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Terry H. Schwadron

June 6, 2018

The combination of constant statements from the White House about how magnificent the economy is performing and some recent readings prompt a thought: We’re forgetting about poverty in America.

The economic news of late has been great, really, but let’s be honest — the economy is rewarding most people who are doing okay. Plenty of folks are still struggling.

When President Trump trumpets dropping unemployment percentages and new wealth for the stock market, he is not also mentioning that gutting health care is creating problems, that education, housing and food costs are continuing to rise. And the White House certainly is not saying that the growing tariff-trade wars (Mexico was among the latest to announce new tariffs against U.S. goods in retaliation for U.S. taxes on Mexican imports) will create new pressures on U.S. consumer prices for lots of products.

A recent Washington Post column by Katrina vanden Heuvel,editor of The Nation, was a reminder that behind the good news lies rising numbers for poverty. She cited a few different recent reports that provide disturbing trends about a country that we want to believe is girding itself to jump forward in a new growth effort.

Her argument: The good jobs numbers and the beginnings of movement in stagnant hourly wages “should not blind us to the harsh reality facing most Americans. The United States is one of the richest nations in the world, yet many of its citizens live in misery.

A new Report of the Special Rapporteur on poverty and human rightsdone by Philip Alston for the United Nations Human Rights Council notes that about 40 million Americans live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty.

America has the highest youth poverty rate in the [industrialized world] and the highest infant mortality rates. . . Its citizens live shorter and sicker lives compared to those living in all other rich democracies . . . and it has the world’s highest incarceration rate, one of the lowest levels of voter registrations in among [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries and the highest obesity levels in the developed world. The United States has the highest rate of income inequality among Western countries,” said the report.

The report concludes that conditions have worsened in the last year with government spending cuts designed to remove protections for the poor like health care and food stamps.

Then there is the “Report on Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households” from the the Federal Reserve, that concludes that, four in 10 adults don’t have savings to cover an unexpected expense of $400. More than one in 5 are not able to pay their monthly expenses. More than one in 4 skipped necessary medical care because they could not afford the cost. A study by the United Way found that 43 out of 100 households cannot afford the basics to live. They aren’t earning enough to pay for the combined costs of housing, food, child care, health care, transportation and a cellphone.

At the same time, the Rev. William Barber II of North Carolina, has beefed up his efforts to build a new Poor People’s Campaign 50 years after the death of Rev. Martime Luther King Jr. that seeks an across-the-board attack on awareness and action by the federal government to recognize the problems and to address them. Reverend Barber was on PBS last week making his case, which is simply a startling and moral call to address an obvious social injustice. As he noted, among 26 political debates leading to the 2016 elections, there never was a section on poverty for the candidates to address.

Barber plans nonviolent direct action in 25 state capitols that have tightened Medicaid rules and in Washington. It seems just a hard juxtaposition that this week, we’re marking 50 years since the assassination of Robert Kennedy as well, with all the clips that showed a different kind of moral politics than we see today.

Vanden Heuvel argues, “The harsh reality is that America is a wealthy country with millions of struggling people. Compared with their peers in other industrialized nations, Americans live shorter, more stressful, less healthy lives while working longer hours with fewer vacations. Our stunning decline in life expectancy is largely because of diseases of despair — addiction, suicide and depression. Extreme inequality not only immiserates Americans, it corrupts and undermines our democracy. Overt and covert disenfranchisement has disproportionately hurt the impoverished and people of color.”

At best, the Trump administration’s approach is the well-worn attitude that a healthy, growth-oriented economy will lift all boats, a renewed trickle-down approach.

Trump himself salutes figures that show low unemployment rates among blacks, Hispanics and other minorities, but does not distinguish that most of these jobs are underpaid, temporary or less than full-time with benefits. In the meantime, the tax cuts, the addition of work requirements for Medicaid and food stamp recipients, the toughening of housing eligibility rules and the abandonment of consumer protections all are making the situation worse.

Fighting poverty is serious business, and it is more complex than “Make America Great” slogans. A country that addresses poverty truly would be great.


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