There is so much more I could write about poverty and the underclass in America, but there comes a point of saturation. It’s not my point, necessarily, but much of the public’s. I have never run out of words or passion when it comes to social issues, education, women, children, crime, class, or any of the subjects that tend to get mangled in the machinery of politics or convenience.
As many of you tuned into this series as tuned out. Poverty is a depressing subject. There are no ready-made solutions, and the only thing new under the sun is that the everyday problems of the working poor are getting worse, and are more likely to trickle up to the middle classes. Those at society’s lower rungs, who have little insulation and no safety net, are particularly hard hit when the economy worsens, but as we learned from the last all-out American depression, few people are immune from the ravages of an economic free fall, no matter how hard they work, or how bright and hopeful they are.
We don’t know yet how America will recover from its present set of disasters. Will it get worse before it gets better? Will a new President be able to stop the bleeding, and restore public confidence? Will members of Congress set aside their personal agendas, special interests, and pork barrel trade-offs in order to heal the country of its financial and ethical wounds? We don’t know, but many of us hope for exactly that, and more.
Every election season and, in fact, every turning tide of social belief and philosophy, brings us face-to-face with those whose views differ from our own. Sometimes the arguments we have are so simplistic that they shouldn’t even be had — at least not in a nation that has progressed beyond darker ages. Racism, sexism, and all the other “isms” that would exclude people from opportunity on the basis of their biology are born of ignorance, and have no merit, socially or intellectually. It’s the job of an advanced society to make this clear to those who yearn for the days when they were specially privileged, and viewed as superior due to their race, sex, age, class, physical ability, religion, or sexual preference.
That job is getting done, sometimes in bits and pieces, sometimes in small leaps and bounds, but it’s precarious, and occasionally dangerous work, tinged in bitterness and frustration. Decades into the battle for social parity and inclusiveness, irrational hatred still exists. Injustices, large and small, are perpetrated daily against those who differ from some archaic and dogmatically rigid American ideal. There are still millions of Americans who do not find golden doors of opportunity awaiting them, but nearly insurmountable fences and locked gates.
Among these millions, many are poor and struggling working class citizens. In the political dialogue of soccer moms, “bubbas”, the “liberal elite”, family values, Joe Six-Packs, and the omnipresent nuclear family, the poor have all but become invisible. It’s not trendy to talk about the poor in an age dominated by bootstrap philosophies, plastic surgery, jogging suits, and positive thinking mantras. It’s not politically expedient for politicians to raise the specter of increasing poverty at a time when government has bloated itself on war, debt, corruption, and corporate pandering.
Then there’s us, the public, each of us with our own struggles, whether we’re tucked away in suburbia or living next to the train tracks. It is far too easy for us, the Haves and the Have-Nots, to negate each other, with one side screaming about injustice and inequality, and the other side screaming about handouts and self-determination. These are old arguments, circular and ineffective, yet we have a hard time escaping them long enough to work on practical solutions.
We must get past the knee-jerk blame and convenient ideologies that leave us trapped in an endless loop of accusations and recriminations. We can do this by conscientiously refusing to adopt dogmatic hostilities, and by demanding an end to the irrational attitudes and policies that contribute to oppression.
Class issues are emotionally loaded, and attacking the characters of people, rich or poor, is every bit as easy as romanticizing the lives of others. The wealthy often see poor people as having freer, simpler, less complex lives. The poor often see the wealthy as having no problems that can’t be solved or lessened with money. We create caricatures of each other because most of us don’t really know, and can’t really know, what life would be like for us on the opposite end of the spectrum. Even well-intentioned social experiments, undertaken by such authors as Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) or John Howard Griffin (Black Like Me), provide only a small glimpse into one side of the opposites. Ehrenreich may have learned more about the working class, and Griffin more about race, but since neither of them were reared in the roles they assumed, and could drop their experiments if they became dangerous or burdensome, they could not know the full, long-term effects of either poverty or racism.
The comedian Spike Milligan once said, “All I ask is to be given the chance to prove that money wouldn’t make me happy.” It would be interesting if a working class author could undertake an experiment in the tradition of Ehrenreich, and give us a poor person’s perspective on the rich, but nearly impossible. It is much easier to scurry down the social ladder than move up, even temporarily.
In any case, social experiments, academic analyses, cross-hostilities, and even compassion will not get us where we need to go if we are to end, or even significantly lessen, poverty in America. What we need to do is look at the issues of class, poverty, and long-standing policies with fresh eyes and rational minds.
Is it logical that school funding is largely based on neighborhood? Is it logical to have no time limit on subsidized housing? Is it logical for employers to be able to run credit reports on job applicants, including in occupations not dealing with finances? Is it logical that auto insurance rates be based on credit scores? Is it logical to have a minimum wage that is below any realistic poverty level?
Are the criteria of aid programs logical, beneficial, and in line with the actual costs of living? Is it more rational to practice prevention, and help people while they still have some resources, or to wait until they have virtually nothing left – often including even the roof over their head? If one has a proven disability, or long-term or terminal illness, how long should the wait for SSDI payments be? Should there be a different process and category for bankruptcies caused by major medical bills?
Should there be a sliding fee for necessary State services, like auto registration, drivers license renewals, and copies of birth certificates? Should it be mandatory for employers to provide insurance? Should there be stricter regulation of the insurance and medical industries to prevent price gouging? Is it feasible that a portion of the earned income credit or social security survivor’s benefits be held in trust for a child’s future education?
Should universities have a sliding fee? Should colleges re-examine the tradition of a broad-based core curriculum in favor of more targeted programs? Is an engineer who took two years of French, and promptly forgot most of it after college, a better engineer? How many more people would be able to access college and gain a professional degree if programs were streamlined?
Would a federal or state emergency loan program, available to every head of household to borrow up to a thousand dollars in times of an emergency, be less costly and more efficient than other, more rigid, assistance plans currently in place?
These are just a few of the questions that might be asked in a brainstorming session on lessening poverty and opening doors of opportunity in this country. Admittedly, they are not all perfect questions, and some may be controversial, but they all seek possibility instead of blame, and place solution over ideology.
We need to swing open existing doors of opportunity, and create new ones if we are to end the blight of poverty in America. Compassion is a fine fuel, but it burns quickly and is too often distributed on a whim. A demand for logical solutions, while not nearly as stirring or emotive, will keep the lamps of inclusion lit and shining brightly not just for this generation, but those that follow.
*Photo courtesy of TheBloggess.