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New polling out from NBC and the Wall Street Journal shows a huge shift in attitudes towards poverty and the poor over the last 20 years. According to the survey, 46 percent Americans believe that poverty is caused by circumstances beyond people’s control, versus 44 percent who think it’s caused by impoverished people not doing enough to improve their station in life. The last time the survey asked that question, in 1995, a full 60 percent of Americans felt that the poor weren’t doing enough to lift themselves out of poverty, compared to just 30 percent who blamed extraneous factors. Hard times, it would seem, have made us more sympathetic to the plight of the poor. There’s nothing like a massive economic downturn to foster a little empathy.

And that makes sense. When the economy so rapidly and viciously turns on so many people, it’s hard to maintain the sense of idealism that leads one to believe that hard work and ambition are all that’s required to secure a comfortable, reasonably prosperous existenc

Simon Maloy, Salon

New polling out…

Ten Myths About Poverty

Misconceptions about the origins of poverty are a dime-a-dozen, especially if they place the blame on the poor themselves. But thankfully Mother Jones clears up ten of the most popular and persistent myths bedeviling efforts to address poverty in the U.S.

1. Single moms are the problem. Only 9 percent of low-income, urban moms have been single throughout their child’s first five years. Thirty-five percent were married to, or in a relationship with, the child’s father for that entire time.*

2. Absent dads are the problem. Sixty percent of low-income dads see at least one of their children daily. Another 16 percent see their children weekly.*

3. Black dads are the problem. Among men who don’t live with their children, black fathers are more likely than white or Hispanic dads to have a daily presence in their kids’ lives.

4. Poor people are lazy. In 2004, there was at least one adult with a job in 60 percent of families on food stamps that had both kids and a nondisabled, working-age adult.

5. If you’re not officially poor, you’re doing okay. The federal poverty line for a family of two parents and two children in 2012 was $23,283. Basic needs cost at least twice that in 615 of America’s cities and regions.

6. Go to college, get out of poverty. In 2012, about 1.1 million people who made less than $25,000 a year, worked full time, and were heads of household had a bachelor’s degree.**

7. We’re winning the war on poverty. The number of households with children living on less than $2 a day per person has grown 160 percent since 1996, to 1.65 million families in 2011.

8. The days of old ladies eating cat food are over. The share of elderly single women living in extreme poverty jumped 31 percent from 2011 to 2012.

9. The homeless are drunk street people. One in 45 kids in the United States experiences homelessness each year. In New York City alone, 22,000 children are homeless.

10. Handouts are bankrupting us. In 2012, total welfare funding was 0.47 percent of the federal budget.

The sooner we discard this inaccurate and damaging misconceptions, the sooner can address the root causes of poverty and end the suffering of millions.

Forty-Five Sobering Facts About Global Poverty

Although many readers have no doubt heard this before, it bears reaffirmation: around one billion people — one out of every seven human beings on Earth — live on a daily budget equivalent to just $1.25. That unconscionably meager amount is intended to cover food, healthcare, and shelter, much less any of the pleasantries in life that we take for granted.

While the percentage of people living in such abject poverty was halved by 2010 — and is set to decline by half again in the next two decades — extreme poverty remains a persistent problem in most parts of the world. Although we have greater means and resources than ever to resolve the problem, we still have a long way to go, as indicated by the following 45 facts about poverty in today’s world (courtesy of PolicyMic).

[Apologies for the bad formatting, WordPress seems to be acting up a bit.]

