Looking Poverty — And Ourselves — in the Face. Are We All Right with One in Ten Minnesotans, One in Eight Americans, Sinking in Poverty?

Three years ago Katrina ripped away the veil that hid what Michael Harrington in the 1960s called “The Other America,” the poor who live beside us in the richest nation in the world. For a few moments, it seemed we might pay attention to people less fortunate than most of us.

In Wednesday’s StarTribune, the headline reads: “Income erodes, poverty gains in Minnesota.” The story reports: “There were about 482,000 Minnesotans in poverty last year, up 60,000 from 2006. The poverty rate rose from 8.2 percent to 9.3 percent.” And Minnesota is better off than most states — our poverty rate is the ninth lowest in America, although we fell from fifth lowest.

When the Republicans gather in St. Paul, will they pay attention to the one in eight Americans living in poverty? ONE IN EIGHT!!! How is America working when one of every eight of us is living in poverty?

Bill Clinton, at the Democratic convention Wednesday night, reminded us that the disparity between rich and poor in America is now as severe, as unconscionable, as obscene (my words not Bill’s) as in the 1920s. Republican policies and philosophy have resulted in this inhumane and growing disparity between rich and poor. The Republicans themselves may be well-meaning, well-intended. They may believe that their policies will help all Americans. But they haven’t. They’re leaving way too many behind. And it’s getting worse. And we can’t abide this.

I know Republicans fear that Democrats will just raise their taxes and waste their money. I heard this again the other day from two of my clients — good-hearted people whose families have worked hard for generations to build small businesses that provide quality staple products at a fair price. I hear them and understand their frustration. But I pray we can all get beyond these fears and political judgmentalism to see The Other America. And to be ashamed of ourselves. And to do the Christian thing, the Jewish thing, the Muslim thing. The right thing. Help one another rather than walk on by, averting our eyes.

Republicans, you’re coming to a rich state, a state where things are going pretty well. And a state where one in ten of us live in poverty. That’s not good enough. America is not working for enough of us. We can do better. We must. And Democrats, let’s go beyond the talk and make things work, effectively.

If the distraught faces of Katrina didn’t move us to share our good fortune and opportunity, perhaps the faces of one of every eight of our neighbors will.

–Bruce Benidt

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14 Responses

  1. Beautiful article. I don’t think we’re taught that in some way feeling and accepting the responsibilty for each other enhances our own lives.

  2. The federal poverty rate grossly underestimates the actual number of people living in poverty since it is based on a measure, developed in 1969, that looks primarily at how much pretax income is spent on food. While food accounted for 1/3 of household spending in the 1960s, today it’s only 1/8 of spending, with housing and transportation taking a much larger portion of income.

    And a recent survey by St. Paul-based Northwest Area Foundation found that 80 percent of Americans agree that a family of four needs at least $40,000 per year — twice the federal poverty threshold — to make ends meet.

    I’m no fan of Republican policies, but I wouldn’t be so quick to place the entire blame there. Poverty has been and continues to be a persistent problem in America, with official rates fluctuating between 11.3 and 15.2 percent since 1980.

    Poverty is a complex problem that won’t be solved, as many argue, by simply creating more jobs. It will take commitment and courage, two things we clearly can’t rely on Washington or St. Paul to provide.

  3. Poverty is not a complex problem.

    The three greatest drivers and predictors of poverty: (1) Failure to graduate from H.S. (2) Having babies before the age of 21 and (3) getting married before 21.

    What Democratic policies address these? In-school daycare for teen moms … free condoms … subsidized abortion … midnight basketball …

    And what is the Democratic response every time a conservative proposes a policy to address one of these factors?

    Productive Americans are so tired of being bashed by liberals.

  4. For children, the numbers are worse. 1 in 8 in Minnesota and 1 in 3.5 in Mississippi, Haley Barbour’s state.

  5. Wonderfully thoughtful comments. What I’d love is for the country, and its legislatures and leaders, to be talking about the issue, and about creative solutions, with neither liberal nor conservative labels, neither Democratic or Republican.

