Peter Edelman—Poverty in America: Why Can’t We End It?

Posted by Kendall Harmon

The lowest percentage in poverty since we started counting was 11.1 percent in 1973. The rate climbed as high as 15.2 percent in 1983. In 2000, after a spurt of prosperity, it went back down to 11.3 percent, and yet 15 million more people are poor today.

At the same time, we have done a lot that works. From Social Security to food stamps to the earned-income tax credit and on and on, we have enacted programs that now keep 40 million people out of poverty. Poverty would be nearly double what it is now without these measures, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. To say that “poverty won” is like saying the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts failed because there is still pollution.

With all of that, why have we not achieved more? Four reasons: An astonishing number of people work at low-wage jobs. Plus, many more households are headed now by a single parent, making it difficult for them to earn a living income from the jobs that are typically available. The near disappearance of cash assistance for low-income mothers and children — i.e., welfare — in much of the country plays a contributing role, too. And persistent issues of race and gender mean higher poverty among minorities and families headed by single mothers.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchPoverty* International News & CommentaryAmerica/U.S.A.

19 Comments
Posted July 30, 2012 at 5:35 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Formerly Marion R. wrote:

Throughout the article, poverty is implicitly defined as the absence of direct income redistribution.

July 30, 8:27 am | [comment link]
2. Capt. Father Warren wrote:

And what is poverty?  People in other countries would laugh themselves silly [in envy] at those in “poverty” in this country: many own their homes, have at least one car, have a cell phone, a color TV, microwave, utilities, food on a regular basis.

Not a life of luxury by any means, but also not a life of poverty that the rest of the world would even recognize.  And as long as we keep raising the bar [what’s next?  every family “must” have a laptop?] more and more will be counted as “those in poverty”.

July 30, 9:02 am | [comment link]
3. sophy0075 wrote:

Until people can be persuaded:
1. to stay in school
2. take college majors or tech school training for fields where companies are actively seeking employees (such as engineering, IT, and other applied sciences and mechanics)
3. to refrain from sex until marriage, in order to avoid undesired pregnancies of single moms
4. to accept responsibility for the children they father
there will still be “poverty” in this country. And yes, Capt Father Warren, I agree with you. I’ve typed “poverty” in quotes because we in this country are not familiar with true poverty. Our missionaries in Uganda return to tell us what true poverty is.

July 30, 9:30 am | [comment link]
4. Capt. Father Warren wrote:

#3, yes, the stories from Uganda will help to adjust one’s thinking.  I participated on a mission trip to El Salvador many years ago to help refurbish an Anglican mission church outside San Salvadore in a very poor neighborhood.  I daresay most of our people living in “poverty” would be phoning Washington [on their free cell phones] and demanding government help.

Several years later on a trip to Sao Paulo I was totally unprepared for the sheer magnitude of poverty I witnessed there.  We drove through miles upon miles of tin shacks, carboard huts, whole communities built on top of garbage dumps.  Again, the boutique “poverty” industry in this country would be screaming through their well-paid Wash DC lobbyists for government to “do something”.

July 30, 10:33 am | [comment link]
5. Cennydd13 wrote:

3.  I agree, sophy007, but I’ve seen another side of that ‘poverty’ that you talk about, and it’s here in the San Joaquin Valley of California, where my wife and I live.  This valley is the breadbasket of America and much of the world, yet we have an unemployment rate averaging 22%.....and it’s not getting any better.  Our high school graduates…..many of them…..can’t find jobs here, and they leave, never to return.  Our community colleges are strapped for money and have cut back significantly on enrollments, thus eliminating job training programs for a needy area.  Employers aren’t hiring anyone without experience…..and that’s unfortunate because it stifles job growth.  How is anyone supposed to get experience if they can’t get hired?  No employer has ever answered that question.  One of the reasons for high unemployment in our area is high taxes, which means that employers are reluctant to relocate to areas such as ours.  And therefore, unemployment results in poverty or near-poverty for so many that they end up on the dole…..and what choice do they have?  It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s getting worse.