  1. The number of people living on less than $1.25 per day has dramatically decreased in the last three decades, from 52% of the citizens in the developing world in 1981 to 21% in 2010. But, there are still there are still more than 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty.
  2. The top five poorest countries in the world are India (with 33% of the world’s poor), China (13%), Nigeria (7%), Bangladesh (6%) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (5%).
  3. Adding another five countries — Indonesia, Pakistan, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Kenya — would include almost 80% of the world’s extreme poor.
  4. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for more than one-third of the world’s extreme poor.
  5. Combining results from 27 Sub-Saharan African countries, 54% of residents are living in extreme poverty — the highest proportion among global regions worldwide.
  6. About 75% of the world’s poor people live in rural areas, depending on agriculture for their livelihood.
  7. About 22,000 children die each day due to conditions of poverty.
  8. In 2010, the average income of the extremely poor in the developing world was 87 cents per capita per day, up from 74 cents in 1981.
  9. Approximately 1.2 billion people — nearly as many as the entire population of India — still live without access to electricity.
  10. If the developing world outside of China returns to its slower pace of growth and poverty reduction of the 1980s and 1990s, it would take 50 years or more to lift 1 billion people out of poverty.
  11. India has a greater share of the world’s poor than it did 30 years ago. Then, India was home about one-fifth of the world’s poorest people. Today, close to one-third of the world’s extreme poor are concentrated in India.
  12. But poverty is not just an issue in the developing world. There are 16.4 million children living in poverty in the United States. That’s about 21%, compared to less than 10% in the U.K. and in France. The percentage of poor children in America has also climbed by 4.6% since the start of the Great Recession in 2007.
  13. In 2012, a North Carolina legislator claimed there was no such thing as extreme poverty in the state. However, three of the top 10 poorest areas in America are located in the North Carolina.
  14. Israel has the highest poverty rate in the developed world, about 20.9%, according to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
  15. The “extreme poverty rate” among women in the United States climbed to 6.3 percent in 2010 from 5.9 percent in 2009, according to census data.
  16. One out of every six Americans are enrolled in at least one government anti-poverty program. One in four children in America participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, in 2011.
  17. One in 3 American women — about 42 million — either live in poverty or on the brink of it. And, 1 of every 6 elderly people in America live in poverty.
  18. More than 7.5 million women fell into the “extreme poverty category” in 2010.
  19. Taking food stamps, housing subsidies and refundable tax credits into account, the number of American households in extreme poverty is 613,000, which is about 1.6% of non-elderly households with children.
  20. Poverty is the main cause of hunger because the poor lack the resources to grow or purchase the food they need.
  21. Even though there is enough food produced worldwide to provide everyone with an adequate diet, nearly 854 million people, or 1 in 7, still go hungry.
  22. Around 1 in 8 people in the world, about 842 million people, were estimated to be suffering from chronic hunger between 2011-13.
  23. About 2.8 billion people still rely on wood, crop waste, dung and other biomass to cook and to heat their homes.
  24. Despite the fact that China has achieved more than any other nation in energy efficiency, the country still faces some of the world’s greatest energy poverty challenges. Almost 612.8 million people, nearly twice the population of the United States, lack clean fuel for cooking and heating in China.
  25. More than 6.9 million children died under the age of five in 2011 — that’s about 800 every hour — most of whom could have survived threats and thrived with access to simple, affordable interventions.
  26. The 500 richest people in the world have an income of more than $100 billion — more than the combined incomes of the poorest 416 million. Put differently, the richest 85 people in the world control as much wealth as the poorest half of the world.
  27. A child born in the world’s poorest nations has a 1 in 6 chance of dying before their fifth birthday. In high-income countries, the odds are about 1 in 165.
  28. The world’s 100 richest people earned enough money in 2012 to end world extreme poverty four times over, according to a report by Oxfam.
  29. Rich people who live in neighborhoods with other wealthy people usually give a smaller share of their income to charity than rich people who live in economically diverse communities, according to this study of tax records in the United States.
  30. About 47% of those surveyed believe that if poor people received more assistance, they would take advantage of it.
  31. According to a survey titled “Perceptions of Poverty: The Salvation Army’s Report to America,” almost half of those surveyed agreed that “a good work ethic is all you need to escape poverty.”
  32. Almost 43% agreed that if poor people want a job, they could always find a job, while 27% said that people are often poor because they are lazy. Another 29% even said they have lower moral values.
  33. The median income for people in the developing world is $3 or less. That’s less than the cost of a frappuccino at Starbucks.
  34. The “global middle class” income bottoms out at about $10 a day.
  35. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that out of 52 mainstream media outlets analyzed, coverage of poverty issues amounted to less than 1% of available news space from 2007 to 2012, a period that covered the historic recession.
  36. The report also concluded that media organizations chose not to cover poverty because “it was potentially uncomfortable to advertisers seeking to reach a wealthy consumer audience.”
  37. An online game titled “Survive125,” was launched by Live58, an NGO devoted to ending extreme poverty and challenges gamers to survive one month on $1.25 a day by facing a series of daunting questions that millions of people face every day just to survive.
  38. However, campaigns like one have been criticized for being “patronizing”: “The idea that you can simply dip your toe into human suffering for a week is spurious and patronising to those who actually live in poverty,” wrote Maya Oppenheim for Ceasefire Magazine.
  39. Given the number of occasions that world leaders and influencers have promised to eradicate poverty, the world should be much further along than it is. In April 2013, Jim Kim, president of the World Bank, said “For the first time ever, we have a real opportunity to end extreme poverty within a generation.” Eight years before that, Nelson Mandela said “in this new century, millions of people in the world’s poorest countries remain imprisoned, enslaved, and in chains. They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free.” Before that, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his war on poverty by saying “for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty.” That was back in 1964.
  40. In order for the world to effectively reduce poverty, countries need to focus not only on achieving growth as an end in itself but implement policies that allocate resources to the poor including raising income growth among the bottom 40% of earners.
  41. One report warns of poverty’s “revolving door,” alluding to the fact that climbing out of extreme poverty and staying there can be very difficult unless more is done by 2030 to support the world’s poorest populations in hard times.
  42. The world achieved Millennium Goal Development 1 — to halve the poverty rate among developing countries — five years ahead of schedule in 2010.
  43. If we maintain the same rate of progress toward eradicating poverty that we’ve had since 2000 (or hopefully, accelerate it), we would reach the target around 2025-2030.
  44. The world’s richest man, Bill Gates has even gone so far as to say there will be “almost no poor countries by 2035.
  45. Despite financial crises and surging food prices, the share of people living in extreme poverty across the globe has continued to decline in recent years.

