Thursday, September 23, 2004

What happened to the American Dream?

Today I will address the topic of poverty and growing inequality in our nation by first taking you through the back door, to see one of its stepchildren. Many issues are the stepchildren of poverty: substandard/lack of housing, poor health care, inadequate education and destructive personal behaviors.

We have been taught since childhood that every American who believes in the American Dream will be a part of it, if you work hard and do the right thing. If you work hard, you should be able to earn a decent income and provide the basics for your family, so goes the American Dream.

The reality is something quite different. An astonishing 30 million American men and women--one in four workers--work in jobs that pay poverty wages, provide minimal or no benefits, and allow little flexibility and time for quality child care.

Workers on the edge – stuck in impoverishment. We need to change our views on what really is poverty in America. The poor will always be with us, but what about the promise that all you have to do is work your brains out and you will be rewarded? If you work hard, you will have basic self-sufficiency, but that promise has been broken. It is a myth for most Americans.

Now we have created a new class of workers, mostly white, female and heads of families who can no longer take care of families because they are stuck. The manufacturing jobs are no longer there and we are in a service oriented economy that is growing.

Americans didn’t worry about poverty because of the notion that hard work would be compensated and lead to upward mobility, but today the service sector doesn’t lead to so-called “good jobs.”

What should we do about the new face of poverty in this land of opportunity? Why haven’t we not done anything about those who need affordable healthcare and where is the fairness and sensitivity for folks who work hard in society?

It’s difficult to do anything about this problem, if you have the wrong picture of poverty in America. It is not simply the homeless or children with big eyes penetrating your soul and begging for food. A more focused analysis of poverty would reveal an important cause is low wages. Even high school graduates working full time may not be able to support a family. If the American Dream is to become a reality for all Americans, then there is a role for government in helping working families meet their basic needs.

America is a country that now sits atop the precarious latticework of myth. It is the myth that work provides rewards, that working people can support their families. It’s a myth that has become so divorced from reality that it might as well begin with the words “Once upon a time."

In America we console ourselves with the bootstrap myth, that anyone can rise, even those who work two jobs and still have to visit food pantries to feed their families. It is a beloved myth now more than ever, because the working poor have become ever more unsympathetic.

Friday marks the 40th anniversary when President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. It was a declaration by President Johnson at a time when most Americans were enjoying the middle class life having a car and a cute home in the suburbs felt prosperous and, in the face of the president’s call to action, magnanimous.

Back in the day, poverty seemed far away, in the shanties of the South or the worst pockets of urban blight. Today those very same families that once basked in the comfortable bosom of America may well feel impoverished, overwhelmed by credit-card debt, a second mortgage and the cost of the stuff that has become the backbone of American life. When the middle class feels poor, the poor have little chance for change, or even recognition.

While it's true Americans are carrying more debt than ever - about $9 trillion worth - most households are able to handle the load so far. On the other hand, rising interest rates and high oil prices cloud the horizon. Much depends on the economy's recovery.

What is clear is that high debts have made consumers less likely to serve as the engine that drives the economy and more vulnerable to an external shock. The most vulnerable are the poor.

But debt also can be overwhelming, especially for the poor. Of those households in the lowest income bracket, 27 percent have to devote $4 of every $10 in take-home pay to debt payments. In the general population, only 11 percent of households have to devote so much income to debt, according to an analysis by the Federal Reserve Board.

We are not attempting to be prophetic but today the compassion that some lack for the poor, tomorrow that same person who turned his back at the dire straits of the poor may be next in line for bankruptcy – Remember, personal bankruptcy filings hit a record 1.6 million in 2003, compared with 300,000 a year in the early 1980s.

President Johnson would likely be proud of the steps his country has taken in the last four decades to improve the lot of the poor. But it would be unwise to believe that a few steps in the right direction will obscure the reality of persistent American poverty.

Even though the working poor in this country avoid the misery of poverty as seen in developing third world countries, it nevertheless remains difficult to escape from the cycle of poverty. Incomes of less than $10,000 a year won't get the poor very far in the U.S. Many spend almost 100 percent of their income on rent alone."

Thus, if this country is serious about further reducing the differences between the working poor and the middle class, more structural projects, like solving the housing crisis in urban areas or encouraging education, would seem essential.

Now, what do you and I do about poverty? Unfortunately, with some notable exceptions, poverty receives incredibly scant attention in mainstream politics. The United States is no social democracy, and thus there is no presumption in favor of even indirect government assistance to the poor.

The Supreme Court has even held that, because the Constitution does not guarantee material subsistence, the poor are not entitled to heightened judicial protection. Yet since poor persons are less likely to vote-never mind contribute to campaigns-there is no guarantee that elected representatives will look out for them, either.

Of course, there is great disagreement about what causes poverty, who it affects most, and what policies work best to alleviate it. The point of this column is not to condemn, chastise or embarrass anyone, but we as individuals in our community need to raise our level of awareness regarding poverty issues and simply to get us all started thinking about what can be done, and how best to forge a consensus that does something to break the cycle of impoverishment.


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