The United States has a poverty problem.
A third of the country’s people live in households making less than $55,000. Many are not officially counted among the poor, but there is plenty of economic hardship above the poverty line. And plenty far below it as well. According to the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which accounts for government aid and living expenses, more than one in 25 people in America 65 or older lived in deep poverty in 2021, meaning that they’d have to at minimum double their incomes just to reach the poverty line.
Programs like housing assistance and food stamps are effective and essential, protecting millions of families from hunger and homelessness each year. But the United States devotes far fewer resources to these programs, as a share of its gross domestic product, than other rich democracies, which places America in a disgraced class of its own on the world stage.
On the eve of the pandemic, in 2019, our child poverty rate was roughly double that of several peer nations, including Canada, South Korea and Germany. Anyone who has visited these countries can plainly see the difference, can experience what it might be like to live in a country without widespread public decay. When abroad, I have on several occasions heard Europeans use the phrase “American-style deprivation.”
Poverty is measured at different income levels, but it is experienced as an exhausting piling on of problems. Poverty is chronic pain, on top of tooth rot, on top of debt collector harassment, on top of the nauseating fear of eviction. It is the suffocation of your talents and your dreams. It is death come early and often. Between 2001 and 2014, the richest women in America gained almost three years of life, while the poorest gained just 15 days. Far from a line, poverty is a tight knot of humiliations and agonies, and its persistence in American life should shame us.
All the more so because we clearly have the resources and know-how to effectively end it. The bold relief issued by the federal government during the pandemic — especially expanded child tax credits, unemployment insurance and emergency rental assistance — plunged child poverty . . . . “In six months — six months — we reduced child poverty almost by half. We know how to do this.”
We do — but predictably, some Americans with well-fed and well-housed families complained that the country could no longer afford investing so deeply in its children. At best, this was a breathtaking failure of moral imagination; at worst, it was a selfish, harmful lie.
We could fund powerful antipoverty programs through sensible tax reform and enforcement. A recent study estimates that collecting all unpaid federal income taxes from the top 1 percent — not raising their taxes, mind you, just putting an end to their tax evasion — would add $175 billion a year to the public purse. That’s enough to more than double federal investment in affordable housing or to re-establish the expanded child tax credit.
The hard part isn’t designing effective antipoverty policies or figuring out how to pay for them. The hard part is ending our addiction to poverty.
Poverty persists in America because many of us benefit from it. We enjoy cheap goods and services and plump returns on our investments, even as they often require a kind of human sacrifice in the form of worker maltreatment. We defend lavish tax breaks that accrue to wealthy Americans, starving antipoverty initiatives. And we build and defend exclusive communities, shutting out the poor and forcing them to live in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage.
Most Americans — liberals and conservatives alike — now believe people are poor because “they have faced more obstacles in life,” not because of a moral failing. Long overdue, however, is a reckoning with the fact that many of us help to create and uphold those obstacles through the collective moral failing of enriching ourselves by impoverishing others. Poverty isn’t just a failure of public policy. It’s a failure of public virtue.
Ending poverty in America will require both short- and long-term solutions: strategies that stem the bleeding now, alongside more enduring interventions that target the disease and don’t just treat the symptoms.
For example, to address the housing crisis forcing most poor renting families to dedicate at least half of their income to rent and utilities, we need to immediately expand housing vouchers that reduce the rent burden. But we also need to push for more transformative solutions like scaling up our public housing infrastructure, enlarging community land banks, and providing on-ramps to homeownership for low-income families.
When it comes to work, we should attack labor exploitation head-on by finding ways to even the playing field between workers and bosses — supporting collective bargaining, for instance . . . . At the bare minimum, Congress should increase the federal minimum wage — which hasn’t been raised since July 2009 — and, like dozens of other countries, allow the federal government to routinely adjust the wage without legislative approval, ensuring that workers wouldn’t have to wait around another 13-plus years (and counting!) for a pay bump.
Poverty abolitionism isn’t just a political project, after all; it’s a personal one, too. For starters, just as many of us are now shopping and investing in ways that address climate change, we can also do so with an eye toward economic justice. If we can, we should reward companies that treat their employees well and shun those with a track record of union-busting and exploitation. To do so, we can consult organizations like B Lab, which certifies companies that meet high social and environmental standards, and Union Plus, which curates lists of union-made products.
These everyday decisions can add up to something. If more of us adopted poverty abolitionism as a way of living — and of seeing the world and imaging a better one — that behavior would spread, which in turn could redefine what is socially acceptable and what is believed possible.
We can also disrupt all the quotidian ways we normalize the status quo. It is commonplace for privileged Americans to gripe about taxes. But doing so ignores how the country’s welfare state does much more to subsidize affluence — with tax breaks for college savings accounts, wealth transfers, and more — than to alleviate poverty.
What if, the next time a co-worker brought up the topic, we talked about that instead? What if we gawked at the fact that homeowners pocket billions of dollars each year because of the mortgage interest deduction, an absurd cutout that flows primarily to well-off Americans, while most poor renting families receive no government housing assistance?
This rich country has the means to abolish poverty. Now we must find the will to do so — the will, not to reduce poverty, but to end it.
Thoughts on Life, Love, Politics, Hypocrisy and Coming Out in Mid-Life
Thursday, March 16, 2023
America's Poverty: American Style Deprivation
New York Times notes, simply collecting all unpaid federal income taxes from the top 1 percent would go a long way to funding anti-poverty initiatives. Naturally, Republicans - the party allegedly of family and Christian values - want to defund the IRS inorder to allow these tax cheats to avoid paying taxes owed, Few other advanced nations treat so much of their populace as disposable garbage. Here are highlights from the Times piece:
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