Needless to say, it helps to have a bigger picture about this complex and often poorly understood issue. While there has definitely been progress, the human toll of slow, inefficient, and half-hearted efforts to address the problem remains disturbingly high — especially when compared to our potential to do more.

What Makes Countries Rich or Poor?

Jared Diamond, best known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, recently reviewed Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, a book I’m deeply interested in that explores the question in the title: why are some countries prosperous and developed, while others seem chronically poor and unstable?

As you’d imagine, the answer is complex and debatable, and Diamond offers his own interesting two cents while reviewing the book’s central thesis that effective economic and political institutions play the most central role in determining a nation’s fate. It’s quite a long read, but I definitely recommend it. While there are many interesting points made — for example, that soil quality or climate are major factors in determining national wealth — here’s an excerpt that stood out to me:

But it’s obvious that good institutions, and the wealth and power that they spawned, did not crop up randomly. For instance, all Western European countries ended up richer and with better institutions than any tropical African country. Big underlying differences led to this divergence of outcomes. Europe has had a long history (of up to nine thousand years) of agriculture based on the world’s most productive crops and domestic animals, both of which were domesticated in and introduced to Europe from the Fertile Crescent, the crescent-shaped region running from the Persian Gulf through southeastern Turkey to Upper Egypt. Agriculture in tropical Africa is only between 1,800 and 5,000 years old and based on less productive domesticated crops and imported animals.

As a result, Europe has had up to four thousand years’ experience of government, complex institutions, and growing national identities, compared to a few centuries or less for all of sub-Saharan Africa. Europe has glaciated fertile soils, reliable summer rainfall, and few tropical diseases; tropical Africa has un-glaciated and extensively infertile soils, less reliable rainfall, and many tropical diseases. Within Europe, Britain had the further advantages of being an island rarely at risk from foreign armies, and of fronting on the Atlantic Ocean, which became open after 1492 to overseas trade.

It should be no surprise that countries with those advantages ended up rich and with good institutions, while countries with those disadvantages didn’t. The chain of causation leading slowly from productive agriculture to government, state formation, complex institutions, and wealth involved agriculturally driven population explosions and accumulations of food surpluses, leading in turn to the need for centralized decision-making in societies much too populous for decision-making by face-to-face discussions involving all citizens, and the possibility of using the food surpluses to support kings and their bureaucrats. This process unfolded independently, beginning around 3400 BC, in many different parts of the ancient world with productive agriculture, including the Fertile Crescent, Egypt, China, the Indus Valley, Crete, the Valley of Mexico, the Andes, and Polynesian Hawaii.

