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Hard Times, USA: Would You Consider Thinking Differently About Poverty and Poor and Homeless People?

A huge number of Americans feel vulnerable every day of every week, their future unknown. What are you going to do about it?

Editor's note: There are more than one million homeless people in America, and 138 million people who live paycheck to paycheck. Many more are struggling, wondering how they'll make rent or get enough food. Those numbers are astounding. This is America. Many proudly think our society is fair, but the evidence overwhelmingly shows that fairness in America is a myth. In the weeks and months ahead, AlterNet will shine a light on America's economic injustice in an ongoing series, "Hard Times USA." Since many have chosen to look aside, or believe the traditional ways of doing politics will fix things, there is still much to learn about how this problem will be solved, or not solved.

We are launching our ongoing series with two articles today: Part 1 looks at how America punishes poor people living on the street, part of a larger pattern of dealing with poverty through criminalization rather than social and policy fixes that have been shown to work better. Part 2, below, addresses the growing apathy toward the plight of the poor after decades of conservative demonization. As the gap between the wealthy and the poor keeps growing, there is a sense that more and more people don't want to deal with the poor. Is that how you want our society to be? What's your role? It's time to rethink poverty.Part 3 in our series, running Wednesday, looks at copper theft as a means of survival in California's poorest city. Part 4 will look into the psychology of how people react when they encounter homeless people on the street. Much more to come. -- Don Hazen, executive editor of AlterNet

What do the words poor, hungry, homeless, destitute, and economic hardship mean to you? Would you rather not think about it? Can I ask you a harder question? Have you lost your empathy for people who may be down and out? Or maybe it is in reserve, waiting for a chance to be revitalized.

The ability of the U.S. to deal with problems of money, housing, healthcare, food and the basics of life for many millions of people, is pretty damn rotten. The problem is getting worse. Increasingly, as the gap between rich and poor keeps growing, more people may be less interested in and have less empathy for the people who are left out. That is what I am wondering about.

Some of us were lucky, some privileged, and some of us have been able to achieve a level of economic security where we never have to worry about the necessities for the rest of our lives. But a very large number of Americans, a shocking number really, feel vulnerable every day of every week. Their future is unknown. They don't even how they are going to get through tomorrow.

And it is quite a range of people. More than 100 million are teetering on the edge in the working/middle-class and more than a million, depending on how you count (812,000 people live in the entire city of San Francisco), are homeless for some part of the year, living on the streets, in cars, or bouncing from street to shelter, barely surviving.

Many think that statistics make readers eyes glaze over. Maybe that's true. But let's stop and consider, please, just a small batch of stats that help paint the picture:

• 43.9 percent of Americans — that is roughly 137 million people — are living on the edge of collapse: a job loss, health crisis or income-crushing emergency, and they would not have enough money to cover expenses "at the federal poverty level" for three months.

• Nearly 40 percent of American households — which translates to more than 100 million people — live paycheck to paycheck. 

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