in the mid-90s knocked poverty off the front pages as the nation enjoyed record levels of job growth. Unemployment plummeted from more than 7 percent in 1993 to just 4.0 percent in November 2000,and unemployment for African Americans and Latinos fell to the lowest rates on record.

Those go-go days may have contributed to the hardening of a fluffy piece of conservative propaganda into a cornerstone of contemporary received wisdom. That government programs can’t “beat” poverty and it’s a waste of money to even try. But Johnson’s War on Poverty, it should be recalled, generated perhaps the greatest movement out of poverty in the nation’s history, lowering the level of national poverty from 22 percent in 1962 to just above 11 percent in 1973 when the program began to be unwound by President Nixon and succeeding administrations. The impact on the African American community was even more dramatic, reducing poverty from 55 percent in 1959 to 33 percent by 1970. And in our own time only the most ideologically blinkered will argue that the federal government’s various anti-poverty interventions since the great collapse of 2008 have not prevented millions from falling into a deep poverty from which they and their children may never have recovered.

It’s great that U.S. poverty is once again making it above the fold in U.S. print and digital media. Now let’s see if the coverage can shame enough people in power in both the public and private sectors to do more to respond to the nation’s poverty crisis. In 1986 President Reagan famously mocked the Great Society program, noting that the nation had declared war on poverty and “poverty won.” (That’s not exactly how it really went, the nation enjoyed in Reagan's time, as it does now, a “peace dividend” generated by the war on poverty. Though poverty has certainly grown in recent years, the U.S. has not returned to the levels seen in the oft-presumed golden era of the 1950s.) No offense to the great communicator--in a war on poverty, there will always be disagreements about the most effective means of mitigating poverty--but one thing is certain: defeat will always be a dependable outcome if U.S. policymakers surrender the field without firing a shot.

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J Cosgrove
7 years 2 months ago
A couple things.

Four to five years ago we were not talking about poverty so much when we were at close to full employment.  Obviously, that has changed due to the financial crisis but why?  If during the nearly full employment we had this stagnation of movement, then why were those working not able to move up?  If mobility was possible in earlier generations, then what was the key thing or multitude of things that changed?

Last week I commented on the fact that Ted Forstmann had spear headed a program for inner city children to go to private schools.  How have they done?  What are their educational achievements and is there any evidence that they may make it out of their economic level?  It might be worthwhile to track some of these kids who started 13 years ago and see how they are doing academically and the liklihood of moving up.  It might be a good data set to see the value of education vs. the pressures of their environment.  Similarly, the Jesuits and Christian Brothers have run inner city schools and is it possible to track their graduates?  These might provide some case histories of what is possible.

It may be possible to separate out the effects of nature and nurture and what parts of nurture make the most difference.  For example, what is the effect of being raised in a single parent household?  That has changed dramatically in the last 40 years and might be different from other countries. 
Amy Ho-Ohn
7 years 2 months ago
Nobody wants to talk about poverty because the solution is obvious: the exigencies of the poor can be alleviated if and only if the middle classes fork over more tax dollars. The middle classes are not willing to do so, so they come up with irrelevant nonsense like "They wouldn't be poor if their parents had been married." and "What is poverty? Who knows? The metrics are insufficiently precise. Maybe it doesn't exist." and "Poverty is really part of the bigger problem of inequality. Let's talk about inequality instead. (Specifically, let's talk about how to take away the rich people's money and put it in my pocket.)" and "A rising tide lifts all boats. The essential thing is economic growth. No new taxes!"

Improved education is a good long-term strategy. So is encouraging stable families. So is limiting health care expenses, one way or another. Taxing the rich is not an inherently bad idea (but it won't bring in enough money to fund everybody's else's wishlist.) And if the economy can't grow, we're all going to be a lot poorer.

But none of that is relevant to the real question. The real question is: how many stupid, pointless, unhealthy luxuries are you willing to do without so that poor people can have a humane standard of living right now? And, basically, most people's answer is "Uh, not a lot. I love my stupid, pointless, unhealthy luxuries."
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 2 months ago
I'm with Amy.  The answer/response to poverty is to not have (or hoard) more than you need.

Live simply, so that others may simply live.

Or, as Peter Maurin said:

The world would be better off
if people tried
to become better,

And people would
become better
if they stopped trying
to be better off.

For when everyone tries
to become better off
nobody is better off.

