If poverty means the inability to obtain a decent level of food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and independence, there has always been poverty in America. There need not continue to be.
Anything can be changed, regardless of whether such a change or anything like it has occurred before. There was a time when we could say that there had always been slavery in (at least post-Columbian) America, that there had always been legal racial segregation in America, that a woman’s right to self-determination had never been accepted in America, that homosexuality had never been accepted in America – that in fact acceptance was not a reasonable response to a disease.
Poverty in America is also thought of as a disease. A disease and a battle ground. We’ve had wars on cancer and a war on drugs. We’ve also had a war on poverty. But these are the wrong metaphors if we actually want to end poverty. They lead to treating those living in poverty as enemies. We develop policies to punish the poor rather than helping them, and this of course leads to more poverty, not less.
Many Americans like to believe that whoever is poor is to blame for being poor. It is common to cite the example of some few remarkable people who have grown up in poverty and gotten rich as proof that anyone could do the same if they wanted to. But this makes no sense. Not all people are the same. Many who have done well financially coming out of a privileged background could not have done the same coming out of poverty; a few could have. And if anyone can escape poverty who wants to, why in the world do so many not want to? Can any of them be gotten to admit to this alleged preference?
Many Americans like to deny that poverty exists in America. They imagine that the poor in America are the people who have to make do with a car that’s a few years old because they can’t afford the latest model, whereas the poor in other countries are actually in trouble. And yet, we all know this isn’t true. Our cities are full of homeless people, some of them begging on the street corners, some of them serving us fries in McDonald’s, all of them suffering from inadequate nutrition, medicine, shelter, and educational opportunities.
Many Americans like to think of the poor as lazy. And yet many of the poor work much harder than many of the rich. When you can only earn $5.15 per hour and work 60 hours at three jobs, relying on unreliable public transportation to maneuver between jobs, and you have children to somehow try to care for, you do not have time to be lazy. Neither, however, do you have opportunities for training or education that might allow you to earn more per hour.
The federal minimum wage is $5.15 per hour. This is 30 percent less than it was 30 years ago, and its value decreases every year. At least 10 percent of the workforce would benefit by boosting it by only $1.50. Raising it to the level that would allow a fulltime worker to support a family of four only at the absurdly low official federal poverty line would directly benefit enough voters to make the difference in most of the presidential or congressional elections that have ever occurred. Raising it to an actual living wage would transform this country beyond recognition.
Many fulltime workers have to ask the government for handouts in order to survive. Some of these workers actually work for the government. In fact, some are employed distributing the ever-diminishing quantity of government handouts.
Housing costs have skyrocketed, and an increasing number of working poor are homeless. Utility costs have shot up, and an increasing number of the working poor lack heat or electricity. Sprawl has further sprawled, and more and more people cannot find the transportation needed to obtain better jobs. Childcare is so expensive that many parents save money by not working. Overwhelmingly it is the poor who are charged with crimes, including drug crimes, despite the fact that the rich use just as many drugs — and increasingly these people are locked away in prison and erased from official unemployment figures. The strange thing is that we are spending more on these prisons than it would take to eliminate poverty.
We give poor neighborhoods worse schools, rather than better ones. We charge poor people more for loans, not less. Supermarkets mark up the prices of food in poor neighborhoods, rather than marking them down. Car insurance costs more in poor neighborhoods, not less, and paying for it by the month costs more than paying by the year. Preventive medicine would be cheaper, if people could afford it, than dealing with emergencies when they hit. It’s expensive being poor.
We need to recognize this situation and refuse to any longer tolerate it. We can begin by raising the federal minimum wage in steps until it arrives at the level of a living wage. At that point, it should be set to automatically increase with the cost of living.
With that first and most important step accomplished, we can go on to provide equal and increased funding to every public, and only public, schools. We can then save public money and maybe even this abused planet by ceasing to build highways, charging tolls for their use, and investing the money in free public transportation.
Next, we will need to regulate the lending and insurance industries so that they stop ripping off the poor.
And we should create universal public health care, and universal public child care.
Then, with poverty gone, it will be easier to answer the next absurd assertion that something can’t be done because it’s never been done before.