A number of readers who respond to my posts here sound as if they really understand poverty and the people who endure it. A list of the more common phrases offered up here by these "experts" include "personal responsibility," "hard work," "hand outs," etc., etc., etc. What so many of these friends don't comprehend is the emotional, spiritual, psychological aspects of living in poverty, particularly over an extended period of time. Easy solutions focused on behavioral modification of various sorts remain inadequate. Real solutions will involve a comprehensive approach to attacking the root causes of poverty and its accompanying malaise.
With this in mind, consider the challenging words of Charles Blow:
Them That’s Not Shall Lose
By CHARLES M. BLOW
Published: June 24, 2011
The New York Times
“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”
James Baldwin penned that line more than 50 years ago, but it seems particularly prescient today, if in a different manner than its original intent.
Baldwin was referring to the poor being consistently overcharged for inferior goods. But I’ve always considered that sentence in the context of the extreme psychological toll of poverty, for it is in that way that I, too, know well how expensive it is to be poor.
I know the feel of thick calluses on the bottom of shoeless feet. I know the bite of the cold breeze that slithers through a drafty house. I know the weight of constant worry over not having enough to fill a belly or fight an illness.
It is in that context that I am forced to assume that if Washington politicians ever knew the sting of poverty then they have long since vanquished the memory. How else to qualify their positions? In fact, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, nearly half of all members of Congress are millionaires, and between 2008 and 2009, when most Americans were feeling the brunt of the recession, the personal wealth of members of Congress collectively increased by more than 16 percent. Must be nice.
Poverty is brutal, consuming and unforgiving. It strikes at the soul.
You defend yourself with hope, hard work and, for some, a helping hand. But these weapons grow dull in an economy on the verge of atrophy, in a job market tilting ever more toward the top and in a political environment that would sacrifice the weak to the wealthy.
On Thursday, the Pew Research Center released a poll that showed how disillusioned low-income people have become. Those making less than $30,000 were the most likely to expect to be laid off or be asked to take a pay cut. Furthermore, they were the most likely to say that they had trouble getting or paying for medical care and paying the rent or mortgage.
But at least those numbers include people with incomes. A vast subset is chronically unemployed and desperately searching for work. According to the Consumer Reports Employment Index, “In 23 of the past 24 months, lower-income Americans have lost more jobs than they have gained.” It continues, “Meanwhile, more affluent Americans seem to be gaining more jobs than they are losing.”
And the current election-cycle obsession to balance the books with a pound of flesh, which is being pushed by pitiless Republicans and accommodated by pitiful Democrats, will only multiply the pain.
Until more politicians understand — or remember — what it means to be poor in this country, we are destined to fail the least among us, and all of us will pay a heavy price for that failure.