A recent Reuters article described poverty in the United States as a chronic ill, with little hope for resolution. This came a little over a month after the annual U.S. Census report on parity, a late August event that ordinarily passes without much notice outside of public policy and humanitarian circles. This year, however, the publication of U.S. income and poverty statistics for 2004 coincided with Hurricane Katrina, bringing the issue of poverty in our country up from the depths of our national consciousness and crashing onto the shores of our national discourse.
Sure, they were slow to recognize it, with many of the newscasters and talking heads speaking initially about the Katrina victims as those who "chose to stay," the same uninformed opinion incredibly repeated days into the disaster by the now-ousted FEMA director, Michael Brown. But within a day or so, after checking census demographic and income data, not to mention prior dire investigative reports by various local papers and agencies, those covering the story came to grips with the ugly truth--that those left helpless in the wake of that catastrophic storm were simply those who could not afford to get out. The gut-wrenching footage from the New Orleans Convention Center and Superdome brought obscure income statistics briefly and brutally to life.
Simultaneously, it tore back the curtain on the great and powerful United States, allowing people around the world to see that our ideal of the nice house, picket fence and 2.5 kids was as much fiction for many of our citizens as the superhero and sci-fi fare cranked out in Hollywood and exported abroad. Seeing scenes from one of our prized tourist destinations, and a frequent site of the ultimate pageant of Americana, the Super Bowl, reduced to the grim tableaus that we are told only exist in "Third World" countries presented us with two jarring, divergent realities to reconcile. The fact that the people suffering were "so poor, so black," as CNN's Wolf Blitzer observed with more truth than he probably meant to utter, only compounded our national embarrassment.
Ahh, race--the invisible elephant in the living room ... or on the heating grate, or in the shelter if you happen to be among the teeming ranks of the homeless. I'll tell you what. Let's leave race alone for a minute and then get back to it, OK?
Decades ago, we tried to handle our biz with poverty the same way we deal with everything else, by declaring war on it (like the fantastically successful War on Drugs or current President Bush's all-encompassing War on Terra). Militaristic language aside, President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty in 1964 seems in retrospect a very noble, if quixotic, undertaking. Under its own terms, the initial stages of this war were a success, with the poverty rate declining from 19 percent at inception to 12.9 percent four years later in 1968. Since then, however, the rate has fluctuated above and below that rate, ultimately remaining flat, if one is to take the results of the recent Census report (12.7 percent for 2004, up 0.2 percent from the previous year) as indicative.
Militarily, one could say that, from 1968 until the present, our enemy of poverty has fought us to a stalemate. That was pretty much the tone that the Reuters article took in pronouncing the problem "chronic." Alternatively, though, one could chalk the absence of further progress in the War on Poverty to the evaporation of our national will to fight. In human terms, it's a bigger defeat than Vietnam, if one counts up the number of Americans who die annually of causes and conditions that would be preventable but for poverty and lack of health care.
The United States, shamefully, owns a poverty rate that is not only the worst among industrialized nations, but is almost double that of those other nations when measured under the same criteria. David Brady, an associate professor of sociology at Duke University, was quoted in the Reuters article, and wrote his own Op Ed which was carried by several papers, including The N&O, on Aug. 28, a day before Katrina made its impact on the Gulf Coast and our national psyche.
Brady researches poverty and economic inequality, including differences between the United States and other countries, as well as the impacts of politics and macroeconomic factors like workforce globalization. In both his Op Ed and the Reuters article, Brady states that our current measure of poverty, created back in 1963, is under-representative, as it was derived from a formula that assumed that one-third of a family's expenditures would be on food (and then ratcheted down by another 25 percent by LBJ's administration to provide a more manageable number). Housing now far outweighs food as an average household expense, and many Americans spend over 50 percent of their incomes on housing. Those who can't afford that find themselves among the swollen ranks of the homeless, working poor--those unfortunate souls who contradict our commonly held Darwinist views equating poverty with laziness and lack of personal industry.
Using the methodology of the Luxembourg Income Study, an organization Brady identifies as the "most state of the art" and which calculates poverty as a relative measure of the percentage of people making less than 50 percent of the median income in a given society, our poverty level is significantly higher than what we publish. Currently, that would put our poverty level at around 18 percent compared with the aforementioned official 12.7 percent figure. That works out to about 48 million Americans in fairly serious economic trouble, yet living in the industrialized nation that provides the least, in the form of a social safety net, of its peers. We are, at our core, a nation that is unwilling to recognize our poverty problem, and even more unwilling to make a serious effort to rectify it.
Why is that? I see a cycle at work. Our perceptions (and misconceptions) drive our politics and policies, which then translate into our "acceptable" level of poverty. Things are bad enough, in general, but become downright dismal when you factor race into the equation. African Americans, in particular, are twice as likely as whites to be poor in this country and make up a disproportionate percentage of those on the very lowest economic rungs here.