But when everyone tries
to become better
everyone is better off.

Everybody would be rich
if nobody tried
to become richer.

And nobody would be poor
if everybody tried
to be the poorest

And everybody would be
what he ought to be
if everybody tried to be
what he wants
the other fellow to be.

Why can't they preach that in the Churches?  Is it too radical?
J Cosgrove
7 years 2 months ago

''The real question is: how many stupid, pointless, unhealthy luxuries are you willing to do without so that poor people can have a humane standard of living right now? ''

In the spirit of debate, you might elaborate on how this will help the poor.  I am not defending the pursuit of luxuries, but do not understand how the forgoing of them eventually helps the poor.  I know that the money could then be donated to some charitable endeavors but giving people money, may not enable them to get out of poverty.  Do we have a track record of that working or is it unproductive in the long run.  For example, no one is recommending that we reduce demand to solve our problems and that seems to be just what you are advocating.  And if it not demand for luxuries, what is ok demand?

And before people attack me or the questions I am asking, please let's try to look at it from what is the best way to raise the poor from their circustances.  The tendency on this blog is to attack the person when they bring up concepts that are not in sync with their conventional wisdom. 
Gabriel Marcella
7 years 2 months ago
Francis Fukuyama, one of the most respected political scientists in the US today, asks the question in the current issue of Foreign Affairs of whether democracy can survive the decline of the middle class. He argues that globalization and technology are creating more poor people, thereby "eroding the middle-class social base on which liberal democracy rests." "Median incomes have been stagnating...in real terms since the 1970s." This, he argues, is a bad trend for the healtlh of democracy.

Moreover, he says, the intellectual left has been absent, bereft of new ideas: "Over the past two generations, the mainstream left has followed a social democratic program that centers on the state provision of a variety of services, such as pensions, health care, and education. That model is now exhausted: welfare states have become big, bureaucratic, and inflexicble; they are often captured by the very organizations that administer them, through public-sector unions; and most important, they are fiscally unsustainable given the aging of populations virtually everywhere in the developed world."

His remedy: a new ideology that  would "reassert the supremacy of democratic politics over economics" and that "would value global trade and investment to the extent that they contributed to a flourishing middle class, not just to greater aggregate national wealth." 

In other words, income redistribution schemes won't be enough.
ed gleason
7 years 2 months ago
A start on the un- equality issue would be for the 1% like Romney to pay income tax equal to what the other wage earner pay, at the rate of 35% of income. He said he was un-employed remeber? The 1%, like Romney whose income on capital gains, dividends and carried interest is taxed 15%. Their children do not enlist to defend the democracy they boast of. These 1% are NOT wage earners, so they pay no SS, NO Medicare, No unemployment, disability taxes. They live their daily expenses on expense accounts and pay the meager 15% income tax on income that they can't hide. And they are called 'job creators'???? And the GOP candidates want dividends and capital gains to go to zero if elected.. They are against a transaction tax on their gambling on stocks, bonds and currency tradings because they say their positions, sometimes held for micro seconds, are job creators. And there are  dopes who believe this stuff ... 9-9-9-... 'let them eat cake.'
J Cosgrove
7 years 2 months ago
''And there are  dopes who believe this stuff''

You do know what you are saying is nonsense.  I have no idea how Romney makes his money these days or how certain others make theirs but in general the rich are making most of their money on salaries or business income and that is why the top 1% paid 36% of all the income taxes in 2009.   That is down from the 40% they paid in 2007 as they saw their incomes reduced 14% over those two years due to the financial crisis.  One of the main reasons that tax revenues are down the last couple years, is because the 1% are making less money.

And a decrease in the capital gains tax is what provide the additional tax revenue that balanced the budgets in the late 90's (reached $121 billion collected in 2000).   And when they were lowered again in 2003 it brought in additional tax revenue.  Thus, these guys who were avoiding taxes were somehow paying more taxes.  Doesn't quite match the scenario a lot of people want to convey.  So I would try to get some facts straight before hurdling ad hominems at others.
Jim McCrea
7 years 2 months ago
Amy - why are you singling out the middle classes?  What about corporations that, with the benefit of strategic political contributions over the past many years, now have enough loopholes in the tax codes so that a large number of them do not pay any federal income taxes at all - and some even get refunds?  What about those investment bankers who are blessed with the ruse of not earning income so that they pay only l/t cap gains rates of 15% on the millions that they earn?

