Saturday, December 6, 2014

Hand to Mouth: Poverty in America

In her recent book 'Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America', author Linda Tirado discusses what it's like to work 3 low wage jobs and still not be able to make ends meet. She openly and unabashedly shares the daily realities of her life as a low-wage worker and demonstrates "that poverty is not a ‘culture’ or a character defect; it is a shortage of money.”

Tirado's book tries to destroy one of the most tenacious myths about poverty - that poor people are where they are because they are 'different'. Contrary to the European view, that being poor has more to do with an accident of birth or just bad luck, Americans tend to blame poverty on a lack of work ethic or laziness.

But, as Tirado explains: 'working hard does not mean that you will get ahead. Wages are often too low to live on, and employers steal income from employees. This is why so many people can work, even at multiple jobs, and still be poor. Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, author of 'Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America', went 'undercover' as a low wage worker and found that 'the work required incredible feats of stamina, focus, memory, quick thinking, and fast learning.'

This book should be required reading for politicians like Paul Ryan who are trying to gut our safety net and who insist, against all evidence, that if you are poor in America 'it is because of your own failure to be sufficiently diligent, chaste, sober, or thrifty.'(See: 'Just How Much Does Paul Ryan Want The Government To Plan Poor People's Lives?')

Although the poverty rate started to go down throughout the 1960s (thanks to Johnson's War on Poverty when he signed the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964), it began to rise again in 1980. Now, about 50 million Americans live below the poverty line, which the federal government defines as an annual income of $23,550 for a family of four.
In 1996, under pressure from Conservatives who had been criticizing the system for 'fostering dependency', President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Under the act, the federal government started to give the states block grants and swap cash receipt for training programs, ensuring that those receiving aid would move from welfare to work. The states were now in control, and some reduced welfare payments and used the money for something else. The Act also put a five-year limit on help to any given family.

For a few years poverty numbers went down because of high employment, but then came the economic downturn and things fell apart. Unemployment benefits and the food stamp program took up some of the slack, but many former welfare recipients couldn't find jobs and the safety net was gone. Obviously this reduced the amount of people on welfare, which the conservatives perversely pointed to as a sign that the reform was working. They didn't bother to follow these families as they slowly slid towards homelessness.

Things aren't looking good for people who rely on public assistance. In January of this year, the Food Stamp Program, now called SNAP, was cut by $9 billion. It will deny SNAP to approximately 3.8 million low-income people in 2014 and to an average of nearly 3 million people each year over the coming decade. This is obscene when one realizes that SNAP is part of the Farm Bill, which will increase federal crop insurance to farmers by $6 billion, whether they produce anything or not.

But the most enthusiastic attempt at dismantling our safety net comes from Congressman Paul Ryan. He has managed to put the concept of 'poverty' back two centuries. In the days of the English Poor Laws, poor people were categorized according to their 'deservedness' of help. But that distinction does not apply these days. No matter how able-bodied you are, if there are no job, there are no jobs.

If it were up to Ryan, the poor would be transformed into vessels without stomachs, which he could then fill with his Ayn Rand style ideology. Does he really believe that counseling and pep talks will help bring food on the table of millions of people?

The extent to which Republicans are willing to go to thwart attempts at improving the conditions for the poor was apparent during the Presidential campaign. Romney accused Obama of 'gutting the Welfare Reform Act' by dropping the work requirement. But all Obama did, was to allow states to seek waivers from certain strict welfare rules. Because work requirements are often phrased in terms of "activities," which includes job searching, etc., the outcome measure isn't what you want, which is employment rather than activities. The waivers will make it easier for states to target employment rather than activity participation, so people stuck in unpaid work or spending months on a job hunt aren't counted as successes and denied aid.

Tirado's book debunks some of the myths surrounding poverty. Contrary to what Paul Ryan says, working hard does not mean that you will get ahead. Where you are born and to whom is a better predictor of how you'll do. If a low-wage worker gets sick, she will work anyway, since she will not get paid sick days and even with Obamacare, many poor people cannot afford health insurance.

The well-known excuse of limiting public assistance because of 'abuse' is bogus. Fraud is uncommon, while badly designed eligibility standards exclude many in need. Wisconsin's Scott Walker, Maine's Paul LePage and Florida's Republican Governor Rick Scott's all proposed to make welfare applicants submit to a mandatory drug test. So far, in Florida, the plan was ruled unconstitutional by a Federal Appeals Court.

The irony of it all is that poor people pay more for almost everything, and are exploited by payday lenders, rent-to-own schemes, and check cashers. Above all, poor people have no way of influencing the political system; they don't make campaign contributions, don’t hire lobbyists, and are less likely to vote because the U.S. makes voting complicated and time-consuming.

Tirado has become a celebrity. She is the perfect spokesperson: aggressive, funny, angry and above all extremely articulate. Putting her in the limelight will probably not be enough to change this country's policies. But for many of us, including myself, who at one time or another have flirted with hard times, this book is a reminder that falling into poverty can happen to anyone, and getting out of it is extremely difficult. It is an important read, a reason to take 'poverty deniers' seriously and prove them wrong when they say that being poor is a matter of choice. It is everyone's responsibility to take care of this growing problem. leave comment here