Pretty interesting stuff. As always, feel free to weigh in. 

The World’s Billionaire Cities

Right off the heel of my last post about the world’s poorest denizens, comes sobering article from PolicyMic that highlights the stark reality of global wealth inequality. It identifies the world’s most popular cities for billionaires, based on a recent report from Forbes.

Moscow remains the billionaire capital of the world, with 84 of the world’s richest people, together worth a total of over $366 billion. Of the other major cities on the list (some of which tied), five are in Asia (Istanbul, Mumbai, Seoul, Hong Kong and Beijing), two are in Europe (London and Paris), two are in the U.S. (New York City and Dallas), and one is in Latin America (Sao Paulo, Brazil).

According to the 2013 Wealth-X and UBS Billionaire Census, the first comprehensive study of the world’s billionaire population, the average billionaire holds $78 million in real estate, owns four homes (each worth nearly $20 million) and posses numerous luxury items, the most common being yachts, private jets and works of art.

Despite boasting many uber-rich residents, these cities also account for a disproportionate share of overall economic growth and rising income inequality, with many of them also hosting a large proportion of poor residents. According a report by Oxfam, 85 of the richest people in the world (most of whom live in these cities) control as much wealth as the poorest half of the world (3.5 billion people).

Portraits of People Living on a Dollar a Day

As a lifelong citizen in a well-off part of a wealthy country (the U.S.), I’m doubly insulated from the miserable circumstances that are the norm for most of my fellow humans. Around 17 percent of the world’s population — that’s one out of six people — live on a dollar or less a day, lacking any stable source of food, medical care, housing, and other basic needs.

Not only do more than a billion people lack material goods and comforts, but they live a precarious existence in which they’re never certain when or if the next meal will come; in which they’re just one injury or illness away from deeper poverty or even death; in which housing is barely livable, if existent at all. And all this transpires practically invisibly, with few people truly understanding, much less addressing, this extreme level of poverty.

But not if people like Thomas A. Nazario, the founder of a nonprofit called The Forgotten International, can help it. He’s written a new book with Pulitzer Prize winner Renée C. Byer called Living on a Dollar a Day: The Lives and Faces of the World’s Poor, which offers a much needed window into these people’s everyday lives, ultimately calling for action on their behalf.

Mother Jones interviewed Nazario about his motivations for this book, as well as about bigger topics like global inequality and the pervasive savior complex of well-meaning humanitarians. The interview is pretty insightful, and the article is full of excellent photos shared from the book (which I’m interested in reading and perhaps reviewing here at a later date). I highly recommend you read the rest of it, but here’s the part that most stood out for me.

Which stories affected you the most?

 There are three. One was the kids who live on an e-waste dump in Ghana. That was quite compelling for a variety of reasons, but I think if you look at the book and see those photographs and read that piece, it’ll hit you pretty hard.

Another piece was a family in Peru that lives on recycling. That, in and of itself, is not a big deal. Recycling is probably the second-largest occupation of the poor. But [the mother's] personal story, about how she had been abused by two different husbands, how her boys were taken away because they were needed to farm, and she was given all the girls—and how her kids will probably not ever go to school. She gets constantly evicted from one place or another because she can’t find enough recycling to pay the rent. When we left her—we gave everybody a gift of at least some kind for giving us their time and telling us their story—we gave her $80, which is about as much money as she makes in two months. She fell to her knees and started crying. Not only did I learn that 25 percent of garbage produced in developing countries is picked up by individuals like her, but that one of the biggest drivers of global poverty is domestic violence, and how women and children are thrown into poverty largely for that reason.
Of course, even those of us who hear anecdotes like this or see vivid photos of unspeakable squalor do far less than we can to help. While certain psychological factors play a role in our collective apathy, there’s no denying the inherent exploitative and inefficient characteristics of the current global economic system, in which tremendous amounts of wealth continue to be allocated to a small minority of people who are largely disconnected and unconcerned in regards to the horrific reality of most of their fellow citizens.
But that’s a conversation for a different day.

