I read an interesting article today on the economics of poverty; it was a guest column in another paper and it had some interesting points on the issue of race and poverty. From an economist point of view it made sense, many points I agreed with. I do believe we have a larger discussion on the table in front of us right now. Race is finally going to take a top priority in this country and rightfully so, but if we do not deal with the economic disparity that exists in this country, it will result in people still being trapped in poverty and hopelessness, no matter their race.
As someone who has worked to help people deal with their poverty for most of my adult life, I feel somewhat capable of discussing it. As a young social worker at Community Action and in the beginning days of the shelter, I would often see a high number of returning clients (recidivism), the same people with the same issue year after year. Even then I knew if we didn’t address poverty, education and opportunity in a real way, we were merely bandaging the situation. Don’t get me wrong, when there is nothing else to offer, an adhesive bandage goes a long way. It is necessary sometimes, especially when society as a whole looks the other way and justifies power structures that keep people trapped.
Many times those same folks would voice their frustration at having to ask for help; they didn’t want a hand out, that is often the misconception, and they needed help. I don’t know how many times people would cry because they didn’t know how to talk to their debtor or they were afraid if the assistance ran out, they would have their lights disconnected or the rent not paid. It was hard to deal with and even harder to solve. We cannot ignore the fact that our wage level at a minimum is $7.25 per hour. According to Indiana Institute for Working families, it takes 2.5 jobs in a household at that level to pay the rent without subsidy. How do you raise your kids? Who is at home? When do we get a clue that if you raise people up you raise your community up?
If for instance the minimum wage were to become a living wage and we indexed that wage to the cost of housing in the area and started there, life would be better for a lot of people. Richard Troxell out of Texas started that effort through an initiative called the Universal Living Wage Campaign. After 30 years he is still waiting for people to catch up with him! It isn’t rocket science as Dr. Schansberg pointed out, (in the article I read) it’s economics. A form of oppression is about economic injustice. As long as the scale is tilted toward 1% of the population the bottom 50% has no chance. Somewhere in the middle is a form of relief, but that middle is evaporating at a pace that is in danger of wiping out the “middle class.”
Poverty programs take the hit on blame. They are not the problem. Not funding them appropriately is the problem. Years ago a good friend of mine divorced her husband. She had three kids, but she couldn’t raise them on her income as a waitress. Her sister and I convinced her to go to the Job Training Program Act office to see if she qualified for assistance. They approved her. She decided to go to school and get training as a paralegal. She did, and she graduated — with some help from food stamps and welfare along the way. In other words, she became a welfare mother for 2.5 years.
Upon her graduation, she went to work as a paralegal for a local attorney, where she worked until her retirement just this year. With a 2.5 year investment in her this community created opportunity and she ran with it. Many have done so over the years. By the way, for three children her welfare was $375 per month back then; it did not pay the rent. We have to stop beating up the poor. Welfare is a crippling system as it is designed. It keeps people trapped and desperate. The training programs offered to my friend are not as readily available as they were; we have lost much to the demand that we quit coddling the poor. Effective program after effective program has been eliminated, redone, or redesigned, all in the name of budget.
Ironically the budget for the poor has never exceeded 10% of the total budget (Social Security Retirement is not welfare). How do you balance a budget on 10% of its total? We expect much from the poor in this country. Keep quiet, do your job, live where you don’t feel safe, and don’t challenge. I think as we progress through and the vigils and marches continue, the focus will expand to the realities understood by Dr. King: Until we have economic justice, there will be no justice.