    When we don’t pay attention to the issue — Bill Clinton said 5 1/2 million people fell into poverty in America since 2001 — we won’t come up with effective solutions to the harrowingly clear problems laid out in the great post above by I-35. This is one of the reasons I admired John Edwards for bringing up poverty as a leading issue, and why I like Obama for also asking us to pay attention to those who are falling out of the middle class.

    Good discussion. Thanks. Let’s do more.

  6. When Barack Obama denounces this “ownership society,” I remind myself that it’s not wrong to be proud of my independence and of what I’ve acheived.

    When Barack Obama says it’s the American spirit — to work, to persevere, to succeed — that drives us and that makes us strong, I can’t help but think that too much “sharing” of the fruits of that work, that perseverance, that success threatens the very existence of that American drive and strength.

    When Bruce Benidt says addressing poverty in this country and around the world should be a greater priority, I honestly long for that long lost concept of compassionate conservatism. To protect individual achievements and to encourage a spirit of support, a sense of community, a desire to share success and happiness with others.

    Maybe that’s not what other people have meant by “compassionate conservatism,” but call it what you like. That’s what I want.

  7. The greatest failure in the war on poverty is that we’ve spent many times more fighting it than it would take to eradicate it.

    The simple truth is this: you can’t erase poverty by giving people money. And creating cabinet-level programs with no measurable goals or sunset provision is a recipe for more of the same.

    For all the rhetoric and invective that gets lobbed about when poverty is mentioned, let’s agree on some simple principles:

    1) Those who disagree on the means to eliminating poverty aren’t evil, they simply have a different idea about what works.

    There is no Democratic conspiracy to enslave poor people to public entitlements. Likewise, there is no fat-cat club of Republicans who are trying to steal the change from poor families’ couch cushions. There are diametrically-opposed outlooks as to what works in practice versus what works in theory — but let’s get beyond calling each other stupid, evil, or greedy.

    2) We need a better working definition of “poverty”.

    It’s too easy for partisan hacks to duck back and forth between relative stats and standard-of-living stats over time. Many government statistics break out the population by quintiles, and some take those in the lowest income quintile to be “under the poverty line.” By definition, there will always be the same number of “poor” people, even if the quality of life and opportunity changes quite a bit. Also, retirees with great wealth but little “income” skew figures, and are silently included or excluded as needed by the ideologues.

    3) People don’t stay put.

    Those who are “poor” today don’t necessarily stay there. We are finally starting to see the results of longitudinal studies that track families over long periods. We’re finding more fluidity in income and wealth than we thought.

    4) A focus on opportunity and lasting wealth.

    To lift the fortunes of those who have the greatest challenge in escaping a cycle of poverty, let’s look at real lasting solutions. Beyond the trope of “teach a man to fish,” let’s examine the factors that prevent wealth accumulation. It’s about education and fostering the values of saving and compound interest. Anyone remember Powerball Jack? Give a guy millions of dollars and no sound advice, and he’ll squander it.

    5) Use of appropriate avenues

    For every dollar of input to a federal entitlement program, you get 28 cents of output to the intended recipient. That’s abysmal. There are more effective ways – be it faith-based, private sector initiatives, or non-profits – to kickstart a family recovery from poverty. Let’s get the most for the money, and let government coordinate with less micromanaging and more big picture. Government is great at the things that require big scales – massive education programs about how to build wealth might be a good beginning.

  8. Thanks for stopping by, Ike, and for the great contribution to this discussion.

    For those who don’t know him, Ike isn’t a local yokel from Minne-soh-tah like most of us, but he’s damn smart and has a great blog to read over at http://www.occamsrazr.com.

  9. I don’t agree with all of your post, Ike, but it’s very thoughtful and well stated. I hope you join the crowd more often.

    My take: There are two main things that prevent progress in battling poverty — will and way.