The Bootstraps Myth

From Melissa McEwan of the blog Shakesville:

The Myth of Bootstraps goes something like this: I never got any help from anyone. I achieved my American Dream all on my own, through hard work. I got an education, I saved my money, I worked hard, I took risks, and I never complained or blamed anyone else when I failed, and every time I fell, I picked myself up by my bootstraps and just worked even harder. No one helped me.

This is almost always a lie.

There are vanishingly few people who have never had help from anyone—who never had family members who helped them, or friends, or colleagues, or teachers. 

Who never benefited from government programs that made sure they had electricity, or mail, or passable roads, or clean drinking water, or food, or shelter, or healthcare, or a loan. 

Who never had any kind of privilege from which they benefited, even if they didn’t actively try to trade on it. 

Who never had an opportunity they saw as luck which was really someone, somewhere, making a decision that benefited them. 

Who never had friends to help them move, so they didn’t have to pay for movers. Who never inherited a couch, so they didn’t have to pay for a couch. Who never got hand-me-down clothes from a cousin, so their parents could afford piano lessons. Who never had shoes that fit and weren’t leaky, when the kid down the street didn’t.

Most, maybe all, of the people who say they never got any help from anyone are taking a lot of help for granted.

They imagine that everyone has the same basic foundations that they had—and, if you point out to them that these kids over here live in an area rife with environmental pollutants that have been shown to affect growth or brain function or breathing capacity, they will simply sniff with indifference and declare that those things don’t matter. That government regulations which protect some living spaces and abandon others to poisons isn’t help. 

The government giving you money to eat is a hand-out. The government giving you regulations that protect the air you breathe is, at best, nothing of value—and, at worst, a job-killing regulation that impedes the success of people who want to get rich dumping toxins into the ground where people getting hand-outs live.

What are your thoughts?

Twenty-One Children and Their Bedrooms From Around the World

PolicyMic is featuring the engaging works of James Mollison, a Kenyan-born, English photographer based in Venice whose 2011 photo book, Where Children Sleep, collects photos of various children and their sleeping quarters. It was meant to draw attention to each child’s “material and cultural circumstances” and to put perspective on the class, poverty, and the diversity of children worldwide.

I strongly suggest you check it out here; it’s well worth your time. Some of these images are pretty powerful, highlighting the vast discrepancies in standard of living between (and within) countries around the world. Many of the subjects have a lot of personality and character as well (which is no doubt why they were chosen.

The Best Way To Solve Poverty: Just Give the Poor Money

It seems deceptively obvious, doesn’t it? Poverty is absence of wealth, so the solution is to simply give the poor money. The problem is that, in addition to the misery that comes with scarcity, the poor suffer the added stigma of victim-blaming: their economic state is widely seen as a personal failing, a product of laziness, irresponsibility, or stupidity (especially among Americans).

But if one accepts the fact that poor people are no more or less likely to be savvy with money than the rich, then it simply becomes a matter of boosting their material conditions, albeit in a far less paternalistic and bureaucratic fashion than is typically prescribed. Indeed, traditional approaches to welfare are no more effective than the Right’s contention that poor would be better off in a freer market (or spurred into action by cut benefits).  As Bloomberg Businessweek — hardly a leftist source — reports:

A growing number of studies suggest…that just handing over cash even to some of the world’s poorest people actually does have a considerable and long-lasting positive impact on their incomes, employment, health, and education. And that suggests we should update both our attitudes about poor people and our poverty reduction programs.

In 2008, the Ugandan government handed out cash transfers worth $382, about a year’s income, to thousands of poor 16- to 35-year-olds. The money came with few strings—recipients only had to explain how they would use the money to start a trade. Columbia University’s Chris Blattman and his co-authors found that, four years after receiving the cash, recipients were two-thirds more likely to be practicing a trade than non-recipients, and their earnings were more than 40 percent higher. They were also about 40 percent more likely to be paying taxes.

In a second study, Blattman and colleagues looked at a program that gave $150 cash grants to 1,800 of the very poorest women in northern Uganda. Most began some sort of retail operation to supplement their income, and within a year their monthly earnings had doubled and cash savings tripled. The impact was pretty much the same whether or not participants received mentoring; business training added some value, but handing over the money it cost to provide would have added more.
Findings from around the world suggest that giving cash over goods or in-kind transfers is cheaper and more cost-effective, too. Economist Jenny Aker has found that cash transfers are better used than food vouchers in a comparison in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Unsurprisingly, giving people a food voucher means they purchase more food than they do if you give them cash. But give them cash and they are able to save some of the money and pay school fees, all while consuming as diverse a diet as those who got vouchers. And the cash-transfer program is considerably less expensive to run.