As if the material neglect evidenced by the disproportionate impact of the Katrina tragedy weren't Malthusian enough, we recently had yet another reminder of the value, or lack thereof, that many Americans place on black life. William Bennett, on his radio talk show, engaged a caller in discussion about the economic impacts on abortion. The caller posited that the economy had likely suffered due to the loss of all of those potential workers, engaging in the sort of extrapolations used in the book Freakonomics. Bennett, who is staunchly anti-abortion, countered with his own extrapolation thusly:
"But I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could--if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.
"That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky."
If Bennett were, say, David Duke, or some other admitted card-carrying klansman, I'd have brushed that sentiment aside, no matter how evil I find it to be. The truly troubling thing here, though, is who this man is. William Bennett was the Secretary of Education under President Reagan (during the whole ketchup-is-a-vegetable years). Later, he was appointed as the nation's first drug czar, under Bush the Elder. In the years since he held those roles, he has been a self-appointed, freelance culture warrior, moralist and proponent of European culture. He wrote a best selling book called The Book of Virtues that spun off into a lucrative children's book and TV series. This man has influenced U.S. policy significantly, and holds himself up (well, at least before reports of his massive gambling habit forced him to tone it down a bit) as a paragon of Virtues with a capital V. For him to be toying with the idea of racial genocide as a "theoretical exercise," no matter how much insincere language he couches it in, is beyond outrageous.
Freakonomics author Steve Levitt used a general example examining the impacts of abortion on crime, which he says purposely excluded race, because the best correlative data comes from Scandinavia, where race was not one of the prevailing factors, and because race-based criminal data is notoriously unreliable. The very least Bennett does wrong is to equate black people, with absolutely no regard for income or any other factor, with crime. Again, from a neo-Nazi I'd expect that and keep it movin'. But this man was the first drug czar. The one who made his initial speech the day after an FBI report confirmed that 70 percent of all drug use in this country is done by whites and promptly announced that in his new position he would concentrate on interdiction in the inner cities (i.e., where the black people are).
Current figures put white drug use at almost 75 percent of the total, yet black people still make up almost half of all prisoners, despite being only around 12 percent of the general population. Studies abound showing that black people are arrested and convicted at over twice the rate of their white counterparts for similar and even lesser offenses. During the '90s, when an astronomical number of people were incarcerated (79 percent of the growth in arrests were for marijuana possession), the United States had the largest prison population per capita in the so-called free world.
This fraud's own dismal "contributions" at both the Department of Education and as drug czar helped to create or worsen conditions that lead to poverty in general, and for African Americans in particular. Moreover, his reckless comments engender a misinformed public, which then, presumably, leads to more people of his ilk in policy positions who, in turn, worsen conditions, not just for blacks but for all Americans. It's a feedback loop of ignorance.
Given this country's racial history, and with African Americans in large part economically disadvantaged due to the legacy of persistent and pervasive discrimination, it's easy to see why the War on Poverty has been backburnered, politically, for decades. With black folks double represented, and making up almost a quarter of the U.S. poor, fighting poverty is made equivalent to helping "those people" in much the same way that Bennett so blithely equated the entire black population with criminality. The irony, though, is that American, and particularly white American, antipathy to anti-poverty programs hurts large numbers of white people. They are still the numeric majority of the American poor and also share the dubious distinction as the group among the poor that's growing fastest as globalization continues to sap jobs--and even the prospect of living wages--from communities, while economic chickens come home to roost.
More than any time in my memory, the issues of poverty in this land of plenty are on the table and under discussion. But what will come of it? Clearly no amount of bootstraps or moral character was getting those people out of New Orleans without cars or gas money. Will the country finally recognize that?
Asked whether he thought Katrina could be a watershed event for the way Americans view poverty, Professor Brady responded, "I'd love to believe that would be the case, but I'm not that optimistic."
And sure enough, despite the rush of activism and activity and discussion in the immediate wake of Katrina, the country is slipping back into its familiar social stupor. In Congress, the idea of an independent investigation of Katrina was nixed, so it's highly doubtful that the partisan-led inquiry will seriously consider the impact of Gulf Coast citizens' poverty on the woeful, dreadful disaster response they received. Moreover, just as with the aftermath of 9/11, the recovery from this tragedy is being used as cover to implement policies that were on the Bush-backer goodie list to begin with.
We're back up to our old tricks. No-bid contracts (some of which will undoubtedly find their way to our nation's favorite charity case, Halliburton, and its subsidiaries) have been awarded. And legislators are falling over themselves to prescribe enterprise zones and--get this--a repeal of the estate tax for people in that area. I guess that way, any millionaires who couldn't afford a ride out can rest eternally in the knowledge that the maximum amount of their wealth was transferred to their deserving progeny. Lord forbid any of it should go to help poor people.