Number of Very Poor Americans Surges Since 1996

The super-rich aren’t the only ones whose ranks (and collective wealth) are growing. To further highlight just how wide the gap of inequality is growing, in less than two decades, the number of Americans living on just two dollars a day has more than doubled. That means 1.5 million households, including 3 million children. As CBS reports, the inherent contradiction of the world’s richest country having so many poor people is no coincidence.

“Most of us would say we would have trouble understanding how families in the county as rich as ours could live on so little,” said author Kathryn Edin, who spoke on a conference call to discuss the book, which she wrote with Luke Shaefer. Edin is the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University. “These families, contrary to what many would expect, are workers, and their slide into poverty is a failure of the labor market and our safety net, as well as their own personal circumstances.”

To be sure, the labor market has been rocky for many Americans, not just the poorest. But changes in how employers deal with their low-wage workers have hit many of these poor Americans especially hard, such as the rise of on-call scheduling, which leaves some parents scrambling for hours and dealing with unpredictable pay.

Retailers such as Walmart (WMT) and fast-food companies increasingly are using sophisticated scheduling software that allows them to tinker with work schedules at the last minute, depending on their stores’ needs. That reduces costs for the employer, but it can make life difficult for employees, especially those with children and dependents.

“Time and time again, we would constantly see people’s hours cut from week to week,” said Shaefer, associate professor of social work at University of Michigan. “Someone might have 30 hours one week, down to 15 the next and down to 5 after that. We saw people who would remain employed but were down to zero hours. This was incredibly common in this population.”

Other workforce problems include abuses such as wage theft and unhealthy workplaces, which lead to health problems and missed work, he noted.

And while the private sector, by its own actions, fails to prove why people shouldn’t turn to the government for help, it has also done a good job in rallying people against the policies that would help compensate their own ruthless approach to business.

These families have also been hurt by the welfare reform of the 1990s, when America’s social safety net was overhauled to create Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which is geared toward providing temporary monetary aid to poor families with children.

But TANF isn’t working, Shaefer and Edin said. Since the program was created in 1996 to replace a 60-year-old welfare system, the number of families living on less than $2 a day has more than doubled. In 2012, only one-quarter of poor families received TANF benefits, down from more than two-thirds in 1996, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. According to “$2.00 a Day,” the welfare program reached more than 14.2 million Americans in 1994, but by 2014 only 3.8 million Americans were aided by TANF.

The authors’ research — which included data analysis and interviews with ultrapoor families in four regions — found that many families weren’t even aware of TANF. “One person said, ‘They aren’t just giving it out anymore,'” Shaefer said. “In fact, in Appalachia it has, in some ways, disappeared. We asked, ‘Have you thought about applying for TANF?’ and they said, ‘What’s that?'”

Aside from a lack of knowledge about the program, poor Americans often put off applying for aid because of social stigma and other hurdles, such as requirements to attend orientation meetings, make employment plans and register for employment services.

Perhaps even more disquieting than the growing legions of the poor — which is again occurring during the simultaneous concentration of vast wealth in the upper echelons of society — is how these people get by day to day.

They tend to rely on a few strategies, including selling their own plasma for $30 a pop and selling scrap metal. Some families also sell their food stamp benefits for cash, which is illegal and which Edin said is “very unusual.”

Some women barter for goods and services using sex. Private charities provided very little assistance. Dealing in drugs wasn’t common, Edin said, perhaps because the researchers were interviewing families, which might be less likely to engage in drug use given the presence of children.

“In no cases did [these strategies] raise people out of poverty,” Edin said. “$60 would be the maximum per week” for earnings through these methods. “There was no case where someone was living high off the hog from this informal economy.”

There is not much else to say. It should be patently obvious that a society with as much capital and resources as our own should not have the developed world’s second highest rate of child poverty. This is a resounding political and moral failure, on the part of both business leaders and public officials (though certainly many Americans bear no small amount of guilt for often favoring the shaming and deprivation of the poor — even when it includes themselves). The culture problems at the heart of this tragedy merit a whole other post.

What are your reactions and thoughts?

