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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Poverty In America

As many of us, I was rattled when, a few months ago, I read accounts of how 45-47% of Americans did not have access to enough money to cover a $400 emergency expense. It might have been a serious car repair or a visit to the emergency room. When I bounced the statistic around to a few people, to a person they shook their heads and said that the figure had to be wrong. People may not have had 400 extra dollars in their checking accounts but they could go to relatives or friends or simply put the expense on a credit card.

So, I worked to find the source of the $400 statement. I found two--The ATLANTIC magazine and the Federal Reserve. Both sources have some credibility with me. The ATLANTIC is known for great writing, in depth analysis, and a strongly progressive tilt. I often do not agree with their conclusions or solutions to the issues that they raise but they almost always provide well reasoned arguments. The Federal Reserve perhaps should have raised interest rates earlier but they do look at FACTS and I am confident that their assertion that 46% of Americans would be hard pressed to come up with $400 for a surprise expense is likely quite valid.

In 2001, I read a then new book by Barbara Ehrenreich. It was entitled, Nickel and Dimed with the subtitle, On (Not) Getting by in America. Ms. Ehrenreich went "undercover" as a waitress and chambermaid to see how difficult it was to survive on minimum wage and tips. It was an eye-opener to any who read it. She talked of how hard it was physically to survive as well as financially when one was part of the underclass.

When I saw the $400 articles and commentary, I thought it might be time for an update so, in the great Don Cole tradition, I read three books of recent vintage with a similar theme:

1) Hand to Mouth by Linda Tirado
2) The American Way of Poverty by Sasha Abramsky
3) $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Eden

The books vary in quality but all give real life stories that tear at your heart if you have one. Ms. Tirado's HAND TO MOUTH received the most publicity and is an easy and breezy read. She recounts her personal struggles and the many indignities that she and her family have had as they have dropped from the middle class to the underclass. Also, she is perceptive, very intelligent and quite angry. The anger and her vulgarity gets in the way of telling the tale.

She also loses points as she rationalizes many things. For example, she smokes cigarettes as a "five minute vacation" from her rough life and openly admits that after a hard day at work, she may eat all the wrong foods. In nearly the same breath, she complains about lack of funds. Well, stop smoking and you will be healthier and have more cash. She also talks of being fired repeatedly and candidly admits that she "lost it" with the boss in public. We all have to exercise verbal discipline on the job. She does not seem to get that. Still, the book is powerful. Her stories about dealing with insensitive landlords are deeply moving.

Sasha Abramsky’s THE AMERICAN WAY OF POVERTY is not a personal story. He does a nice job of using individual people’s stories to capture the hopelessness many impoverished people must feel. And, he offers a great many ideas for government programs that he feel can turn the tide. I am not so sure. When I go back to Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” of the mid-1960’s, we find that well intended programs often miss the mark. It does not seem to matter which major party is in power. Poverty, measured by the government, seems to be 12-14% of the population.

The final book is $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Eden. This book seems unbelievable at first but as she takes you through anecdote after anecdote you soon realize that there are perhaps a few million people in America living as many do in a developing country (two billion people live on less than $2.50 globally). Reading it had a shock effect that I suppose we all need now and then.

Okay, what does this have to say to Media Realism readers. A few things hit me. Number one, most of the working poor work very hard. Some have made a few bad choices early on in their lives and are on a very rough treadmill simply trying to survive. Others had some bad luck and never recovered. Few are simply “too damn lazy to work” as many have been saying for years.
Secondly, some are in tight spots due to lack of discipline. If you are struggling to survive it may feel good for a minute to tell off the boss but you wind up out of a job soon. Also, you need to take of yourself physically and be sure to get to work on time. Basic stuff that many of us take for granted. Additionally, children are usually involved in most of the stories told in all three books. What can we do to help them so the vicious cycle of lifelong poverty does not continue?

The technological changes going on are apt to leave this underclass almost totally behind. Many of the minimum wage jobs that they are currently doing will be executed in large part by robots in a decade or so. Also, Amazon and fellow travelers are killing many retail outlets which have been a large employer for many struggling Americans for decades.

Finally, what will happen to TV? The underclass does not have cable, satellite, or Netflix or Amazon Prime. Most do not have credit cards and many, such as Ms. Tirado (at the time she wrote the book) are unbanked. So, conventional TV is going to become the only entertainment option of those living in poverty. The demographics of over the air TV and radio have been weakening for years. They will only get worse.
Reading these books made me realize the economics of poverty better than I ever have. You, my readers, along with me may not be satisfied with our current financial situation despite the NASDAQ seemingly breaking records almost daily. Yet, what if you had no skin in the game and no prospects for advancement? Think about it.
If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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