Living in Poverty, When “Poverty” is a Place

In the last decade, concentrated poverty has gotten significantly worse. In some regions of the country, over a third of residents now live in what are called “poor neighborhoods.” A Slate writer took a look at the 2010 Census data:

In 2010, the overall U.S. poverty rate was about 15 percent. However, about a quarter of all Americans lived in a so-called “poverty area”—defined as a census tract where more than 20 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. … The problem was especially severe in Appalachia and across the South and Southwest, where in most states 30 percent or more of all residents lived in these communities. 

As recently as a decade ago, the situation was much less dire: in 2000, around 18% of the total US population lived in “poor neighborhoods.” Now over 25% of us do. 15% of all Americans — and an unconscionable 21.8% of all children – live in poverty (“In 2012, 73.7 million American children represented 23.7% of the total U.S. population, but made up a disquieting 34.6% of Americans in poverty and a full 35% of Americans living in deep poverty”). Increasingly it seems Poverty is an actual place where Americans live, packed together in isolation, forced to cope with fewer resources, fewer services, fewer jobs, more violence, and the kind of high walls that make Poverty difficult to escape. Metaphorically speaking.

An unrelated article by several economists in Slate suggests that, on a local level, at least, people are acting: towns, even or especially less affluent ones, are doing like Denmark

Poor People Are Pretty Much Screwed

This is not news, but in case you needed more ammunition to shoot down the rags-to-riches dreams of the naïve up-and-comers you meet between the dive bar and the OTB, there’s a 30-year, longitudinal study of 800 Baltimore children that proves, as Mother Jones happily summarizes, that “family determines almost everything, and that a child’s fate is essentially fixed by how well off her parents were when she was born.”

And (surprise!) the data reveal additional barriers to upward mobility for black children:

Alexander found that among men who drop out of high school, the employment differences between white and black men was truly staggering. At age 22, 89 percent of the white subjects who’d dropped of high school were working, compared with 40 percent of the black dropouts.

These differences came despite the fact that it was the better-off white men who reported the highest rates of drug abuse and binge drinking. White men from disadvantaged families came in second in that department. White men also had high rates of encounters with the criminal justice system. At age 28, 41 percent of the white men born into low-income families had criminal convictions, compared with 49 percent of the black men from similar backgrounds, an indication that it is indeed race, not a criminal record, that’s keeping a lot of black men out of the workforce.

Now, I realize that for those among us who, through poor planning, were born poor and/or black, there’s not much to do but keep on struggling and hope to beat the odds. But I do sometimes wonder how long the American Dream will continue to edge out Armed Insurrection Followed By Workers’ Paradise as our favorite unrealistic formula for working class salvation.

 

Photo by the author

The Culture of Poverty Rhetoric

At The Week, Matt Bruenig looks at debate between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait, who have been discussing black culture and poverty, and how easy and wrong it is to conflate the two:

Our discourse around poverty, and particularly the so-called “culture of poverty,” often proceeds as if most poor people are black and most black people are poor. Neither is true. In 2012, 46.5 million people fell below the official poverty line. Within that 46.5 million, there were 1.9 million Asians, 10.9 million blacks, 13.6 million Latinos, and 18.9 million whites. Although black people have the highest poverty rate at 27.2 percent (barely above the Latino poverty rate of 25.6 percent), black poverty accounts for less than one-fourth of U.S. poverty.

Thus, most of what is said about black culture and black poverty fails to address three-fourths of the overall problem. What causes black poverty rates to be so elevated is an important discussion to have, but it is a much narrower one than most people seem to think. If black poverty rates were as low as white poverty rates, that would amount to seven million fewer people in the ranks of the impoverished. To reiterate: There are 46.5 million people currently below the official poverty line. Seven million people is a lot of people, but it is not the totality of the American poverty problem, not even close.

Bruenig also looks further back in our history when pundits also blamed poor whites for their “culture of poverty.” In a book published in 1979 called Dixie’s Forgotten People, Wayne Flint argued that “poor whites lacked ambition; they were violent, sexually promiscuous people who did not respect human life.” Bruenig sums it up like this: “anywhere you find poor people, you also find non-poor people theorizing their cultural inferiority and dysfunction.”

Poverty in America

The New York Times's 22,000-word piece about Dasani, an 11-year-old who is part of an "invisible tribe of more than 22,000 homeless children in New York, the highest number since the Great Depression, in the most unequal metropolis in America" has been making the rounds on the internet, and yes, is most definitely worth reading.

14 Years Old and Trying to Survive in Three of Cincinnati’s Roughest Neighborhoods

Reporter Krista Ramsey and photographer Cara Owsley have a really terrific feature in the Cincinnati Enquirer looking at 14 different 14-year-olds living in three of Cincinnati's roughest neighborhoods. Nearly all of them have witnessed or experienced violence. Some have stolen to feed their families. And some, at 14, are holding on to the hope that the future will be a better place.

