The United States is the greatest, richest, most exceptional nation ever devised by humankind. Granted! But if Census Bureau statistics count for anything, the mass of Americans living in poverty—defined as subsisting on an income of $22,314 a year or less for a family of four—rose to 46.2 million in 2010, up from 14.3 million in 2009. To put that figure in perspective: A population equivalent to the entire country of Spain resides within the United States, and that population feeds, clothes, shelters, educates, provides medical care, transports and entertains groups of four people, for a year at a time, for the sticker price of a single Kia Sorento.
The forces pushing one in six Americans below the poverty line are contested and complex, but here’s one simple truth: Great masses of Americans are poor because great masses of Americans are unemployed. The numbers say so: Nearly 60 percent of officially impoverished Americans are working age, the highest level since President Lyndon Johnson launched his War on Poverty in the 1960s. One of every four jobs lost in 2008’s global financial crisis was lost in the United States. Employment in China and Brazil has rebounded, but not in America. U.S. multinational corporations cut 1.9 million domestic workers from 1999 through 2008, while putting 2.4 million people to work overseas.
Poor households are not looking for a handout. They have done their part, spending money they don’t have on instantly redundant home electronics to prop up a flawed market economy.
President Barack Obama, for now an employed American, strongly encouraged Congress last week to pass legislation that would create jobs for the rest of his countrymen. Obama proposes funding these positions by taxing rich people. His rationale? “We’ve got to make real choices about the kind of country that we want to be. That’s not class warfare. It’s simple math.”
Another brand of simple math may keep the unemployed and poor from ever finding out if Obama’s plan is workable.
“Obama is on the ropes,” explained a House GOP aide. “Why do we hand him a win?”
That sounds a lot like class warfare, as do these five casualty reports:
1) Poor people are resented for their wealth of big TVs. “How do the poor live?” asked the National Review in response to the census report. “For starters, a poor child in America is far more likely to have a widescreen plasma television, a computer and an Xbox in his home than he is to be hungry.” In the view of Real Clear Politics, “The typical household considered ‘poor’ by census officials has a car and air conditioning. The household has two color televisions, a DVD player and a VCR.” “There’s no free lunch,” summed up Senator Jon Kyl. But poor households are not looking for a handout. They have done their part, spending money they don’t have on instantly redundant home electronics to prop up a flawed market economy. The National Review and its ilk would deny these dutiful consumers a shot at gainful employment and leave them idle in front of out-of-warranty plasma screens watching on empty stomachs as obscenely compensated commentators blame them for being broke.
2) The poor face a staggering degree of competition. Some statistics defy sane-world comprehension. For instance, America’s top 25 hedge-fund managers earned a total of $25 billion in 2009, even more than they banked before the global crash. Don’t look for any of those 25 hedgers among the ratio of 4.3 American job seekers scrambling for every one open job. After all, three-quarters of America’s new jobs in 2010 paid, on average, less than $15 an hour. That’s insufficient cheese to bait an arbitrage intern, but plenty enough to motivate America’s internal nation of the impoverished to turn off their shoddy plasmas and stampede at McDonald’s.
3) A portion of the American public equal to the population of South Korea has no health insurance. The richest democracy on earth has 49.9 million citizens who are not insured in the case of a medical emergency, or a routine doctor visit, the largest number of uninsured Americans since the invention of medical insurance. A health-care reform bill was enacted in 2010, but provisions to help the uninsured won’t kick in until 2014. Opponents may yet quash the bill, arguing that health care of the indigent should be a private sector matter. Quality of private sector care, however, may be patchy.
4) Young Americans can expect to be poor for a very long time. To be under age 18 and living in the USA is the best of all beautiful prospects, except for that 22 percent of U.S. minors who reside on the deprived side of the poverty line. The recession has been particularly harsh on an age group of Americans who in better times would be dreaming about launching their brilliant careers, rather than fantasizing about some vague future when their bathroom plumbing will not be an extension of Mom’s. “If the economic and cultural trends under way continue unabated,” warns Don Peck of the Atlantic, “class mobility will likely decrease in the future, and class divides may eventually grow beyond our ability to bridge them.”
5) Older folks want to talk about their diminishing returns, but few in a position of responsibility want to hear it. Political candidates of the past commonly embarked upon on what were described as “listening tours.” Stopping at, say, a Rotary Club in a small town such as West Allis, Wisconsin, the candidate would “hear out” the concerns of the electorate so that the aspiring public servant’s campaign—and ideally their policies once in office—might best reflect the constituents’ needs. The “listening” concept is foreign to many of today’s would-be leaders, as exemplified by Representative Paul Ryan’s takedown of a 71-year-old concerned citizen.