The Problem With America’s Culture of Overwork

It says a lot that there even needs to be a debate on whether or not overwork is a good thing. But as working more for less becomes the norm in American life — often unquestionably — clearly it is a discussion worth having.

Let us start by putting things into perspective: contrary to popular belief, Japan is no longer the developed country with the most annual working hours by average. That dubious distinction now falls on the U.S. As the Nation reports:

By international standards, Americans put in a lot of time on the job. Among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we’re above the average, clocking 1,789 hours at work in a year—more than Japan, Germany, and South Korea. Each week, the average American puts in 41 hours per week, compared to 38.4 in the United Kingdom, 36.9 in Germany, and just 32.7 in the Netherlands. We also have more workaholics: The percentage of U.S. workers who put in more than 45 hours a week is about double that of Germany, the Netherlands, or France. While we’ve decreased our workload by 112 hours a year over the past four decades, other countries have far outpaced us: The French dropped theirs by 491 hours, the Dutch by 425 and the Canadians by 215.

Doubtless, many Americans consider such a work ethic to be both morally desirable and perfectly acceptable; hence our unique position in the developed world in terms of not mandating paid maternal leave or vacation time.

One might think that all that work contributes to our status as the world’s largest economy by a significant margin. But this is yet another widespread misconception.  Continue reading

“What to the Slaves is Fourth of July?”

DemocracyNow.org has an excellent video of James Earl Jones reading one of Frederick Douglass’ most famous speeches, The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro. It was first given on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York, in an address to the Rochester Ladies Antislavery Society. Born into slavery, Douglass became a key leader of the abolitionist movie, and one of America’s most gifted writers and orators.

I think you will find Jones’ emotive and iconic voice to be a great fit for such a powerful and eloquent speech. You can read the transcript here. (Unfortunately, I cannot product the video here, so just click the first hyperlink to see if for yourself.)

China’s Ecological Apocalypse

An article from TruthOut.org, obtained via the Daily Kosoffers an in-depth and sobering look at China’s impending environmental crisis, and the foreign business and corrupt government officials responsible. Written by Richard Smith of the London-based Institute for Policy Research and Development, it combines damning research with equally damning accounts from those having to live with the degradation of their air, land, water, and public health.

The following excerpted vignettes, courtesy of the Daily Kos, should alone be enough to arouse alarm and concern.

The first time Li Gengxuan saw the dump trucks from the nearby factory pull into his village, he could not believe his eyes. Stopping between the cornfields and the primary school playground, the workers dumped buckets of bubbling white liquid onto the ground. Then they turned around and drove right back through the gates of their factory compound without a word. . . . When the dumping began, crops wilted from the white dust, which sometimes rose in clouds several feet off the ground and spread over the fields as the liquid dried. Village farmers began to faint and became ill. . . .Reckless dumping of industrial waste is everywhere in China. But what caught the attention of The Washington Post was that the Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Company was a “green energy” company producing polysilicon destined for solar energy panels sold around the world.

But China’s rise has come at a horrific social and environmental cost. It’s difficult to grasp the demonic violence and wanton recklessness of China’s profit-driven assault on nature and on the Chinese themselves. Ten years ago, in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine in March 2005, Pan Yue, China’s eloquent, young vice-minister of China’s State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) told the magazine, “the Chinese miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace.” Pan Yue added:

We are using too many raw materials to sustain [our] growth … Our raw materials are scarce, we don’t have enough land, and our population is constantly growing. Currently there [are] 1.3 billion people living in China, that’s twice as many as 50 years ago. In 2020 there will be 1.5 billion … but desert areas are expanding at the same time; habitable and usable land has been halved over the past 50 years … Acid rain is falling on one third of Chinese territory, half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless, while one fourth of our citizens do not have access to clean drinking water. One third of the urban population is breathing polluted air, and less than 20 percent of the trash in cities is treated and processed in an environmentally sustainable manner … Because air and water are polluted, we are losing between 8 and 15 percent of our gross domestic product. And that doesn’t include the costs for health … In Beijing alone, 70 to 80 percent of all deadly cancer cases are related to the environment.

