a recent report on poverty in the U.S. the National Center on Family Homelessness there are an estimated 53,000 kids living below the poverty line in Arizona and families are the fastest growing homeless population in the country. In fact, families becoming homeless increased by 10% in AZ. If this bothers you wait until you learn how poverty is defined.
The poverty threshold for 2011 was $22,350 per year for a family of four. Let’s put this in perspective. I made about slightly more than that right out of grad school as a probation officer back in 1992. At the time I was single and I had to live very frugally. There was no way I could have supported another three individuals on that salary. Although many will debate whether this standard under or over estimates the real level of poverty in the U.S., I don’t think it’s debatable. Seriously?! $22,350 per year for four people?! So anyone making over that with a family of four isn’t poor? I gotta call BS on that.
Far too often this topic is used as a political football because there are two competing philosophies behind our attitudes toward the poor in this country that directly affect public policy. The first philosophy holds that since wealth can be obtained though hard work, then poverty must result from a lack of hard work. Such an approach implies a moral judgement on the poor because they have to act and sloth is one of the 7 Deadly sins, right? This theory is bolstered by three important historical aspects of the American story1. First, there is the Calvinistic legacy of pre-destination. What was once a concept applied only to those early Protestant settlers has been adopted by various religious groups and inevitably to subcultures in the U.S. You can see it’s influence in beliefs such as “Manifest Destiny”, “City on a Hill”, and Prosperity Gospel. Unfortunately, this belief is more often misused to explain why others have not achieved success. After all, it’s very hard to offer an argument to “God wanted me to have this buttload of money” unless you routinely talk to God. Of course, to the non-religious and even to many religious people of all faiths think this is poppycock, believing instead in Free Will. Either way there is still an aspect of morality and judgement involved in this theory about who deserves to be wealthy.
The second concept is individualism. The idea that Americans were rugged individualists was mostly formed through the exploration and migration into the frontier by individuals and families. One of the most well known symbols of this rugged individualism was Daniel Boon. Taken to the extreme this concept creates an expectation that an individual should always be self-reliant and should be able to attain wealth and success. This concept while demonstrably true in many instances, is not the entire story. Indeed while rugged individualism was a crucial part of our heritage, equally crucial and equally demonstrable are numerous instances of collective effort to explore, settle and conquer the frontier. However, to hear politicians and demagogues speak you would think that everything worthy of praise was done by individuals but never groups. This is, of course, patently absurd2.
The third and last concept is equality. When the country first began, the concept of equality mainly meant equal rights before the law so as to avoid the development of a nobility and royalty. Equal rights such as this meant that everyone should receive the same measure of punishment for criminal misdeeds and protection against criminal misdeeds. Most likely the Founding Fathers3 did not, however believe it should be applied to commerce between individuals. Over time as people moved up the social ladder and the American Dream became more attainable by more people than ever before, the concept of Equal Opportunity (which had actually been around in Europe before America ever existed became more and more accepted. Spurred on my the Suffragettes and later the Civil Rights Movement, minorities were now supposed to be competing on a level playing field. However whatever is true in law is not always true in fact. Thus was born Affirmative Action, which I won’t address here. But this concept of equality is crucial to the functioning of our democracy and to our economy. What Americans, particularly wealthy and upper class citizens, fail to recognize that Equal Opportunity doesn’t exist in fact. Certainly every child born in America can go to college…there are no legal barriers in their way. Yet there are a host of circumstances, wholly of someone else’s doing or created by chance that can and will prevent them from taking advantage of the opportunity of higher education. Essentially they fail to take into account sheer luck.
Combine all three of these together and what do you get? You get the attitude that anyone in the U.S. can become wealthy on their own AND if they suffer misfortune they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. If I had a nickle every time I’ve heard this theory, I’d be wealthy! The reality is that sometimes no amount of bootstrap pulling will result in an individual achieving success. Sometimes people just need help and that’s what society is for. Too many people have forgotten the phrase, “there but for the grace of God, go I”. Grace is not given for merit and it’s not given to those who ask…it is handed out, as religious would say, by God in mercy. The non-religious call it good luck. Either way, we’re all subject to it-all either recipients or not of grace/good luck and we have no more idea of how/when/why it happens than a plant knows why it rains. It only knows that it happens and they need it.
The poor aren’t poor because they deserve it, particularly poor children. And speaking of need, back to children in need. A VERY worthy charity that helps homeless and at risk children here in AZ is getting ready to have a fund raiser to gather enough to build a facility to expand their school up to the 12th grade–Children First Academy. They do wonderful things. You should check them out, especially if you believe that poverty is not the result of laziness or immorality, but often just bad luck.
Updated: For accuracy on the source of the estimate of 53,000-a link to their website is added below. The 10% growth came from the NPR article linked below but they don’t cite a source.
1. You should recognize these concepts from Social Studies courses in junior high…they form the American psyche and personality, insofar as it can be generalized–which is increasingly no longer the case as the country becomes more and more diverse. To my mind, this is a good thing but I am sure there are many who would argue with this opinion.
2. If self-reliance was such a critical part of human beings existence, why did we ever form families, villages, towns, cities, countries, etc? Because we are social animals and rely on each other for many things–mutual protection, mutual entertainment, necessary social interaction and species propagation, and yes, the sharing of resources.
3. Let’s not kid ourselves about the Founding Fathers. The majority of them were land owners of the upper classes (but not all, like Adams). They did, after all limit the right of voting to white adult males who owned land, the presumption being these kind of men would have more discernment, education and involvement in governing and being governed. And there is an implied judgement in that, isn’t there? You must concede that it is a snobby view to take in relation to what we know today about the equally capable women, non-whites, non-land owning people, etc.