Keep in mind that these are societies where poverty is widespread and endemic, and yet still most recipients knew how to use their money effectively. A presumed “culture of poverty” did nothing to undermine their ability to be self-sufficient when given the opportunity. This success isn’t limited to the developing world either:

Back in the 1970s, the U.S. federal government experimented with a “negative income tax” that guaranteed an income to thousands of randomly selected low-income recipients. (Think of today’s Earned Income Tax Credit, only without the requirement to earn income.) The results suggested that the transfers improved test scores and school attendance for the children of recipients, reduced prevalence of low-birth-weight kids, and increased homeownership. Early analysis of a 2007 cash transfer program in New York City suggested that transfers averaging $6,000 per family conditional on employment, preventative health care, and children’s educational attendance led to reduced poverty and hunger, improved school attendance and grade advancement, reduced health-care hardships, and increased savings.

Additionally, the Canadians also experimented with unconditional cash transfers, with similar success. It seems that no matter the culture or society, most individuals will use whatever resources they have at their disposal as effectively as possible (or at least make the attempt, which would regardless undermine the assumptions made about the competence of the poor).

Most cash-transfer programs do impose conditions—like requiring kids to go to school or get vaccinated, which does improve school attendance and vaccination rates considerably. But Blattman’s research suggests conditions aren’t necessary to improve the quality of life of poor families. In fact, while analysis by the World Bank’s Berk Ozler shows that making cash transfers conditional on kids being in school has a bigger impact than a no-strings-attached check, even “condition-less cash” considerably raises enrollment. Conditional programs increase the odds of a child being in school by 41 percent; unconditional programs, 23 percent. Other studies of cash transfers in developing countries have found a range of impacts that had little or nothing to do with any conditions applied: lower crime rates, improved child nutrition and child healthlower child mortality, improved odds of kids being in school, and declines in early marriage and teenage pregnancy.

So even the fairly successful conditional cash transfers implemented in places like Brazil and Mexico are, in a sense, unnecessary. While they’re definitely great steps, ultimately most poor people don’t need to be told the best way to spend their money. Indeed, as the article concludes:

It is comfortable for richer people to think they are richer because of the moral failings of the poor. And that justifies a paternalistic approach to poverty relief using vouchers and in-kind support. But the big reason poor people are poor is because they don’t have enough money, and it should’t come as a huge surprise that giving them money is a great way to reduce that problem—considerably more cost-effectively than paternalism. So let’s abandon the huge welfare bureaucracy and just give money to those we should help out.

Of course some will inevitably squander it out of greed, negligence, or simple error — and again, they won’t do this any more than many wealthier people do — but by and large, the majority will put it to good, sustainable use. They’ll put into the economy, which is driven by consumer demand, or into small businesses and education, which will also benefit the economy. In essence, such cash transfers are an investment.

Obviously, such an approach won’t resolve the systemic factors responsible for poverty — the lack of well-paying jobs, an economy driven too much by short-term profit and consumerism, the increasing expensiveness of education and healthcare, and so on — but it’s a fairly simple start, and the money wasted on inefficient programs — among other things — might be better spent going straight into the hands of poor people just waiting to tap into their own potential.

What do you think?

 

The Poverty Trap

Another great article from The Atlantic explores how living in a state of poverty entails a vicious cycle from which most victims struggle to escape — often for the rest of their lives and to no avail. The problem is worsened by the persistent (and arguably growing) social stigma attached to poverty: in addition to dealing with the financial and psychological hardship that comes with scarcity, America’s poor must contend with cruel assumptions about their character and social worth:

By the Reagan era, it had become a cornerstone of conservative ideology that poverty is caused not by low wages or a lack of jobs and education, but by the bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles of the poor.

