I am driving my old red Jeep near my house. I stop for a traffic light and see a disheveled man, trying to smile, wanting to look me in the eye, and holding a cardboard sign on which he has printed in thick, black letters: “No job. Anything helps. God bless.”
Do I roll down my window and hold out some coins? Or pretend I don’t see him?
Do I avoid eye contact because, deep down, seeing him forces me to confront a scary reality—that I, too, could wind up begging on the streets? Do I let his presence reinforce the common belief that poverty is inevitable, a timeless plight I cannot solve?
My stoplight turns green. Problem solved. For now.
Although not for the man with the hand-lettered sign, nor for about 47 million other Americans who live beneath the official poverty line, as well as under a daily judgment of failure.
The question today is: Whose failure?
In this storied “land of opportunity,” where those who pull themselves up by their bootstraps are exalted, any failure to do just that is reflexively disparaged: “If you fail to succeed, then you must be lazy. You didn’t try hard enough. So you deserve to sleep in a doorway downtown or maybe in a park.”
Yet the official numbers reveal an altogether different reality: The vast majority in poverty are not those we see begging at stoplights. In 2012, 2.9 million Americans worked full-time jobs and still lived below the poverty line. Some 22 percent of our children live in poverty, and it’s worse for African American youth—38 percent—and Hispanic children—34 percent.
You don’t have to crunch many numbers to see that having a permanent underclass is neither natural nor inevitable but is, in fact, a choice our society has made. Consciously.
For the very wealthy, top marginal tax rates have been lowered from 91 percent, when Lyndon B. Johnson became president, to 39.6 percent by 2013 under President Obama’s administration. Those were intentional changes to the tax code that widened the gap between the rich and the rest. And, starting around 1994, policy changes encouraged offshoring of U.S. jobs, and corporations moved to downsize domestic workforces, shrink wages, and destroy pensions.
Fifty years ago, President Johnson declared his War on Poverty. Yet, in less than a decade, demagogic politicians began refocusing the nation on a new foe. America’s leaders retooled from our noble War on Poverty to a cynical war on crime. The term “criminal” came to mean poor people, usually with brown or black skin. If you were poor, you were not just the problem; you became the enemy.
“There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning,” explained Warren Buffet, the billionaire who became a traitor to his class by calling for higher taxes on the wealthy.
If we want to do something about poverty, our first step is crucial: Change the story. Stop believing the myths: that “we’ll always have poor people” or that “the poor deserve their lot.” Accepting these fictions will assure more poverty and send more money upward to transnational corporations and the superrich—who will spend it to further manipulate a political process that already has made inequality more extreme in America than in any other developed country.
This issue of YES! looks at strategies Americans can choose—or already are choosing—that can help us write a new story, one that shows how the wealthiest nation in history can choose to eliminate poverty, reduce inequality, and include all of us in a New American Dream.