Older readers will remember LBJ declaring a war on poverty in his 1964 State of the Union address. He was responding to the national poverty rate of 19%. The nation (back then) was united in thinking poverty was a bad thing. The official poverty rate for 2010 was 15.1%, according to the US Census.
We abandoned the war on poverty a long time ago. These days, instead of fighting poverty, the US is waging war against the poor.
Frances Fox Piven in The Nation writes about how OWS is bringing attention to poverty:
Some facts: early in 2011, the US Census Bureau reported that 14.3 percent of the population, or 47 million people—one in six Americans—were living below the official poverty threshold, currently set at $22,400 annually for a family of four. Some 19 million people are living in what is called extreme poverty, which means that their household income falls in the bottom half of those considered to be below the poverty line. More than a third of those extremely poor people are children. Indeed, more than half of all children younger than six living with a single mother are poor. Extrapolating from this data, Emily Monea and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution estimate that further sharp increases in both poverty and child poverty rates lie in our American future.
This kind of information goes largely unreported, and would (I hope) shock people if they were made aware of it.
Some experts dispute these numbers on the grounds that they neither take account of the assistance that the poor still receive, mainly through the food stamp program, nor of regional variations in the cost of living. In fact, bad as they are, the official numbers don’t tell the full story. The situation of the poor is actually considerably worse. The official poverty line is calculated as simply three times the minimal food budget first introduced in 1959, and then adjusted for inflation in food costs. In other words, the American poverty threshold takes no account of the cost of housing or fuel or transportation or healthcare costs, all of which are rising more rapidly than the cost of basic foods. So the poverty measure grossly understates the real cost of subsistence.
Those "experts" must be the same folks that insist that poor folks can't really be poor because they have refrigerators. In the tourist area of NH where I live, the wage scale (as advertised in the help wanted section of the paper) is exactly the same as it was in 1989. Nothing costs the same as it did back then.
Nor are these catastrophic levels of poverty merely a temporary response to rising unemployment rates or reductions in take-home pay resulting from the great economic meltdown of 2008. The numbers tell the story and it’s clear enough: poverty was on the rise before the Great Recession hit. Between 2001 and 2007, poverty actually increased for the first time on record during an economic recovery. It rose from 11.7 percent in 2001 to 12.5 percent in 2007. Poverty rates for single mothers in 2007 were 49 percent higher in the United States than in fifteen other high-income countries. Similarly, black employment rates and income were declining before the recession struck.
Weakening unions, a lagging minimum wage, outsourcing - all of these things contributed to the problem.
Inevitably, the overall impact of the campaign to reduce labor’s share of national earnings meant that a growing number of Americans couldn’t earn even a poverty-level livelihood—and even that’s not the whole of it. The poor and the programs that assisted them were the objects of a full-bore campaign directed specifically at them.
The poor have been vilified for decades now, starting with the "welfare queens driving Cadillacs" right up to the contemporary legislation calling for drug testing of welfare or food stamp recipients.
OWS has brought national attention to income inequality and the concentration of wealth at the top. The shift in our national media dialogue has been startling. For most of the last year it's been "all deficit all the time." Those days appear to be over. The reportage these days is broader and better, and Occupy has spread around the country, and continues to grow. Frances Fox Piven writes of her hopes for a more moral economy in our country. Let us hope, as she does, that this is just the beginning.
cross-posted at MainSt/workingamerica.org