How about eliminating the tax deductibility of mortgage interest (particularly on non-primarly residence properties) and charitable contributions?  Canada and the UK don't allow mortgage interest deductions and people still manage to buy and pay for homes in those locations.  If charitable contributions are truly charity they will continue irrespective of tax deductibility.

If corporations start to pay reasonable taxes, their profits will suffer and the dividends that the middle classes rely on in their 401ks, pensions, and IRA investments will be lower.  They'll be taxed enough to keep the "don't tax the rich" crowd quite happy.

Amy Ho-Ohn
7 years 2 months ago
Hi JR (and David),

I guess the point I was making is, the only solution to poverty is to raise taxes on the middle classes. That means, inevitably, middle-class people will have to live less comfortably.

IMHO, the Atlantic's Clive Crook is pretty convicing on this point here:


"Raising people out of poverty" is important but secondary in my opinion. First, let's make poverty less dehumanizing and less miserable. Then we can think about how to end it.
Anne Chapman
7 years 2 months ago
Amy is right that if people look to taxes for income redistribution, the middle class will have to pay more.  Those who envy the social safety nets in countries like the Scandanavian nations overlook the reality that the tax rate on the middle class is significantly higher than in the U.S.  I doubt many who want to tax the rich are willing to tax themselves also.  I read recently in the Washington Post (don't have time to find the URL), that if the entire wealth - ALL assets - of the ''1%'' were confiscated 100%, it would barely cover one year of the deficit. That is not the answer. The ''simple'' solutions seldom are real answers, seemly a way to vent frustration. The issues and challenges are extremely complex and there are no quick and easy solutions.

Another question - do we in the rich and developed nations have any obligation to share the wealth - not foreign aid - but industry, manufacturing etc.? Globalization has become a dirty word, but in the last 30 years, millions of people in the world's poorer nations have gained education and job opportunities they once lacked, the middle class has grown dramatically throughout Latin America, in most Asian countries, and even somewhat in Africa.  Although much progress has been made in reducing world poverty, the World Bank still estimates that 1.4 billion people in the world still try to survive on the equivalent of $1.25/day. 

Where do our ''rights'' end and other' rights begin? The mobility of capital and labor have led to many gains when looked at globally. It is better for us to help countries become economically independent than to keep them dependent on foreign aid and on private charity. But it's also true that transitions can be very difficult, such as for those who lose a job to someone in India or China.  How best to address that?  Retraining is the most obvious answer, and even perhaps relocation support from areas and industries in severe decline in this country to areas showing new growth. Detroit has lost a lot of automobile jobs, but South Carolina has gained a lot.  In Europe, auto industry jobs lost in Germany have gone to those who were poorer and without jobs in eastern European nations. This too is a form of redistribution of wealth from ''the rich'' to the ''poor'' - one that follows long-standing economic principles.  How best to handle the dislocations is a different issue, and one that is important, but it shouldn't be done at the cost of throwing those in the growing middle classes in the third world back into extreme poverty by removing the industries and jobs that are helping them to succeed.

Regarding education and America's poor - JR Cosgrove, and others, may find this recent series of stories in the Washington Post of interest.

J Cosgrove
7 years 2 months ago

The article by Crook was well written and thought out.  Thanks for providing the link.  It sounds like he is proposing a VAT tax.  Hermain Cain was just hammered from many on the left and the conservatives/libertarians for this in his 9/9/9 approach.  Of course the left was after him for a low income tax and low business tax while the libertarians and a lot of conservatives were after him for the VAT tax which they say is just a foot in the door.

And I agree with Crook that a lot of Wall Street is very dysfunctional.  I am a fan of Satyajit Das


and Kevin Williamson's article from last week was devestating on the negative influence of Wall Street. 


And by the way the person that financed the football stadium at Stanford and which you made a negative comment about, made his money in finance but did not work in NYC or Wall Street but in Los Angeles and is using his money for a lot good things besides the football stadium.  This is somethng few fail to realize that one can work anywhere including outside the US and work in finance so punishing the people on Wall Street will just drive them elsewhere.

