Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Issue 1 - Poverty - Being Swept Under the Economic Rug

The first of five issue areas I will cover, in no particular order of priority, is poverty.

You’re probably going to start things when you read this: Joe Bonilla is going to use a bunch of clichés, blah… and so on. But the fact of the matter remains: poverty is a major problem in this country and in the world.

How does poverty begin? Does it begin from ignorance, laziness, or doing all you can and still not getting by? There are several methods of how poverty begins, but what’s important to realize is that no matter who you are, what you believe, how you walk, where you live – poverty can strike you.

And how do you define impoverished areas? Do you describe rural America, through towns in the Mississippi delta where you have some of the least educated, least earning Americans or through such formerly prosperous cities such as Detroit or Buffalo, where industry has come and gone and what’s left is what made industry – the people.

The U.S. government defines the poverty line, as of 2007, to be $10,787 if you’re single and under 65. And for a family of four (including two kids) – it’s a whopping $21,027. Think about those figures, especially if you’re around my age. A number of us, since we’re in school, make $10 grand or less – but are we considered to be impoverished? A family of four, however, is an entirely different case. These figures, especially national figures, do not display what regional income levels nor do they express the focused needs of each family per census-designated location.

On top of that, inequality of income has reached epidemic levels. You have the top 1 percent of the country holding 20 percent of the wealth, whereas the bottom 20 percent of the income bracket makes up a little less than 3.5 percent. In New York State alone, 13.7% of residents live below the poverty line as well as, according to information provided by Catholic Charities USA through their campaign to cut poverty, over 800,000 residents utilized services by the organization in some way shape of form. Out of nearly 19 million New Yorkers, 1/19th of us had to use the services of Catholic Charities to provide some sort of service that could not be provided by typical means.

The poverty line is an instrument of years past. Elected (and unelected) officials use it as a measure of progress that they use for either campaign points or a strategy – the decline of poverty has many parents, but an increase of poverty is an orphan.

For instance, the events of Hurricane Katrina to the Gulf Coast exploded into the mental realm how grossly government had thrown poverty under the rug. In a speech given in New Orleans some 17 days after Katrina hit, President Bush stated, “All of us saw on television, there's . . . some deep, persistent poverty in this region. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action."

Read again those first six words – “all of us saw on television.” And there lies part of the problem, is that “leaders” (yes, I use this term in quotes to represent those individuals who claim to lead but just say things people are suppose to blindly believe) have no grasp upon the issue of poverty. A few do, only because they lived. Fewer, however, remember their impoverished time and actually try to do something about it. Yale political science professor Jacob Hacker estimated that 58.5% of Americans (25 to 75) will spend at least one year in poverty. Going back to the second paragraph, where I stated does poverty perhaps begin at ignorance – in some ways, yes it does. The ignorance of those who could do something about it, but choose not to.

Poverty’s one of those words that conjures a number of images – homelessness, the ghetto, steel mill towns, Sally Struthers and the guy from Catholic Charities. All of those images convalesce into a broader image – where people are not thriving but just surviving. Nobody said life would be easy, but they certainly didn’t want this either.

So how do we fix this national crisis?

There is no right or wrong answer on this one, but it’s an analysis of what would be cost-beneficial to the individuals and organizations that have the ways and means to fix these problems. Some will be downright opposed to such action, mainly on the libertarian front. Some will be emphatic over the situation, say a few words with “backbone”, and go about their day as if it was something that was on TV.

Another argument could be that poverty is part of a deeper, more troubling problem – social and civic inaction. The action of doing nothing, both by the government and by individuals – happens too much. Not my problem, they say. Doesn’t affect me, others say. Here’s the catch – it does, and it affects what you may hold dear to you… your wallet. Only when it’s based upon government reaction does anything get done, but that’s with any pressing issue.

Poverty-reduction activities conducted by all forms of government, whether it’s municipal, state, or federal, costs big money. Unless you’re a fervent supporter of deficit spending in all cases, this big money comes out of the pockets of the taxpayers. In addition to government, non-profits and religious groups engage in these activities as well. I’m probably one of the biggest supporters of a complete separation of church and state, but when it comes to fighting a common ideological enemy such as poverty – I guess it’s somewhat okay.

A group called the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank based out of D.C., proposed 12 steps to cut poverty in half ( Their steps line out a plan such as increasing minimum wage, provide more government-backed educational grants, connect youth with work, increase access to financial services, among other decent and practical areas. They plan on presenting with full force this plan to the next Congress and the next occupier of the White House next year.

Poverty program implementation is not a Democrat, Republican, or independent thing – it’s an American thing. We all need to do our part to fix this crisis.

You may not realize it, but every day, you will encounter one of those 58.5% of Americans who has had to live below the poverty line. Whether you are one of those Americans who had to face tough times or know someone who has, we all have the opportunity to make change, to make the country and the world a better place because you’re seen in it person.

If you don’t, well – I just hope you don’t get swept under the rug.

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