Is First-Hand Experience Necessary to Understand Poverty?

Over at The Atlantic, Stephen Lurie wonders whether Congress can sensibly legislate on poverty when its members are increasingly economically distant from the rest of us:

For the first time, more than half of the members of Congress are millionaires. Nearly 200 are multimillionaires. One hundred are worth more than $5 million; the top-10 deal in nine digits. The annual congressional salary alone—$174,000 a year—qualifies every member as the top 6 percent of earners. None of them are close to experiencing the poverty-reduction programs—affordable housing, food assistance, Medicaid—that they help control. Though some came from poverty, a recent analysis by Nicholas Carnes, in his book White Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policymaking, found that only 13 out of 783 members of Congress from 1999 to 2008 came from a “blue-collar” upbringing. None of them have experienced that poverty in decades; those who did did so under vastly different public-policy circumstances.

Is first-hand experience absolutely necessary for thorough understanding? On the one hand, I’m personally inclined to say no: I do a lot of thinking and writing about race and racism, and I’d like to think that I have some good ideas and insights, notwithstanding my whiteness. On the other hand, Lurie suggests that members of Congress who voluntarily undertake some experience of poverty, like living on a food stamp budget, tend to show greater understanding of issues surrounding poverty and hunger. That lines up with the idea that subconscious bias might be overcome by increased familiarity.

What do you think? Can a person fully understand the constant psychological strain of poverty without living it? Is living among the poor or undertaking aspects of poverty enough?

 

Photo: Jacob Riis

Correlating Poverty With Marriage Distracts From the Actual Problems Driving Poverty

Ari Fleischer wrote an editorial in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week suggesting that income inequality could be fought through marriage. The week before, Emily Badger had a piece in Atlantic Cities arguing precisely why this line of thinking is ill-conceived. Margaret Simms, a fellow at the Urban Institute and director of its Low-Income Working Families Project points out an obvious flaw: "You cannot solve poverty by just marrying people if – jointly – they cannot generate sufficient income to raise a family above poverty."

Harper’s Goes Long on the Fast Food Strikes

We've been covering the fast food/low-wages strike, and for today (or for your reading list this weekend) add Thomas Frank's Harper's story to your list, who visited North Carolina earlier this summer to report on the strikes.

“They Don’t Look Homeless”

The Atlantic has a punch-to-the-gut story today about a Minneapolis woman who has collected hundreds of oral histories from homeless people. Margaret Miles takes and shares pictures of the homeless as well, and the reactions she gets to them can be startling:

Miles says that the typical response she hears when viewers look at a portrait is, “They don’t look homeless.”

“We need to ask ourselves what that means,” she says. “Somebody said, ‘Gosh, that actually looks like the guy who drives my kids’ school bus.’ Well in fact it could be, and he could not be making enough money, or could have had a health crisis, or a divorce, or some other reason, and he’s driving your kids and loving your kids and caring for your kids during his day job, and then having to sleep at night in a shelter.”

One thing she learned as the project progressed was how having photographs of ourselves and our families is a privilege that many don’t have. “If I think of myself, I have hundreds of pictures of my child, starting with his birth,” she told me. But she found that in some cases, families with small children told her, “We don’t have any pictures of our babies yet.”

Homeless people: they’re just like us, except they often don’t have smartphones or cameras with which to take ten thousand daily FB pictures of their babies. Take a moment to look at the pictures and listen to a few of the oral histories yourself at the Atlantic.

RELATED: Logan’s interview series with homeless people in New York City.

How Much Do You Pay Someone To Risk Their Life For You on Mt. Everest?

Thirteen Sherpas, or professional specialized mountain guides, died this week in an avalanche on Mount Everest, while another three remain unaccounted for, and the rest of the Nepalese Sherpa community has decided to close out the season early:

The accident underscored the huge risks faced by Sherpas who maintain and prepare the icy slopes for climbers and trek the routes carrying equipment for their clients. In a season, Sherpas can earn from $3,000 to $6,000 (2,171 – 4,342 euros), which is about 10 times the average annual pay in Nepal.

On Tuesday, Nepal’s Tourism Ministry announced an agreement to establish a relief fund for guides killed or injured while climbing the mountain, one of the key concessions demanded by the Sherpas following last week’s disaster. Funding is thought to be well below that requested by the guides.

Minimum insurance cover for Sherpas on the mountain, the government said, would be raised by 50-percent to around $15,000.

The Rise of Poverty in Suburban America

This weekend, PBS Newshour looked at the growing rate of poverty in U.S. suburbs. According to the report by Megan Thompson, there are now more poor residents living in suburbs than in urban cities and rural areas, a shift that occurred in part as more people moved into the suburbs, and in part by the financial crisis. And while cities figure out how to address the needs of those living in suburban poverty, food pantries, and other charities have been stepping in to provide some help.

I Mean How Could You Not Click

My Name Is Jason, I’m A 35-Yr-Old White Male Combat Veteran…And I’m On Food Stamps.”