Also the stadium employed a lot of people at good salaries during its construction.  The money was transferred from a rich guy to a bunch of construction people, architects and their management.  It was a form of a voluntary redistribution but in the process left behind a state of the art facility.  It may not be the redistribution that some politicians consider to the right people.  Now the trick is to get all this money the rich have and leave behind state of the art facilities like the Rockefeller estate where I and thousands others often walk.  It is a great day here in New York and the Pocantico Hills are a beautiful place to enjoy it.

Relevant to the OP

Several people have commented in articles such as Clive Crook's essay and on blogs about the problems we now face as a large percentage of the population can only make their livlihood by the use of their bodies or physical efforts and these types of jobs are disappearing.  Our technology has obviated much of this as agriculture, manufacturing and construction are now highly mechanized.  The question is can we find use for these people in the new service and information fields which are starting to dominate our economies.  We made the transition from agriculture to manufacturing and construction with some obvious but temporary problems but can we do the same thing with this move to service and information.  In the past a lot of the poor could find work in these disappearing fields and some are now in service jobs such as long term care.  But they tend to be woman which is why they have been hit less hard during these economic times.
J Cosgrove
7 years 2 months ago

Thanks for the link.  It should go with what Ted Forstmann accomplished while he was alive.  And for an amusing link to what taking all the money from the rich would do, here is a video from last year that I posted on another OP.


Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 2 months ago
 "I doubt many who want to tax the rich are willing to tax themselves also. "

I have a good friend who is a zillionaire.  Seriously, his net worth is more than 200 million dollars.  The other day he asked me if I knew how much the Government had given him - a "handout", he called it - the previous year.  I guessed that his Social Security Check was about $2000 a month so I said, oh about $30,000.  He said more than $100,000, between his medicare claims and social security. 

He was actually, aghast.  Here I am, he says, a rich man, trying to do what I can to redistribute my wealth to make us a better country, and the country gives it back to me. 

He also bemoans that he made much more money after he retired -  making money from money - than he ever made working.  Once you get into a certain category, he tells me, the system is rigged so that you make money without even trying. 
Amy Ho-Ohn
7 years 2 months ago
I think we should note that the morality of the issue is not as clearcut as many would like to suggest. On the one hand, if assistance to the poor is purely voluntary, a lot of people will be left without help. On the other hand, taxing other people, even equitably, is not the same as being generous with one's own wealth. I think a good case can be made that it is not morally licit to force somebody else to do something, even if one is certain that he ought to want to do it. Persuasion is OK. Coercion is not OK.

The inelectable truth is that persuasion will not always be enough. Humans are pack animals and pack animals have an instinct to help only those whom they perceive to be in the same pack; i.e., those who are similar to themselves genetically and ancestrally. In Europe, they divide themselves into tiny little principalities and this makes them more willing to share resources with their pack. The US is a very large pack and a lot of us don't see any self-interest in sharing our prey with every member. On the up side, we're less inclined to wage interpack warfare.

Mitt Romney is older than many people who consider themselves retired. If he wants to live on the interest from what he earned through honest and diligent work, he should not be critized for it.

Finally, while I must confess to considering football completely idiotic, I concede the economic value of stadium-building. In the off-season, football stadia make nice dog parks.
Jim McCrea
7 years 2 months ago
"If he (Romney)wants to live on the interest from what he earned through honest and diligent work, he should not be critized for it."

You do jest, of course!  Bain Capital treatment of business and Mitt's ongoing income stream from their business results long after he has left are "income earned through honest and diligent work?"

Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 2 months ago
Here's another radical response to the poor - the idea that they are portals to God.  From the blog of film-maker, Gerry Straub  http://gerrystraub.wordpress.com/2012/01/10/portals-to-god/:

"Destitution grinds people down. Sadly, we tend to think of the homeless as social nuisances. Jesus had a different point of view and suggested that the poor are portals to God. According to Christ, the poor are a profound, redeeming revelation of God’s presence and grace. But our culture tends to separate us from the poor who live out of sight in hidden pockets of despair and want. We are blinded to the needs of the poor by our own desire for property, comfort and acquiring more material goods for ourselves. At its root, there is only one reason for the existence of poverty: selfishness, which is a manifestation of a lack of authentic love.

"Peter Maurin, co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker, said: “On the Cross of Calvary Christ gave His life to redeem the world. The life of Christ was a life of sacrifice. We cannot imitate the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary by trying to get all we can. We can only imitate the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary by trying to give all we can. What we give to the poor for Christ’s sake is what we carry with us when we die.”"


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