Saturday, July 30, 2011

Poverty - Bad and Getting Worse

by Michael K. Smith

I worked in a day care center for three years but ended up taking a job in a kennel because it paid better.

-----Former day care worker Denver, 2003

I can tell you that . . . as a black woman who’s been dealing with this forever, it can make you get crazy. Being poor all the time can make you crazy.

-----Crystal, a fifty-year-old health care labor organizer, New York City, 2006

Evil exists. I believe that what the rich have done to the poor people in this city is something that a preacher could call evil. Somebody has power. Pretending that they don’t so they don’t need to use it to help people - that is my idea of evil.

-----South Bronx schoolboy to author Jonathan Kozol

Poverty flourishes while the economy continues to "recover." Sound familiar? It should, because we've been seeing the same phenomenon since the Reagan years, although not always with such a broad cast of victims. In some areas of the country sheriffs deputies are deemed poor enough to qualify for WIC (supplemental food for women, infants, and children), while in others food banks report that teachers are showing up for free food.

Less surprisingly, according to a new report from the Center for Housing Policy, a security guard cannot pay the average costs of a mortgage or lease. The study shows that the most common jobs in the service sector of the economy are incapable of generating sufficient income with which to pay the cost of living. Among those jobs are gardener, janitor, office worker, and security guard. Fast food workers, agricultural workers, home help aides, hotel cleaners, retail clerks, and many other categories of workers are in similar straits. In the 1950s, one in three American workers held manufacturing jobs, which, though physically demanding, generally paid fairly decent wages and provided health-care insurance, unemployment insurance, and a guaranteed pension. Today, only one in ten workers has such a job. And those workers find that their jobs are increasingly outsourced.

Currently the average price of a house in San Francisco is $550,000, in New York and San Jose $425,000, in Honolulu, $400,000. The national minimum wage, the lowest in half a century, stands at $7.25 an hour. In other words, if you work full-time at the minimum wage and save every dollar you earn for 30 years, you'll be within range of buying a home for yourself in New York or California or Hawaii. If President Obama fulfills his campaign pledge to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2011 (he's got five months left of 2011), which is very unlikely, your house might only cost you 20 years of full-time labor.

Poverty, as usual, amounts to death on the installment plan. A typical poor person’s diet consists of oatmeal for breakfast, and potatoes with gravy and tortillas for dinner. Lunch is a luxury, so don't develop an "entitlement mentality." A varied diet of tasty and nutritious foods is simply impossible for the poor, who find that austerity overrules balanced diet, with food stocks boiling down to potatoes, beans, rice, gravy, bread, dried milk, and Kool-Aid. Fresh fruits and vegetables are as rare as insight from President Obama.

Thanks to the automobile and oil industries, entire communities, lifestyles, job choices, and consumption patterns were built on a foundation of sand: cheap and plentiful gas supplies. Now that gas is no longer cheap, people stranded far from mass transit are forced to prioritize spending on gasoline and vehicle maintenance ahead of food. Without a vehicle and fuel to run it, one cannot gain or hold employment, shop for groceries, or get to the doctor's office. So people spend their last dollars filling (or partially filling) their gas tanks while their empty bellies growl in protest.

While there isn’t mass starvation in the United States, there is certainly a vast amount of chronic hunger, the kind that does not immediately kill, but leaves its victims lethargic and prone to illness, depression, and rage. Keep this in mind the next time you hear a politician urging you to "support our troops," as many of today's hungry are military personnel and their families.

Meanwhile, big business is awash in gargantuan profits (nearly 13% a year), major corporate CEOs got a 23% raise last year, and most working Americans are seeing their incomes stagnate or decline, even though productivity has risen steadily in recent years. Census Bureau numbers show that the median household income for working-age households fell, in 2007 dollars, by $2,010 in the years from 2000 to 2007, that is, BEFORE the crash of 2008. This is the only economic cycle on record in which real income for American workers has fallen.

Why is this happening? According to JP Morgan Chase, the steady decline of American wages and benefits is due to capital cannibalizing on wages, a phenomenon that accounts for fully 75% of the boom in corporate profit margins. "To state this more simply," Chase recently told its private banking clients, "profits are up because wages are down."

And they will stay down as long as unions remain weak or nonexistent (only 7% of the private sector is unionized), and no politically decisive labor bloc organizes itself against corporate money and power.

We're down, and they're stomping on us. It's time to counter-attack.


Abramsky, Sasha, "Breadline USA - The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It," (PoliPoint Press, 2009)

Dodson, Lisa, "The Moral Underground - How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy," (New Press, 2009)

"Economic Recovery Misses Latinos," The Opinion (Spanish edition), July 27, 2011

Sklar, Holly, "CEOs to Workers: More for Me, Less for You," July 25, 2011,

Meyerson, Harold, "Corporate America's Chokehold on Wages," Washington Post, July 19, 2011

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