Poor People and the Mean Machine – published in the Concord Monitor 9/16/2012, posted 12/25/2012
I was never previously able to post this piece I wrote for the Concord Monitor. It appeared on September 16, 2012. Jon
The subject of poverty is not part of our national conversation in 2012. The presidential and vice-presidential candidates barely ever talk about it. Nor do the Senate or congressional candidates. That is remarkable, since poverty has increased significantly over the past 12 years.
When was the last time any major politician directly proposed to end or lessen poverty? We probably have to go back to President Lyndon Johnson. While President Obama’s stimulus did many positive things for poor people, he chose not to publicize that. It is almost as if poverty is taboo.
In New Hampshire, poor people are close to being an invisible constituency, even as they increase in number. I lived in Alaska for 15 months in 2010 and 2011, reading the Monitor online and watching from afar. I was astounded at the hostility directed against New Hampshire’s poor by our Legislature.
If there was a word I would use to describe our Legislature’s actions, it would be “mean-spirited.” The Legislature became a bludgeoning Mean Machine. Across the board, it savaged programs for the blind and disabled, youth, seniors, and the poor with an almost cavalier disregard for the damage inflicted.
There was no appreciation of the concept of the safety net. While the right-wing extremists in the Legislature appeared to care little, it must be pointed out that historically the safety net has been a bi-partisan, uniquely American achievement. It has taken 80 years to create the protections we have, although that was not appreciated by the legislative majority.
Surprising as it was to admit, later in 2011 when i returned east, Alaska, a politically conservative state, looked positively moderate next to New Hampshire. Our Legislature acted with the social vision of a Mississippi or Alabama.
How could the Legislature be so mean-spirited? I think part of the answer lies in a right-wing ideology that blames the poor for poverty and especially hates welfare. The stereotype that somewhere moochers, scammers, and lazy bums are getting something for nothing resonates with them and others. How else to explain the plethora of bills last session directed at limiting welfare or investigating it like it was a crime? Let’s see: There was the welfare time-limit bill, the no benefit increase if you have a baby on welfare bill, the drug-testing if you are on food stamps bill, the counting SSI if you are on welfare bill and the computer match welfare fraud bill. They set an agenda and I am not naming all of them.
The irony is that welfare in the form of cash-assistance programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families has drastically declined. Since the 1960’s, a much smaller percentage of poor families with children actually get these benefits. That is true in every state in the nation.
I do not think that debates about poverty have kept up with actual societal changes. Conservatives and liberals are stuck in old patterns of replaying the same unenlightening fights they have had for 20 years. Here are some points about how poverty is different now:
- The Great Recession has created many more poor people.
Many formerly middle-income people have dropped into the ranks of the poor. Due to layoffs and job outsourcing, millions more Americans find themselves jobless and in need. While New Hampshire’s poverty rate remains below the national rate, the stimulus in the form of extended unemployment benefits played a critical role in preventing more poverty. Of particular note, an increasing number of the poor are in extreme poverty, living below half the poverty level. I am talking about people earning less than $9,000 a year for a family of three. In 2010, more than 20 million Americans lived in extreme poverty. That figure is up 8 million over 10 years. For many of these people, their only benefit or help is typically food stamps. We remain in a state of denial about the existence of this population, with no public policy response.
- Good-paying, low-skill jobs have disappeared.
Job loss in the recession has been the most severe of any recession since World War II. Over the past 40 years, where jobs have been created, the big story is the increase in low-wage jobs. Instead of jobs that pay a living wage and provide benefits, half the jobs in America now pay less than $34,000 a year and almost a quarter pay below the poverty line for a family of four ($22,000 per year). The trend applies in New Hampshire as in other states. Earning that kind of money makes our era a period of limited upward mobility. Simple financial survival is more the agenda than getting ahead.
- The super-rich have become astronomically richer.
The other side of the poor getting poorer is the rich getting richer. We live in a second Gilded Age, with a new set of robber barons. Rich has a new meaning now. I do not think there is public awareness of how wealthy the 1 per cent are.
Between 1979 and 2007, the income of the top 1 per-cent went up 275%, while the income of the top 0.1 per-cent increased 390%. And those statistics do not include the past five years, where the trends I mention have accelerated. It is not class warfare to bring this up – it is simply factual.
- The social safety net has been weakened
By any objective measure, we have withdrawn support from the social programs that comprise the safety net. There is less help at a time with more human need. The best example I can think of is what the New Hampshire Legislature did to New Hampshire Legal Assistance. Without any justification, the Legislature inflicted a devastating blow against Legal Assistance, cutting critically needed funding by $1 million. The funding cut meant closure of legal aid offices in Nashua and Littleton as well as many layoffs. A program that had 53 employees in 2008 was downsized to under 30 in 2012. The result was thousands fewer vulnerable citizens getting legal services. In the interest of full disclosure, I want to note that I used to be a legal aid lawyer. I know better than most the meaning of these cuts: more hunger, more homelessness, more human misery for the poor.
Nationally, proposals to block grant Medicaid, voucherize Medicare, and further cut all poor people’s programs wait in the wings. The major program still reaching masses of people is food stamps. You really need a black sense of humor to appreciate what has happened to welfare. Public debate focuses on a phony issue about work requirements while the overriding salient fact is how few people get these benefits. Nobody talks about that.
When people last talked about poverty as a public policy issue back in the 60’s, it was in the context of “the war on poverty”. I think that is a bad metaphor. It is not like there have been epic battles where two sides fought it out with one side victorious. The war on poverty typically involves incremental gains or losses in individual lives. A hungry mother and child get food stamps so they can eat; a family gets help from a legal aid lawyer so they can avoid eviction; a laid-off worker wins her unemployment appeal. These are the type of small stories that comprise the so-called war on poverty.
President Ronald Reagan once famously said, “We fought a war on poverty and poverty won.” Reagan got it dead wrong. Contrary to the mythology that government did not help. efforts to tackle poverty have made an enormous difference.
I like the way Georgetown Law professor Peter Edelman responded to President Reagan’s line in his new book “So Rich, So Poor”. Edelman wrote:
“To suggest dismissively – as many conservatives do – that “we fought a war on poverty and poverty won” simply because there is still poverty is like saying the Clean Air and Clean Water Act failed because there is still pollution.”
Gains made by anti-poverty activists may be temporary and they do not guarantee a permanent result, but they are often a critical ingredient in averting potential disaster. Efforts to dismantle or gut the safety net deserve strict scrutiny, especially given the level of need out there. There is an extensive body of experience showing that the free market, left to its own devices, fails to address poverty.
A great country should have worthy, inspirational goals. Ending or lessening poverty would be a noble goal. We certainly have the wealth to accomplish it. I think it is bad for America that we do not talk about ending poverty. I think that idea should be put back on our collective agenda.