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Est. April 5, 2002
June 15, 2017 - Issue 703

The Eternal Fight against Poverty

"More than 46 million Americans
live in poverty in the U.S."

Poverty is not an accident; like slavery and apartheid it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.”

-Nelson Mandela

Since ancient times, the poor have been a fixture in human affairs and, often, they became part of the political discourse and the great religions have encouraged or directed their adherents to minister to the poor, to give alms to the poor, and make efforts to raise them up.

There are biblical warnings to the rich and powerful that their failure to acknowledge the poor and see to their welfare will result in their doom. It isn’t just the most populous religions that have made these warnings, but many religions, large and small, have either directly said that their adherents must take care of the poor, while some religions have tried to set the example, by taking to the road without possessions, save the wooden begging bowl.

However you look at it, for believers, this is a powerful message that has been largely honored when it was convenient. In this era, a rich class, the gentry, and their creation, Corporate America, have refused to even acknowledge that there are poor. In fact, current political and economic philosophy among the rich and their sycophants holds that, if people are poor, it is their fault, in some way or another. Like the Robber Barons of the 19th Century, these people believe that the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor. The philosophy goes that, “if they would just lift themselves up by their bootstraps (like I did), they could be rich and powerful, too. They just won’t work.” Even if that nonsense were true, one first needs boots.

While Americans generally feel sorry for the impoverished in other countries, especially those who are impoverished by war or famine, they are not pushing their representatives to do something, or anything, about poverty. There’s plenty of poverty in the Western Hemisphere, including the U.S. Of late, there has been no outcry against the condition of poverty that exists “in the richest and most powerful country in the world.” Politicians are too busy scheming to pass laws that give more tax breaks to the already rich.

More than 46 million Americans live in poverty in the U.S. Poverty is described as a general scarcity of material possessions or money, and the scarcity covers the range of human needs: food, clothing, education, health care, decent housing, transportation, and recreation that allows humans to relax and recuperate, to fight another day. Many of them live in absolute poverty or destitution, which means that they do not have as much of the above listed necessities of life. They are more than just poor. There are statistics on this kind of poverty or deprivation in the U.S., but they are buried in sociological reports and studies. There are few politicians who will risk their careers by being persistent in campaigning on an anti-poverty platform. That has not happened to any great degree, since President Lyndon Johnson, who announced his “War on Poverty” a half-century ago. Washington has been quiet on the subject for decades.

Pockets of poverty exist in every state. It isn’t just Mississippi, Alabama, and West Virginia and similar stereotyped places that experience absolute poverty, although they are part of regions that are cited often as being prone to poverty and absolute poverty. As examples of that, according to federal statistics, Mississippi’s Jackson County has a poverty level of 16.1 percent. In the cluster of counties surrounding the New York State capital, Albany, there are some that approach Mississippi’s poverty level and two that exceed it. These are the counties and their poverty levels: Albany, 12.6 percent; Schenectady, 12 percent; Saratoga, 6.4 percent; Rensselaer, 12 percent; Washington, 13.3 percent; Schoharie, 13.7 percent; Fulton, 17.9 percent, and Montgomery, 18.4 percent.

Although previous administrations and their congresses have little to brag about in combating poverty, the current administration has outdone itself in its undeclared “war on the poor.” The proposed slashing of social safety net programs and the disaster of the proposed Republican health care plan are two of the main components of the effort to tax-cut its way out of the economic doldrums of the country. It has been crystal clear since the Reagan Administration that tax cuts for the rich do not make for economic growth, since the rich do not spread their wealth, but merely put it away, preferably in tax havens overseas. Donald Trump may be the first president that blatantly lied to his base, pretended to be a friend to wage workers, got elected, and then assumed the policies of every old hack Republican politician of the past 40 years: reduce government, give tax cuts to the rich and pay for the cuts by cutting programs for the poor, the working class, the middle class.

So far, that has worked well, as evidenced by the glaring wealth-and-income gap between the rich and the rest. The top 1 percent have most of the money, the next 9 percent have a lot, and the remaining 90 percent have very little. As the general health of Americans declines, even with the amazing research that is done on modern diseases and maladies, one has to ask why there is no intensive research into why public health is declining. Could it be environmental degradation of every sort? Toxic air, water, and soil are likely candidates, but this is not discussed, except in scientific circles, which discussion does not reach the popular press. Yet, the current GOP proposal for “national health care” deprives even more millions from that needed care, and that includes most of the poor. The rich can always pay cash for their care, if they choose or buy the best health insurance out of pocket money.

In keeping with the “bootstrap” attitude of conservatives and the Right Wing, there is a perfect example of it in the appointment by Trump of Ben Carson as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, an agency that expressly should be addressing the problems of poverty in the U.S. He said last month that poverty is as much a “state of mind.” Rather than seeing it as a deliberate political act and a problem of social and economic policies, Carson, like most Republicans and other politicians see it as the fault of the individual. In this, Carson’s attitude flies in the face of Mandela’s observation that “poverty is not an accident.” If Carson were right, politicians would have to do nothing, since it would be the responsibility of the individual to do, as he did, persist and succeed. It’s that simple.

Since poverty is a direct result of lack of income, it is incomprehensible that the nation’s leadership has for generations kept the minimum wage at a below-subsistence level, on the basis that, if they suffer enough, they might get another job or two jobs, or get educated for higher wages. The role of trade unions in leveling the playing field for all Americans has been discussed by the mass media, from time to time, but the reason unions are in decline is principally because of the war on workers that has been waged by Corporate America and the rich since World War II. Because they have unlimited funds to wage that war, they have been relentless in that one-sided effort and were bound to win, and they are winning.

When Corporate America decided that their business plan would enhance their profits if they sent their production to low-wage countries, they did so. It has left workers who had jobs with good pay and benefits to either take jobs that paid half or less than they were making or sit out the time when they could take their pensions and other retirement benefits. Either way, it is not good for workers or their communities, and altogether, it drags the nation’s economy down. So it will remain that, until real jobs and economic development programs are created by the federal and state governments, working together, the trend downward will not stop. And the programs must benefit workers, not just corporations and those who cut the deals. Transparency in such deals will have to include a pie chart, like those of charities, to show how much of the money results in jobs for workers and the pay scales of the projects involved.

Everyone concerned about the rising poverty (lower middle-income earners are at risk of seeing their own standard of living reduced, called upward creeping poverty) should be asking what the Trump Administration and all lawmakers are doing to stop the increase in poverty and begin to reduce the disparity in wealth and income. Carson must be asked: How do you pay for a week’s groceries with an improved and enhanced “state of mind?”

As Pope Francis told students at a Jesuit school in 2013, “The times talk to us of so much poverty in the world and this is a scandal. Poverty in the world is a scandal. In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. Poverty today is a cry.”

How many hear the cry of the poor? Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.




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