One issue that has always faced every society is that of poverty. In systems such as ours, especially in the United States, the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ separate themselves, shaping our culture, education systems, and even the way our cities are physically laid out. There always has been poverty in some form throughout our history, and for most societies, the majority of people have unfortunately been caught on the outside looking in while others prosper.
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In America, especially following the financial crisis and subsequent recession, poverty and inequality have been two major points interest. The growing rift in income inequality has been made very public, and is being blamed as the major factor behind growing poverty levels and the destruction of the middle class. Income inequality itself has been increasing for a number of reasons, but especially over the past several years, it has led to poverty levels hitting unprecedented numbers, especially in modern times.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has several parameters for identifying and classifying poverty, the most well-known being income levels that are commonly referred to as the ‘poverty line.’ This figure is based on income, depending on family size, and depending on state of residence. Alaska and Hawaii have their own specific income levels, while the remainder of the country, including the District of Columbia, are subject to the same parameters. To see how these figures work, an example of a family living below the poverty line would be a household of three people, living in Iowa and making less than $19,790 per year.
Those numbers might seem incredibly low, but there is also a huge amount of people who are experiencing poverty as a daily reality. Charitable organization Feeding America provides some insight into just how many people are effected by poverty, detailing that in 2012, 15 percent of the population lived under the poverty line. More than 1 out of every 5 children under 18 also lived under the figure, and when you factor in food insecurity, the numbers grow substantially. By that measure, 49 million people lived in food insecure households.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, like many other financial institutions, have a vested interest in keeping track of the numbers of impoverished individuals living in the U.S. Not only that, but also taking a look at the reasons behind their struggles and what exactly it is that keeps people from prosperity. The bank recently published its thoughts on the trends and themes in poverty, and what can be done to stop it. Five major themes are pointed out, including stigma against those getting a ‘free ride;’ a culture of dependency; personal responsibility and bootstrapping; efforts to cut public assistance; and thrift, training, and temperance.
A quick look over these five major themes brings to mind many of the talking points everyone is used to hearing pundits go back and forth on all over network news and on the Internet all the time. It all essentially boils down to the fact that poor people are often stigmatized by the better off, and many feel as though those living in squalor are getting a ‘free-ride.’ People simply don’t want to pay for other people live, which is often why there are threats from different factions, usually on the conservative side, to cut foodstamp and housing assistance, put drug testing into place (which is unconstitutional, despite many efforts), and get rid of unemployment benefits — all things millions of people depend on for survival.
While it’s easy to sympathize with people who believe their tax dollars are going to someone’s drug habit who simply sits at home, watches Maury, and lives high on the hog, it’s well-known that that stereotype is widely untrue. Of course, there are people who abuse the system, but by-and-large, most do not. The idea of the ‘welfare queen’ may have some validity to it, but it has mostly become a talking point for politicians to get donors riled up at fundraisers.
If these politicians were truly worried about welfare queens, they could set their sites at some of the corporations that suck insane amounts of money out of taxpayers’ wallets to bolster their profits. But alas, that is hardly ever brought up.
Poverty, in some sense, has become a generational problem. Many times, families are unable to escape the cycle of impoverishment from generation to generation, oftentimes due to lack of education or opportunity. For those who live in rural areas especially, the passing on of impoverishment as an inheritance has been going on for decades, if not centuries. Inadequate access to healthcare and proper schooling is part of the problem, and an overall sense of isolation plays as a factor as well.
Parents often pass their traits and habits, whether they be good or bad, down to their offspring. Family businesses are often inherited throughout generations as well, some less successful than others. People can get stuck working in a failing venture their entire lives, or at least working in a situation that will never lead to prosperity. This can also lead to families not placing value in things like education, or getting a college degree, which is often a stepping stone to getting out of tough surroundings.
The Columbia Tribune, a newspaper in Columbia, Missouri, took a look for themselves at generational poverty and how it is different from standard institutional poverty. As they note, situational poverty can happen as a result of sudden changes to one’s circumstances, like a job loss or a death in the family. There’s also the problem of people losing hope of ever escaping the cycle, which can then be thrust onto one’s children, who develop a sense of despair for themselves.
“Hopelessness is just rampant in generational poverty,” said Darin Preis, director of Central Missouri Community Action. To add on to that, CEO of the Columbia Housing Authority Phil Steinhaus sums up exactly what happens in many cases of generational economic strife. “Oftentimes, poor parenting can lead to poor parenting,” he said.
So, what can be done? It’s no secret that people don’t like to see their tax dollars being used as welfare subsidies for people in need, and charities don’t have the resources to handle the problems on their own. The idea of raising taxes to help bolster community programs and increase public assistance is usually met with a strangely high amount of hostility, and despite many studies and efforts to curb the stereotypes, the less fortunate are still greatly stigmatized. Things might look bleak, but there is plenty of reason for optimism.
For one, the advent of the Internet and the sweeping popularity of mobile devices like mobile phones, laptops, and tablet computers is giving more people than ever access to information and education. Even in the most rural areas, as long as people have access to online content, there is access to the entirety of human knowledge, and chances to become educated or learn new skills. Technology is only improving, so its reasonable to expect this trend to only pick up steam over the next decade or so.
Another reason to be hopeful for many is that the economy is finally gaining traction again. After the recession, millions lost their jobs and were thrust down into poverty. Recent job reports indicate that we have now surpassed pre-recession levels, and the unemployment rate has fallen. Companies are hiring again, and people are getting back to work. Although many jobs that have been recovered are not as lucrative as before, it’s still a good sign, and something to build off of.
Not only are jobs returning, but increased efforts to improve wages and working conditions are taking off as well. Seattle recently raised its minimum wage to $15 per hour, and many other cities are looking to follow in their footsteps. There will be some growing pains, but there are definitely good signs for the working class.
As we roll into the future, it’s reasonable to expect many people who were previously unable to shed the shackles of institutionalized and generational poverty to find new avenues to prosperity. Technology is allowing us to feed and educate more people than ever before, and charitable efforts, like those of Bill and Melinda Gates, for example, are helping thousands, if not millions stay healthy around the world.
If we can continue to grow and prosper as one giant community, rather than pitted against one another, poverty just might become a relic of the past for future generations.
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