Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Poverty in America: who is really deserving of help?

By Charles Brooks

The Economic Policy Institute recently reported that in the roughly three decades leading up to the most recent recession, looking at the officially measured poverty rate, educational upgrading and overall income growth were the two biggest poverty-reducing factors, while income inequality was the largest poverty-increasing factor. The federal government set the poverty line at $23,550 for a family of four in 2013, $11,490 for a single individual, and $4,020 for each individual person. The Blackboard spoke with Dr. Wilhelmina A. Leigh, who serves as a Senior Research Associate with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, about poverty in America: “People have to be aware of (poverty), care about it and understand that having the kind of inequality we have in this country is not good for any of us. People have to be made aware, somehow, that inequality and high levels of poverty impairs all of our lives and limits the growth of our economy.”

The latest poverty statistics are both telling and quite disturbing: over 46 million in poverty, nearly 11 million employed, find it difficult to make ends meet- are in poverty. Slightly over 16 million children under 18 are in poverty at an alarming 21.8% rate. 31 million whites are in poverty at a 12.7% rate, while almost 11 million blacks are in poverty at a rate that doubles whites - at 27.2%. Dr. Jared Ball, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Morgan State University and co-editor of “A Lie of Revinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X tells The Blackboard, “There’s been a long effort in this country to associate blackness with poverty in the same way that blackness is associated with abuses of welfare or crime. Nevermind the fact that, depending on how you cite the numbers, overwhelming the population of the poor is white. It’s just that disproportionately, black people suffer poverty given their proportion of the overall population."

You may have noticed that in recent weeks, there’s been an uptick in the media coverage of poverty, but typically poverty receives scant media coverage and very little attention from elected officials. Dr. Ball explains: “Most major media is owned by the wealthiest corporations and representatives of the richest people in the country. Similarly, it was just reported a few weeks ago, almost everyone in Congress and in the Senate are millionaires, and they are supported by people with more money than that.” Dr. Ball continues, “So the real issue is having a conversation around poverty, how it’s generated and why it’s necessary."

While you may have noticed minimal coverage afforded to poverty, there’s always a conversation about the interests of the middle class. A recent PBS report focused “on the less visible but growing number of poor in America’s suburbs.” During the PBS report, Richard Koubek who chairs the Welfare to Work Commission in Suffolk County said, “Despite our affluence, we have a lot of middle income people who are struggling. We are one of the most expensive communities in the United States in terms of everything, gasoline, housing, food. Dr. Leigh explains the distinction between the deserving poor versus the undeserving poor. Dr. Leigh tells The Blackboard, “A majority of the people in this country consider themselves middle class as opposed to working class, or maybe upper lower class. It’s a very interesting dynamic, if you ask me. You have the people who sort of half way made it are asking for more help – so they can make it. But the folks who haven’t even half way made it are just falling off the radar screen, and we don’t really to seem to care or seem to be willing to focus on them.” Dr. Leigh continues, “In some ways, the middle class thinks of themselves as the deserving poor because they’ve been buffeted by the subprime market collapse and the subsequent Great Recession and therefore maybe they feel poor. And maybe when the middle class feels poor that’s when they complain more and get more benefits but when the middle class feels poor it is different from the people who are really feeling poor. The whole tax system is set up that way, its mainly middle class and upper class fill out the Schedule A which is where you put down you own property, you can write off property tax payments, and mortgage interest payments – that is not what poor people are able to fill out and get benefit from. They can get the EITC…“It comes down to our perceptions of who deserves help, and at this moment, the people who are being viewed as the “deserving poor” - that’s the middle class now.”

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