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How Millions in America Get Entrenched in Poverty

An inside look at the system that's producing America's growing underclass.

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Yet for all the hoopla around their project, nearly a full presidential cycle later, conditions for many of the students at the Village Academy high school remained appalling. Large numbers of the kids lived with parents who had lost their jobs during the recession and either failed to find new employment or were working long hours at jobs that paid only minimum wage. Many had lost homes to foreclosure—either because of variable-rate, subprime mortgages or because of unemployment—or, behind on mortgage or rent payments, lived in constant fear of losing their homes to the banks or to landlords. Almost all of Steinman’s students qualified for free school breakfasts and lunches—and, for many of these kids, these were the only hot meals they ate. Evenings and weekends, they either went without or grabbed some dry cereal to stanch their hunger. Several honors students at the high-performing school, who should have been applying to college, were instead thinking of quitting education and getting dead-end work just to help their families pay the bills.

“Sometimes I cry,” Oliver Lopez explained as he described his family’s struggles—his mother out of work, his father working two part-time minimum-wage jobs, he and his three younger brothers living from meal to meal. “I see how hard my father works; and I’m 18 years old and just come to school. I don’t do nothing. Sometimes we don’t even have food to eat.”

One of Oliver’s classmates described how he, his mother, his two sisters, his grandmother, two uncles, an aunt, and her daughter all lived in a one-bedroom apartment, most of them sleeping on the floor, until they fell behind on their rent and were evicted in early 2010. The family had split up, with groups of two or three going off to stay with different relatives. The young man was living with his mother, who in a good week was earning $300 as a housecleaner, and his two younger sisters in a single room in a friend’s house. During mealtimes, the mother would eat leftovers off of his and his sisters’ barely filled plates. “I’m depressed. I spend most of my time crying alone. My mom tells me I should get a job. She gets mad at me. She works from 6 A.M. to 5 P.M. I’m actually out trying to find a job. But there’s nothing.”

 

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We will get far further in understanding twenty-first century American poverty if we consider how entrenched the new plutocracy, and its economic agenda, has become than if we look solely for explanations regarding the purported intellectual, economic, and cultural inadequacies of the poor. It is, after all, surely no coincidence that the United States, the country with the wealthiest elite in the Western world, and an economy that has averaged 2.2 percent productivity gains each year since 1947, also has vastly higher poverty rates than its peer nations.

Shortly after the financial crisis hit, the OECD published a table on income distribution: Even after government benefits were factored in, more than 11 percent of the American population had incomes of only 40 percent of the median income in the country. In Great Britain, that number was only a little above 6 percent; Germany’s number was a little more than 4 percent. In Sweden it was 3.8 percent; and in the Netherlands, 2.7 percent. Even Greece and Ireland, two countries tottering toward bankruptcy, had a far lower percentage of their populations living significantly below the poverty line than did the United States.

“What’s most striking in the past few years is the absolute absence of discussion of poverty on the public agenda,” noted University of California at Santa Barbara historian Alice O’Connor, who has built her career studying Americans’ shifting attitudes toward poverty over the centuries. “It’s just not there. The great shift is that we’ve come to accept very high levels of poverty as either inevitable or the way things should be.” For O’Connor, the callous approach to poverty wasn’t unprecedented in American history, but it was something that found equivalents only distantly back in time. “You’d have to cycle back to the Gilded Age,” in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, “to find a similarly untroubled acceptance of mass poverty,” she believed. These days, said O’Connor, politics has become increasingly reliant on big-dollar contributors, and in so becoming has lost touch with the expectations of the vast majority of Americans who cannot afford to buy access to the political process. “The narrow politics of winning elections,” she averred, “has less and less to do with connecting with what people really care about, and more to do with raising money and buying media and these kinds of things.”

 
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