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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?
 
 
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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. 

• More than 46 million Americans live at or below the poverty level, which is $23,201 for a family of four. That's $5,800 per person.  

• 6 million people have no income other than food stamps, which means they are living on $6,000 a year.

Can you imagine living on $5,800 a year? Honestly, I can't. It is too far outside my imagination. It causes me psychic pain to think about it, which helps me understand why people want to shut their eyes at the word poverty (not everyone, of course). But it is easy to think: if the problem is so immense, what can I, one person, do to help? It is a good question, for which there is no easy answer. But we can all try.

We live in a society where many of our leaders think that we as a nation spend too much money on the “safety net,” even as we freshly mint new billionaires all the time. We are, some experts say, in an “Age of Austerity.” The conservatives in America spend many millions demonizing the poor, blaming them, and working assiduously to make them poorer.

America's most effective anti-poverty programs are Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And stunningly, these programs are under attack.

Currently, only 10 percent of seniors are in poverty. Without Social Security more than half would be. Before Medicare, barely half of seniors had healthcare, but soon more than 95 percent did. With so few people earning pensions, a humane country might consider how to increase Social Security, since it was always meant to be a supplement for retirement. But that is not on the agenda. 

The obvious ways to solve the immense problem of inequity would be raising taxes on the wealthy, (beyond returning to where they were before the Bush tax cuts; or taxing capital gains at higher than 15 percent); reducing our role as the military policeman of the world, which requires enormous military spending; and achieving public financing of elections to reduce the influence of the wealthy and all the lobbies that blanket our capitol with lobbyists all taking a piece of our revenue for their purposes. These are all the obvious solutions to put us in a better position to serve more of our people. Virtually all books written by reformers all say the same at the end — we have to do these things. 

But you know what? None of that is going to happen. At least, not anytime soon. Or maybe never. Just one example: every year for the past 30 years or more, the influence of money on politics has increased. Now it takes a billion dollars to run for president. Expecting reform vis a vis poverty to fix the system for poor people is like waiting for Godot.  Given the division in our country, the gerrymandered House of Representatives will give the conservatives veto over pretty much everything into the future. And corporate power means corporations will continue to have their needs met before those who need resources and help to have a decent life. And I'm not even mentioning climate change, which in the end may have the biggest impact on making people poor. 

What that all means is that we have to take it upon ourselves to do something. I know it may seem outlandish, but there is very little chance things will change unless we take matters into our own hands. Everyone can do something constructive, but especially the 40 million people in our country who are the “mass affluent" — and the 1 percent who are the super-wealthy. We all got where we are for many reasons, but most of the reasons for success have to do with being born into a class and families with resources; we were able to go to college, often to good schools; we network with our friends and get more power, money and influence. Or we got lucky in other ways: sports, a special talent, or where we lived. 

I know, this isn't the way we normally think. We say: damn, the government is taking 35-40 percent of my money already, and I'm supposed to use more of it to help others? Well, yes, that is what I mean. A key way we can really help is to give parts of ourselves to the cause — our time, our money, stuff we don't need, jobs we can give poor people, even temporary or part time.

The Mormons tithe their members 10 percent. I know, they use some of that money to build a powerful hyper-capitalist business structure worth billions. But they also make sure that no one in their communities are destitute. It's time we, who care, take a page from the Mormons and tithe ourselves for a more fair America. 

A week or so ago, I was walking on the outskirts of Union Square, in New York City,  in the freezing late afternoon. A guy was sitting on the sidewalk asking for money as people walked by. Since I was thinking about what I have written here, I stopped. I asked him what was up, why he was asking for money. He said, “You know, you are the first person all day who stopped to talk with me. I’m not without skills, I need a job, but I am down and out."

I asked him where he slept. He said he would go up to the Bronx to the projects and sleep in the hallways. I gave him money to get a room for a night. I have no idea how he spent the money, or if his story was true. But I was willing to take the chance. And I was quite sure that no one had talked to him. It was a small, isolated gesture. But we can make millions of these gestures, and make a difference.

We as a society, or many of us anyway, like to think of ourselves as fair. But we tolerate living in a society that is grossly unfair. What's up with that? We throw up our hands; we divert our eyes. 

I’m suggesting that we who are privileged have more one-to-one relationships with people in need, even give them money directly. Of course, it’s better to get to know people who are very poor or homeless before giving. But take a stand. Don’t wait for our governments, which are cutting back support, or the mythical day when poverty might be eradicated.

The myth that many poor people don’t know how to manage cash when given money is mostly a myth. In fact, a book published three years ago, titled Just Give Money To the Poor describes how more than 45 developing nations provide impoverished families with cash grants, no strings attached. The idea is that poor people are best equipped to eradicate poverty, and it has proven a success.

“The key is to trust poor people and directly give them cash — not vouchers or projects or temporary welfare, but money they can invest and use and be sure of,” the authors wrote.

Paul Boden is the organizing director for the Western Regional Advocacy Project, which works to expose and eliminate the root causes of poverty and homelessness. He said that government officials and charitable organizations continuously believe they need to decide how poor people use money.

“Whatever little dime a poor person is able to get into their frickin' pocket, somebody else wants a piece of it, and thinks they’re more entitled to it, that they’ll spend it better, they’ll do something wiser with it,” Boden said. “They pass all this judgment on panhandlers on what they’re going to do with this money. But how the fuck does the panhandler know what you do with your money?”

This is why AlterNet has decided to publish this series on poverty and economic injustice. Absolutely, there are many terrific people, organizations, books, and materials to help us understand poverty. And there are some new insights and analysis that can perhaps contribute to a future debate. At AlterNet we hope to highlight the most worthy, but we will also emphasize the best approaches for each of us to dive in and help.

Still there are limitations to what we can research, investigate and write. There are many stories about poverty. We can provide heartbreaking narratives about families in distress. But until millions of us are willing to take some kind of a stand beyond what we learn from more data and more depressing stories, more than we have been willing to do so far, then sadly, very little will change. In fact, it might get worse. 

Absent a book and a moment like Michael Harrington's Another America, which riveted millions of people, or a president with the clout of Lyndon Johnson and a large Democratic majority in both Houses of Congress which created the New Society and War on Poverty, the mechanisms of a failed and divided political system — doing the same thing over and over — will not carry the day.

In my opinion, at this moment in time, the best way to help poor people is to give them help directly — resources in their hands, a job, a car to get to a job, car insurance, a roof over their head, some security for a fixed amount of time, cash for food and medicine. I know this goes against the conventional wisdom, but it often works. At least it is a concrete step toward transcending the unfairness that has become as American as apple pie.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

 
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