Disgusting: 7 Million Kids and Mothers Suffer Extreme Poverty in the Richest Country in the World
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By the time we went to Mississippi in 1967, the power structure was dismantling that system. They didn't need the labor anymore. They had mechanical pickers of the cotton, and they had herbicides to thin out the boll weevils. The minimum wage had come in for big farms, so comparatively the workers had become more expensive for them. And it was a time when they wanted to push as many African Americans out of the state as they could because they foresaw that a black majority could politically take over the state.
That's what we walked into in 1967. There were all of these two-parent families pushed off of the land and had no livelihood at all. That was the new status quo. They couldn't get welfare because welfare was only available for single-parent households. And they couldn't get food stamps, which were only a demonstration program at that time, unless they had money. Even if they had no income, they had to pay $2 per person in the family each month for food stamps, which they couldn’t afford. The result was these families that were utterly without recourse. So we saw children who had swollen bellies and sores that would not heal.
That was the situation in Mississippi. It turned out there were comparable problems elsewhere – in Appalachia, South Carolina, Texas, and more, cutting across racial lines as well. Over a period of years after that, food stamps became a national program, following on strong advocacy and public concern that there should be hunger of that magnitude in the United States. And they are an enormous public policy success today.
So, things are better nationally compared to the severe malnutrition we found in 1967. But given that there was reason to hope for more improvement in Mississippi because of the increase in black political power and the end of overt terror-backed discrimination, the degree of poverty that one sees in the Mississippi Delta today is deeply troubling. The agricultural economies of the South have deteriorated, and those who stayed behind are in just really bad shape.
KD: Given the deep political disenfranchisement of the populations disproportionately affected by poverty--single mothers, blacks, Latinos, youth--can it be expected that impoverished people can achieve any political voice or power? How?
PE: I think that a major challenge is to reach people who are economically living one notch above poverty and are struggling with low-wage jobs to get them to see that they are being taken advantage of. Right now, they are either apathetic and can't see how things can change. They seem to see their situation as their own fault, or they believe -- contrary to the evidence -- that their children will have better conditions, and therefore don’t question the way things are.
Over the past four decades African American children who were born into middle-income families have ended up slipping in big numbers down to the bottom fifth. So, it is really important to convince voters whose income is between the poverty line and twice the poverty line that they should vote for candidates who would do something about this. And the discourse should be about everybody in the bottom half. I think in short that we need to get more of the people who are affected by the overall structure of the economy to see that it is in their interest to vote for candidates who would do something to narrow inequality. That, in turn, is our best hope to create a new politics.
There is a second point here. I think that it really isn't in the interest of people of the top to leave such a large part of the country in such a difficult position. In the longer run, it endangers our democracy. It's in the self-interests of business to have people as consumers with more income. There is a question of sheer morality to all of this, but the people at the top should also see that maintaining the disparities as they are is not in their self-interest. But the largest point is to change the mindset of people who vote against their own self-interests for people who are dead set against tax increases and narrowing inequality.