Previously on Grimm…
Okay, play on words time is over. Seriously, the plight of the poor in America is grim. The Great Recession we are still pulling out of cut a great many Americans off at the knees. Poverty flooded and seeped into sectors of our national community that it had not invaded before. And those who were living in poverty already—on Native Reservations, in rural areas in the midwest and deep South, in urban ghettos—found even the slender lifelines they had suddenly vanished.
A debate has arisen all over America online and off about who’s responsible for this situation, and for the amelioration of the increased poverty it has produced. Many people seem to opt for a response that I, as a writer of Star Wars novels, am all too familiar with: “Not My Fault!” They are not a member of the affected group, nor do they know anyone first hand who is, ergo, it is part of Douglas Adams’ SEP field (Somebody Else’s Problem). In rare cases, I have talked to individuals who said, “If I suffer setbacks and become poor or sick, I won’t accept help from anyone else. It’ll be my cross to bear.”
The ideas about who’s responsible to help the poor are many. I identified the five I meet the most often in the first post on this subject:
- Everyone has a support network. It’s up to the families and friends of the poor to bail them out.
- It’s up to charities to see to the poor. People need to contribute more as individuals.
- If someone is poor it’s their own fault. They should just stop being poor/lazy/undereducated.
- It’s everyone’s responsibility to pull themselves up by their boot straps, no matter how they came to be poor..
- It’s up to society as a whole to lift the poor out of poverty.
Point #1 is deserving of a game show buzzer raspberry. Everyone doesn’t have a personal support network. This is simply empirically, verifiably untrue. Those people I know who have such networks are using them. Thousands of college kids have moved back home. Extended families are living in the same house—including my own family.
This begs the question: What do we do with those who literally have no friends or family in a position to help them? More to the point: what happens if we, as a society, simply decide NOT to help them? These are not rhetorical questions, boys and girls; really think this through. Is the status quo working?
I’m not going to dignify #3 by responding to it except to ask how someone making this argument would defend it. This is not a rhetorical question, either. No Devil’s Advocates, please. Only propose an answer if you really believe there is a way poor people can just stop being poor.
Position #4 is similar to #3, but the contention is that while people can’t just wiggle their noses or say “Expecto Patronum” and become unpoor, they can work their way out of poverty unaided. My observation of reality suggests that this impossible in any real world practical sense. None of us is in complete control of our environment, resources or opportunities—if we were, there would be no poverty for successive divine Revelators to generate verses of scripture about and nothing for me to blog about today.
That leaves us with points #2 and #5, which at least offer some sort of real-world foundation. There are charitable organizations set up to deal with the issues that go hand-in-hand with poverty—soup kitchens, free clinics, homeless shelters, etc. And we do have an actual society that we cohabit that makes it possible for us to refer to ourselves collectively as Americans and human beings. We have local, state and federal governmental organizations through which we can express our collective will.
First, #2: Can’t charities take care of the poor?
Perhaps there was a time when that might have been possible, if those charities might have worked together. But each set of charitable institutions (even within a single faith) has its own infrastructure, administration, and resources. This makes mounting such a cooperative response challenging at best, IF all of the parties would be willing to work together. Alas, there are extremists on both ends of the religious-secular spectrum that stolidly and dogmatically refuse to work with people who are not “them”. Moreover, if it was ever possible for religious and secular charities to care for all the poor in America, the Great Recession put paid to that idea.
How? Because everything in our society is connected to everything else. The employment numbers are connected to unemployment insurance, which is connected to food stamps and welfare, which is connected to the minimum wage which is connected to healthcare subsidies and Medicare/Medicaid eligibility. All of that is affected by the rise in poverty.
“In the fall of 2011, with hunger rearing up across America, the large freezer bins at the Port Carbon Food Pantry (PCFP), in the small, gritty, Appalachian town of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, were empty. The shelves next to the freezers were also largely barren. A few boxes of egg noodles provided about the only sign that this was a place in the business of giving out food to those who could no longer afford to buy it. An adjacent room was doing slightly better, displaying stacks of canned fruit, canned corn, beans, and bags of pasta. But, taken as a whole, these were slim pickings. Clients who walked or drove up the hill, the remnants of an unseasonably early snow storm still on the ground, from the center of town to the two-story building were eligible for six to ten days of food, but that food was all they’d be able to get from the pantry for the next two months.
“Three years earlier, explained PCFP’s coordinator, Ginny Wallace, the rooms were filled to bursting with food. Then the economy tanked; demand for the free food soared; and at the same time, locals’ ability to donate to the pantry crumbled.” (Sasha Abramsky. “The American Way of Poverty”, p. 36)
Did you catch that last sentence? The shelves of this charity were empty because the Recession affected, not just the already poor, or those who’d been hovering just above the poverty line, or even those who were middle class and suddenly had no income. It affected those who still had jobs and healthcare and a roof over their heads, but who found their resources suddenly uncertain and strained. The people who regularly gave to charities—who put food on those shelves—cut back their contributions of food and money, or stopped giving altogether, because that money was no longer discretionary.
But it wasn’t just the charities and the poor they serve that this cascade overwhelmed. Families like ours also cut back on spending, thereby withholding money from the businesses that were used to receiving it, and generally denying the economic substructure of our local, state and national economies the revenues they needed to progress and grow. My editing and ghostwriting clients all felt the crunch, which meant that I felt it and my family felt it, and the businesses we purchased from felt it.
But there’s a recovery going on, yes? So, the poor will recover right along with everyone else, right? Yes, there is a recovery, but counter-intuitive as it may seem, the recovery has, in some ways, made the situation worse for some of the poor.
Think of it in terms of fluid dynamics. Have you ever sat at the end of a long line of cars at an intersection waiting for the light to turn green? Have you noticed how, once you’ve seen the light turn green with your own eyes, it takes many long, agonizing seconds before the forward surge reaches your car? Fluid dynamics also applies, at least metaphorically, to our economy or any other large, complex system with moving parts.
When it comes to the economy, it’s worse. Consider the housing market—it’s making a comeback. That means housing costs are going up. Rents are rising, food prices are rising, clothing prices are rising, gas prices are rising. Even those who make too little to pay income taxes have to pay sales taxes, and sales taxes are not progressive. That is, they are the same whether you are very poor or very rich.
What’s not rising is the amount people earn. This is why there’s a push to raise the minimum wage, which is one of the ways in which we, as a society, could help the working poor if we were of a mind to do so. But that’s a different slice of the pie.
The bottom line on #2 is that no, charities can’t take care of all the poor. If they could have, they would have. They’re trying—often cooperatively—to stem the tide of poverty. But you can’t get food from empty shelves. In order for those charities to give, individuals have to give, and you can’t force people to give to charity, you can only encourage them to do it.
So, what’s the solution? Is this something only the Andrew Carnegies and Warren Buffetts of the world can or should work out? Is it the sole province of religious organizations (which, according to surveys are dwindling as more and more people become unaffiliated with such institutions)?
After all, Bahá’u’lláh makes a point of saying to the wealthy among us:
O YE RICH ONES ON EARTH! The poor in your midst are My trust; guard ye My trust, and be not intent only on your own ease. (Hidden Words, Vs 54)
Or is the answer Point 5: that it’s our obligation as a society of human beings to care for the poor in our midst?
Next time: A look at interdependence.