    Will. We know many things that reduce povery, but collectively choose not to give up some of what we have to pay for them. Early education, for instance. The ROI for providing a high quality early education environment for kids 0-5, when 90% of brain development happens, is sky high. $13 return for every $1 invested according to economists at the Federal Reserve Bank. And early ed is mostly delivered by the private sector, so government-bashing isn’t a valid reason for underinvesting. Yet we are reducing early ed funding, because we collectively want low taxes and services that more directly benefit us (e.g. roads, stadia, K-12, higher ed loans, Medicare, etc.). We like to blame politicians for inaction, but they’re just representing us. We don’t have the will to sacrifice our wealth to pay for things that are proven to help others.

    Way. BUT, I agree that throwing money at poor people isn’t sufficient. This is particularly true where families are split and highly dysfunctional. I’m not aware of a government program that is effectively fixing severely dysfunctional families, and that makes it hard for other programs to succeed. Even the best efforts of the best teachers, child mentors, pastors, career counselors, and job trainers often fail when there is severe abuse and neglect at home.

    So money isn’t the whole answer. But money is part of the answer. We have to invest in the things we know work, and keep experimenting to find ways that work better.

  10. These words, from last night, were the most profound in my book. Most of us can’t recall the last time we heard such a firm call for individual responsibility delivered in a way that might actually motivate people to lift themselves up. I’m looking forward to comparing these words with those coming next week from the GOP.

    “We must also admit that fulfilling America’s promise will require more than just money. It will require a renewed sense of responsibility from each of us to recover what John F. Kennedy called our ‘intellectual and moral strength.’ Yes, government must lead on energy independence, but each of us must do our part to make our homes and businesses more efficient. Yes, we must provide more ladders to success for young men who fall into lives of crime and despair. But we must also admit that programs alone can’t replace parents; that government can’t turn off the television and make a child do her homework; that fathers must take more responsibility for providing the love and guidance their children need. Individual responsibility and mutual responsibility – that’s the essence of America’s promise.”

  11. Thanks Mike… I’m used to butting in to discussions, but I suppose a disclaimer is necessary:

    I’m a former journalist turned well-rounded communicator.

    I’m a lowercase-L libertarian.

    I have split my vote in every general election, and have yet to favor one party over the other my more than three races.

    My biggest beef with the current political landscape is that the system has been gamed. The “rules” that were meant to govern the governing have been optimized and exploited, which leads to a whole passel of unintended consequences wherever government gets involved.

    If I can inject anything into our most highly charged partisan political landscape, it is this notion: until we can agree on what the damned words mean, all else is folly.

    It is quite possible for two people to both be smart, compassionate, reasonable, logical, and productive — yet they are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Our current climate for debate calls for the destruction of opponents, instead of the understanding that one’s core values might lead them to a different solution.

    If I can help people frame the discussion away from all-or-nothing scorched-earth rhetoric, we might just get some things done. And in doing so, get the government off our backs. (Okay, so maybe I’m becoming a cranky middlecase-L libertarian.)

  12. One last comment in response to Ike:

    http://www.bobbarr2008.com
    :)

  13. Ike, do keep hanging around with us. Your non-doctrinaire view from positions not on either polarized extreme is wonderful, and just what we need.

    And to our regulars, like Kelly, Dennis, Charlie, thanks for all the smart and heartfelt comments — your responses and ideas and views make this Rowdy joint worth coming to. And all this discussion gives me hope.

    Defining the problems is crucial indeed. And a strong leader can help us do that. And then a strong leader can call us to action — can touch our hearts so that our heads don’t get too stuck in the arguments about how to do things.

    I want Obama to push us more, ask more of us, call us to the realization that, as my friend Dennis Lang said above, “in some way feeling and accepting the responsibilty for each other enhances our own lives.”

    Amen.

  14. Hi, Give something for help the hungry people in Africa or India,
    I added this blog about this subject:
    on http://tinyurl.com/556poc

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