Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Blog Action Day - On Poverty
Poverty. This is certainly an appropriate time to be discussing poverty, when the economy is in a shambles and people are worried that their life savings are evaporating into thin air. Some are wondering how to make ends meet and whether they will hold on to their home as foreclosures continue to rise. Still others are facing reality and realizing retirement may not be feasible as soon as they had hoped...if ever. Some are losing their jobs.
But even these situations, unfortunate though they are, are not necessarily official poverty. The government currently defines poverty based on various annual income levels, depending on the size of the household. For instance, for an average 4-person household, the poverty threshold is $21,203 annually. There are also poverty guidelines, which are similar to the thresholds and are used to determine eligibility for various programs. These guidelines have higher thresholds for those living in Alaska and Hawaii, where living expenses are higher.
Unfortunately, although legislation was proposed back in 1994 to account for differences between the cost of living in the various states, it apparently never passed, as the poverty line is still the same throughout the contiguous United States. As someone who lives in the metropolitan New York area, I find the idea of any family of four surviving on only $21,200 a year hard to imagine.
According to Robert E. Rector, published on the website of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, although about 37 million people were officially under the poverty line in 2005, a large number of these people apparently live in relative comfort compared to what we ordinarily think of as poverty.
"The following are facts about persons defined as "poor" by the Census Bureau, taken from various government reports:
Forty-three percent of all poor households actually own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.
Eighty percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, in 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.
The average poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)
Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 31 percent own two or more cars.
Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.
Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.
Eighty-nine percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and more than a third have an automatic dishwasher.
...While the poor are generally well nourished, some poor families do experience temporary food shortages. But even this condition is relatively rare; 89 percent of the poor report their families have 'enough' food to eat, while only 2 percent say they 'often' do not have enough to eat."
However, the full analysis does indicate difficulties in making ends meet among those designated as poor, and Rector includes the following paragraph in his conclusions:
"But the living conditions of the average poor person should not be taken to mean that all poor Americans live without hardship. There is a wide range of living conditions among the poor. Roughly a third of poor households do face material hardships such as overcrowding, intermittent food shortages, or difficulty obtaining medical care. However, even these households would be judged to have high living standards in comparison to most other people in the world."
To me the takeaway from this particular discussion of poverty is that a) conservatives don't like to admit that there is real poverty in this country, and b) generally, people in the United States are still a lot better off than, say, people in parts of Africa or other countries where real famine stalks the land and people truly have nothing.
That said, there are more subtle effects of poverty in the United States that, while not as devastating as actual starvation and complete penury, are nevertheless deeply harmful.
This site summarizes the consequences of poverty as follows:
"More than any other social class, the poor suffer from short life expectancies and health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and mental illness. Reasons include the following:
Poor people are often not well educated about diet and exercise. They are more likely than people in higher social strata to be overweight and suffer from nutritional deficits.
They are less likely to have health insurance, so they put off going to the doctor until a problem seems like a matter of life and death. At that time they must find a public health facility that accepts patients with little or no insurance.
Living in poverty brings chronic stress. Poor people live every day with the uncertainty of whether they can afford to eat, pay the electric bill, or make the rent payment. Members of the middle class also have stress but have more options for addressing it.
Poor people usually do not have jobs that offer them vacation time to let them relax.
High levels of unresolved stress, financial problems, and poor health can wreak havoc within a relationship. Poor people report more relationship problems than do people in other classes and have higher rates of divorce and desertion. The children of such families are more likely than their middle-class counterparts to grow up in broken homes or in single-parent, female-headed households.
...Anthropologist Oscar Lewis coined the term 'culture of poverty,' which means that poor people do not learn the norms and values that can help them improve their circumstances; hence, they become trapped in a repeated pattern of poverty. Because many poor people live in a narrow world in which all they see is poverty and desperation, they never acquire the skills or the ambition that could help them rise above the poverty level. Since culture is passed down from one generation to the next, parents teach their children to accept their circumstances rather than to work to change them. The cycle of poverty then becomes self-perpetuating."
Another reason the poor tend to suffer from obesity and undernutrition is that they don't have as much access to stores that sell healthy foods as those living in more affluent areas; plus there are more fast-food restaurants in their neighborhoods. In addition, healthier food costs more than less healthy food.
And of course, without enough money, the poor are less apt to attain higher education, and therefore are trapped in low-level, low-paying jobs, continuing the cycle of low income, stress and poor health. Studies have shown that people in low-level jobs feel less in control of their situation and suffer from a higher level of stress than those who feel they have some control over their fate. In addition, they cope less well with the stress, being more apt to deal with it by smoking or other unhealthy behaviors than those of a higher socioeconomic status.
All of these factors combine to leave the poor at a great disadvantage in our society.
Maybe they aren't starving or even lacking modern conveniences. But they are held back from the "pursuit of happiness" that the Founding Fathers saw as an inalienable right back when they wrote the Declaration of Independence. Surely as a nation, we can do better than this.