A special POVERTY AWARENESS MONTH series
The Great Recession of 2008 technically ended in the U.S. in 2009, but you wouldn’t know that five years later if you’re at the bottom of the economy. Upwards of 45 million Americans – 40.5% of the population – still lives below the government poverty line, and that’s a very, very low line: $11,000 for an individual, $23,00 for a family of four.
There are 15 million kids in this country – nearly one in four kids – who live below the poverty line. There’s no other first-world country with child poverty this scandalously high. If you happen to be an African-American child in New Orleans or Detroit you have a 2 out of 3 chance of living in poverty. If you’re an able-bodied adult from the South and you’re poor, you have been excluded from access to health care by your own state government.
Nearly 1 in 4 children in Allegheny County lives in poverty. Nearly 1 in 4 people of all ages in the city of Pittsburgh lives in poverty, and all over the country one sees this data – this extraordinary upwelling of poverty in the richest country in earth at any moment in human history.
Why? In part because the mechanisms out of poverty have clogged up. The Horatio Alger myth has always been a central part of our self-identity: if you pull yourselves up by your bootstraps… you will levitate. It doesn’t make physical sense, but somehow, mysteriously, if you pull those bootstraps you will rise off the ground and up the economic ladder.
To a degree that used to be the case, at least for some parts of our demographics. But increasingly now it is not. In measure after measure after measure the United States in the early 21st Century is less socially mobile than all the other countries we compare ourselves to – all the other first-world industrial democracies. We’re less socially mobile than Canada. We’re less socially mobile than almost every country in Europe. We’re less socially mobile than Japan. We’re less socially mobile than Australia, and so on.
What does that mean? It means if you are born into poverty in 21st Century America, you are far more likely to remain in poverty and ultimately to die in poverty than somebody born into poverty in any other of those countries that we compare ourselves to.
All of this has absolutely huge political, moral, and ethical implications.
The fall before the crash
Several years ago, before the economic crash of 2008, in the early part of the 21st Century, I began going around the country talking to people. Bear in mind, at the time all the macroeconomic indicators were good: we recovered from the dot-com bubble bursting, we’d recovered from the post-9/11 recession. By 2002 and 2003, the stock market is going up, unemployment’s pretty low, the GDP is growing at a nice rate, and housing prices are through the roof. By all of these measures, the country was flourishing.
So I went to Siskiyou County in Northern California, and I spoke to an old lady who ran a food pantry and asked her, “Why are you running this pantry?” And she said “Because for my neighbors, the month is longer than the paycheck.”
When I asked her what she meant, she said “Well, look – I have neighbors who work, they work full-time, but they’re getting $7-$8 dollars an hour. Two weeks into the month they run out of money. Three weeks into the month they run out of food. By the end of the month, their fridges are empty and their pantry shelves are empty and they’ve got nothing to eat. If I don’t run the food pantry,” she said, “my neighbors go hungry.”
I went to Longview, a union town in Washington where the central employer was an aluminum foundry. I talked to a whole group of men – they were all men – in their 50s. They had worked for decades at the aluminum foundry and they’d been promised a union-negotiated pension and health benefits.
But then a venture capitalist came in and bought the company, and stripped everything that could be stripped and sold it – all the parts were sold for profit – and then declared bankruptcy, voiding the pension obligations. I met these men who had worked for 30 years at the foundry and they were now on charity lines for free food and for free medical care.
And this was all happening before 2008. If you fast forward to 2008, everything is magnified. All the vulnerabilities that had been building up for decades at the bottom of the economy intensify.
People who though they had jobs no longer had jobs. People who thought they had stable housing, the housing market collapsed around them. People who thought they had some measure of economic security ended up running through their savings accounts and cashing out their retirement accounts.
In some parts of the country, entire communities were absolutely devastated, and assets painstakingly built up dollar by dollar over the decades were wiped out literally overnight.
A special POVERTY AWARENESS MONTH series