Picking up on this theory, pundits and politicians have bemoaned the character failings and bad habits of the poor for at least the past 50 years. In their view, the poor are shiftless, irresponsible, and prone to addiction. They have too many children and fail to get married. So if they suffer from grievous material deprivation, if they run out of money between paychecks, if they do not always have food on their tables—then they have no one to blame but themselves.

In the 1990s, with a bipartisan attack on welfare, this kind of prejudice against the poor took a drastically misogynistic turn. Poor single mothers were identified as a key link in what was called “the cycle of poverty.” By staying at home and collecting welfare, they set a toxic example for their children, who—important policymakers came to believe—would be better off being cared for by paid child care workers or even, as Newt Gingrich proposed, in orphanages.

This perception hasn’t gone away, even as the recession has eliminated the number of decent jobs once held by well-educated and hard-working people, who upon joining the swelling ranks of the unemployed, are now subsequently seen as irresponsible, lazy, or otherwise at fault for their predicament (economic structural changes outside their control be damned).

The meager if still noticeable growth in jobs hasn’t changed much, given that most new position are in low-wage sectors like retail and fast-food that simply don’t offer enough to survive, nor provide much in the way of upward mobility.

What I discovered is that in many ways, these jobs are a trap: They pay so little that you cannot accumulate even a couple of hundred dollars to help you make the transition to a better-paying job. They often give you no control over your work schedule, making it impossible to arrange for child care or take a second job. And in many of these jobs, even young women soon begin to experience the physical deterioration—especially knee and back problems—that can bring a painful end to their work life.

Depending on where you live, such jobs are pretty much all there is to choose from, and employees have few resources or time available to the training or education they need to expand their options (and in any case, those alternatives are no longer as likely to improve your circumstances as they once were; if anything, the subsequent debt most people would need to take on to go those routes could worsen their predicament). This leads to the crux of the article:

I was also dismayed to find that in some ways, it is actually more expensive to be poor than not poor. If you can’t afford the first month’s rent and security deposit you need in order to rent an apartment, you may get stuck in an overpriced residential motel. If you don’t have a kitchen or even a refrigerator and microwave, you will find yourself falling back on convenience store food, which—in addition to its nutritional deficits—is also alarmingly overpriced. If you need a loan, as most poor people eventually do, you will end up paying an interest rate many times more than what a more affluent borrower would be charged. To be poor—especially with children to support and care for—is a perpetual high-wire act.

Most private-sector employers offer no sick days, and many will fire a person who misses a day of work, even to stay home with a sick child. A nonfunctioning car can also mean lost pay and sudden expenses. A broken headlight invites a ticket, plus a fine greater than the cost of a new headlight, and possible court costs. If a creditor decides to get nasty, a court summons may be issued, often leading to an arrest warrant. No amount of training in financial literacy can prepare someone for such exigencies—or make up for an income that is impossibly low to start with. Instead of treating low-wage mothers as the struggling heroines they are, our political culture still tends to view them as miscreants and contributors to the “cycle of poverty.”

If anything, the criminalization of poverty has accelerated since the recession, with growing numbers of states drug testing applicants for temporary assistance, imposing steep fines for school truancy, and imprisoning people for debt. Such measures constitute a cruel inversion of the Johnson-era principle that it is the responsibility of government to extend a helping hand to the poor. Sadly, this has become the means by which the wealthiest country in the world manages to remain complacent in the face of alarmingly high levels of poverty: by continuing to blame poverty not on the economy or inadequate social supports, but on the poor themselves.

It’s practically a coping method: instead of coming to terms with the intrinsic inequities and flaws of our economic system — which would require tremendous changes and considerable public investment — it’s much easier to view the matter on a individual level of analysis, which places the onus on the individuals  (or perhaps a particular, often marginalized, subculture) to change. But given what few avenues there now are to improve one’s socioeconomic status, what more can the poor do?

Sure, a good number manage to climb out one way or another; we all know of at least one anecdotal or famous rags-to-riches stories. But those stand out precisely because they’re rare occurrences. The ranks of the poor are growing concurrently with the rise of inequality, the decline in well-paying jobs, and the gutting of programs once dedicated to providing assistance. It seems clear that as long as the means of self-sufficiency are out of reach, poverty will remain.

Sadly, I don’t have time to explore the issue further, but as always, I invite you to share your views.