As the Daily Kos points out during its own assessment of the report, China’s government, let alone the foreign companies it colludes with, has done little to address the problem (setting aside minor “green” initiatives and official pronouncements).

Members get rich by corruption-generated loot provided by underlings, and security is generated by passing a portion of the loot to patrons.  And that loot is generated by exploiting the country — its natural resources and its people — through industry as thoroughly and harshly as possible.  There are no incentives for reining industry’s polluting ways in, or for environmental protection generally, amongst those in control in China, only incentives to loot.

These incentives have also led to the numerous bizarre construction projects in China – the building of ghost cities, modern airports for flights that don’t exist, intercity freeways for vehicular traffic that doesn’t exist, and so on – all designed to generate income and support existing networks of guanxi, and all of which encourage more environmental destruction.

Also as a result, with respect at least to the environment, China has no functioning regulatory state, legislature, or judiciary. The ruling class essentially is a mass of completely unregulated capitalist enterprises, a legion of polluters with absolutely no brakes.  And yet, the ruling class, the Communist Party members, live very well compared to the people they exploit.

And China’s people, the day-to-day workers, farmers and villagers?  They have no voice.  They live in the world created by the CCP members, and suffer.

At 45 pages, it is a long and often heartbreaking read, but it is well worth your time. Not only are over 1.5 billion lives — close to 17 percent of the world’s population — threatened by this crisis, but so are hundreds of millions more people around the world. An ecological disaster on this scale cannot be localized within any one country’s national borders. The world has practically exported all of its most hazardous and polluting industries to far-off places like China, failing to account for the bigger picture: the impact on the global climate, let alone the immediate effect on hundreds of millions of people.

Boston Leads the Way in People-Centered Urban Planning

When it comes to making cities more liveable and efficient, many Americans tend to look abroad for examples, namely to places like Germany, the Netherlands, and Singapore. But it is nice to find a model closer to home, especially since it gives lie to the notion that America’s car-culture poses unique challenges that foreign cities do not face.

As PRI reports, Boston is one of the biggest and most prominent participants a new movement that is sweeping communities of all sizes across the United States. Continue reading

A Professor Weighs in on the Trigger Warning Debate

I haven’t the time nor inclination to get into this increasingly fraught topic (it has been too rough a day to give the apparently big issue its due focus and assessment); let’s just say I was a bit on the fence about the issue.

But the following excerpt of a New Republic article by  offers what I think to be a pretty sensible and balanced take on the matter.  Continue reading

The Cheapest and Most Sensible Solution to Homelessness

You guessed it (I think): giving homeless people housing. It sounds so deceptively obvious, even a bit humorous, yet it remains a relatively novel concept in the long fight against chronic homelessness. As I discussed in a previous post, a few cities have been experimenting with giving chronically homeless populations permanent housing; these initiatives have been met with great success, both ethical and economic (not only do people get the shelter they need, but cities and states save money on homelessness-related policing, incarceration, and emergency hospitalization).

Back in May, the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, which looked at three counties in the state, found the annual cost of giving homeless people a residence and a dedicated caseworker was $10,000 per person — about one-third less than the $31,000 currently spent every year per homeless person (again, on policing, jailing, etc.). Similar recent studies found large financial savings in Charlotte and Southeastern Colorado by just providing housing. Continue reading

U.S. Government Rules Against Bans of Homeless People Sleeping Outside

Boise, Idaho is one of a multitude of cities across the United States that prohibits homeless people from sleeping or camping in public spaces. Following a lawsuit against the city brought by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), the U.S. Department of Justice weighed in with a statement of interest that could greatly impact local policy towards homeless people well beyond Boise.

The crux of the DOJ argument is that these bans violate the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The reasoning is as follows:

When adequate shelter space exists, individuals have a choice about whether or not to sleep in public. However, when adequate shelter space does not exist, there is no meaningful distinction between the status of being homeless and the conduct of sleeping in public. Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity—i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.

