Poverty ravages entire communities and their inhabitants. Frequently, we see its external manifestations: frayed living conditions, blighted neighborhoods; heaps of rubbish, undernourished children, rampant unemployment and demeaning work conditions, a potent alcohol and drug culture, and physical abuse. We do not see its internal manifestations: anxiety, desperation born of painful need, trauma, and, yes, frequent experiences of fear and danger. Poverty is likely to repel us, and we may even wish to withdraw from such communities and people. But, what if we ourselves lived in a poverty-ravaged community? What if we ourselves were forced to experience poverty day-in and day-out?
Here are some very disconcerting background facts: Today, more than 16% of our fellow Americans live in poverty (almost 49 million persons). By contrast, in 2008, the figure was just more than 13% (about 40 million persons). A majority of us (more than 58%) will spend at least one year below the poverty line between ages 25 and 75. Today, the poverty cut-off is an annual income of $11,490 for a single person and $23,550 for a family of four.
Women, children, and minorities are affected disproportionately. More than 16% of women live in poverty, compared with slightly more than 13% of men. Almost one in five American children grows up in poverty. More than 25% of Hispanics and Blacks live in poverty. The most vulnerable are women, minority women and minority women with children.
Poverty takes a very heavy toll on the body and on the mind. This occurs through the effects of social exclusion and loss of control, stress and trauma, risky behavior, low self-esteem, lack of proper nutrition, and lack of access to needed medical care. Negative health outcomes include early mortality, frequent illnesses and higher rates of chronic diseases, as well as much higher rates of mental illness and substance use disorders.
From this simple summary, one can draw several conclusions that have very far-reaching policy implications:
Ø Poverty in America is a huge and complex problem.
Ø Poverty disproportionately affects women, especially minority women and minority women with children.
Ø Poverty fosters community and personal isolation that make it virtually impossible for one to identify, compete successfully for, or retain well-paying jobs considered to be rewarding, meaningful work.
Ø Poverty’s strong, negative consequences on personal health greatly decrease the likelihood that one can actually work hard to escape from poverty.
Taken together, these features of poverty constitute a debilitating dilemma for both America society and for those who are trapped by poverty. The American economy is not currently strong enough to produce a sufficient number of well paying jobs to serve as vehicles out of poverty for all who need them. And, at the same time, even if such jobs were available, the characteristics of poverty serve to entrap those who are caught in it.
Because poverty is so pervasive in America, the future of our youth, our energy, and our society largely will depend upon how we confront this dilemma. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that our future competitiveness in the emerging global economy rests upon the outcome. Thus, one of our most urgent agendas as a society is to begin to develop pathways out of poverty. If we can do this, associated problems of diminished health status, deteriorating communities, and crime can be mitigated.
Below are a few initial strategies that might be employed to begin confronting the dilemma of poverty. They are intended as initial thoughts for further consideration, not as ”the solution”.
Ø Progress can be made through changes that interrupt the effects of poverty. Clearly, history documents that poverty cannot be eliminated simply through strategies such as income subsidization; interrupting the effects of poverty, such as poor health, for example, is a precursor to needed upward mobility.
Ø Progress can be made by exposure to role models who help to change one’s personal views about opportunity, who encourage one to improve personal skills, and who impart personal self-confidence. Each is a major factor in upward mobility.
Ø Progress can be made by developing jobs that permit mobility out of poverty into the emerging global economy.
Almost 50 years ago, our national policy actually espoused the belief that we could eliminate poverty in America. Although they correctly diagnosed the problems of poverty, it is crystal clear from today’s vantage point that President Lyndon Johnson and Senator Daniel Moynahan did not arrive at a viable solution. We must try again with different approaches. From today’s point of view, poverty must be addressed one person at a time and one community at a time. Obviously, we must start this effort immediately.