According to the New York Timesthis is the first time in twenty years that the Justice Department has gotten involved in this “still-unsettled” area of law. In doing so, the federal government is basically warning cities across the nation to treat homelessness more humanely. Either lift the bans, or ensure that there is adequate shelter space and housing so that homeless people do not have to sleep outside in the first place. Continue reading

No Matter What You Do, a Living Wage is a Must

Amid demonstrations and public pressure by lowly paid fast food workers, the state of New York has become the latest jurisdiction to increase the minimum wage, this time to $15 an hour. In response, many grumbled upon the unfairness of having burger flippers and fry cooks make as much as EMTs, firefighters, and other “more important” occupations.

In response to this pushback, a paramedic publicly shared his own thoughts on the matter, which have since gone viral. Here it is in its entirety.

Fast food workers in NY just won a $15/hr wage.

I’m a paramedic. My job requires a broad set of skills: interpersonal, medical, and technical skills, as well as the crucial skill of performing under pressure. I often make decisions on my own, in seconds, under chaotic circumstances, that impact people’s health and lives. I make $15/hr.

And these burger flippers think they deserve as much as me?

Good for them.

Look, if any job is going to take up someone’s life, it deserves a living wage. If a job exists and you have to hire someone to do it, they deserve a living wage. End of story. There’s a lot of talk going around my workplace along the lines of, “These guys with no education and no skills think they deserve as much as us? Fuck those guys.” And elsewhere on FB: “I’m a licensed electrician, I make $13/hr, fuck these burger flippers.”

And that’s exactly what the bosses want! They want us fighting over who has the bigger pile of crumbs so we don’t realize they made off with almost the whole damn cake. Why are you angry about fast food workers making two bucks more an hour when your CEO makes four hundred TIMES what you do? It’s in the bosses’ interests to keep your anger directed downward, at the poor people who are just trying to get by, like you, rather than at the rich assholes who consume almost everything we produce and give next to nothing for it.

My company, as they’re so fond of telling us in boosterist emails, cleared 1.3 billion dollars last year. They expect guys supporting families on 26-27k/year to applaud that. And that’s to say nothing of the techs and janitors and cashiers and bed pushers who make even less than us, but are as absolutely crucial to making a hospital work as the fucking CEO or the neurosurgeons. Can they pay us more? Absolutely. But why would they? No one’s making them.

The workers in NY made them. They fought for and won a living wage. So how incredibly petty and counterproductive is it to fuss that their pile of crumbs is bigger than ours? Put that energy elsewhere. Organize. Fight. Win.

Writing for EMS1.com, an online network for emergency medical services (EMS) personnel, Arthur Hsieh weighed into the subsequent debate about who deserves a decent salary or wage.

Continue reading

The Return of the American Slum

From The Atlantic comes yet another sobering confirmation of America’s economic and social decline. As rising inequality, government austerity, and declining employment continue apace, poverty is naturally rising, becoming more concentrated and self-perpetuating than ever.

The number of people living in high-poverty areas—defined as census tracts where 40 percent or more of families have income levels below the federal poverty threshold—nearly doubled between 2000 and 2013, to 13.8 million from 7.2 million, according to a new analysis of census data by Paul Jargowsky, a public-policy professor at Rutgers University-Camden and a fellow at The Century Foundation. That’s the highest number of Americans living in high-poverty neighborhoods ever recorded.

The development is worrying, especially since the number of people living in high-poverty areas fell 25 percent, to 7.2 million from 9.6 million, between 1990 and 2000. Back then, concentrated poverty was declining in part because the economy was booming. The Earned Income Tax Credit boosted the take-home pay for many poor families. (Studies have shown the EITC also creates a feeling of social inclusion and citizenship among low-income earners.) The unemployment rate fell as low as 3.8 percent, and the first minimum wage increases in a decade made it easier for families to get by. Programs to disassemble housing projects in big cities such as Chicago and Detroit eradicated some of the most concentrated poverty in the country, Jargowsky told me.

As newly middle-class minorities moved to inner suburbs, though, the mostly white residents of those suburbs moved further away, buying up the McMansions that were being built at a rapid pace. This acceleration of white flight was especially problematic in Rust Belt towns that didn’t experience the economic boom of the mid-2000s. They were watching manufacturing and jobs move overseas.

Another reason for this growing problem are ineffective, if not counterproductive, policies at both the state and federal level.  Continue reading