July 30, 10:35 am | [comment link]
6. Cennydd13 wrote:

And I also agree with you, Capt Deacon Warren, because we have a similar situation on a much smaller scale in our own country:  the Pine Ridge Reservation, for example.

July 30, 10:40 am | [comment link]
7. magnolia wrote:

i agree cennydd13, abject poverty is alive and well in the appalachians, you don’t have to go to africa to see it.

July 30, 2:04 pm | [comment link]
8. Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) wrote:

How is anyone supposed to get experience if they can’t get hired?  No employer has ever answered that question.

As an employer, I’ll answer that question: You are observing the natural result of increased minimum wage and so many work regulations there isn’t a wall big enough to hold all the posters.

There are plenty of young people I would hire at, say, $4 per hour on a trial basis. An employee has to make my life easier, not harder, and I would give those trial hires two weeks to prove they have the proper attitude and effort to succeed. At that point I’d either let ‘em go or bump ‘em up to $5 per hour and give them six more weeks to prove they can learn fast enough, follow directions well enough, and work hard enough to be worth a $10 wage, which actually costs me in excess of $12. Or they go.

But since the law will not allow two people to agree to such an arrangement I find new ways to get the same task accomplished with fewer and few people. In my case that means purchasing (or building) specialty machines and equipment which replace people I would have been happy to hire in other circumstances.

July 30, 3:27 pm | [comment link]
9. Cennydd13 wrote:

I’ll have to agree with you about the many work regulations…..I think that government should stop poking around in commercial enterprise, but when it comes to a person’s inability to raise a family on minimum wages and having to rely on public assistance…..which so often hurts one’s pride because he or she can’t properly provide for his or her children…..then that’s a different matter.  It’s happening here where we live, and I see it every day.  You know it yourself, because you’ve seen it too.  More jobs outside of agribusiness would certainly help, but this is an agricultural area that we live in, and the only other jobs available are at the big box stores…..and they pay minmum wage for the most part.  And even with both parents working for minimum wage, they tell me it’s still not enough in some cases.

July 30, 7:57 pm | [comment link]
10. clayton wrote:

Yes, #9.  2012 poverty level for a family of 4 is $23,050; that’s TWO household members working full-time at the federal minimum wage. 

This brief report is what I come back to: source: http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/min-wage2-2012-03.pdf

Who cares if you have a color TV (can you even buy a B&W TV?!) or a microwave?  You can get that cheap or free if you’re at the bottom of the endlessly-flowing river of stuff in our culture.  You’re still poor.  Maybe education will help!  But…

“In 1979, a four-year private college required 1,112 hours of work at the minimum wage. By 2010, the cost in minimum-wage hours had increased so much that it was no longer possible to pay for a full year of a private four-year college – 3,201 hours – by working full-year, full-time (2080 hours) at the minimum wage.”

(and yes, there are non-private colleges, but “Even the minimum-wage hours needed to pay tuition for one year at a two-year college almost tripled between 1979 and 2010, from 156 hours to 403 hours.”)

I don’t think the solution is to lower the minimum wage to $4 unless we’re going full Dickens and plan to bring back child labor and debtor’s prisons as well.

I agree with the conclusions of the article.  We can have a soft revolution or a hard one, but I don’t think this is going to be a sustainable system for more than another generation, if that. 

“A surefire politics of change would necessarily involve getting people in the middle — from the 30th to the 70th percentile — to see their own economic self-interest. If they vote in their own self-interest, they’ll elect people who are likely to be more aligned with people with lower incomes as well as with them. As long as people in the middle identify more with people on the top than with those on the bottom, we are doomed. The obscene amount of money flowing into the electoral process makes things harder yet.”

In other words, it’s time to stop obsessing about who has a cell phone.

July 30, 8:18 pm | [comment link]
11. Teatime2 wrote:

#8—Right, what business wouldn’t be “happy to hire” people at $4 per hour? I’m sorry, sir, but that’s insulting, starting rate or not.  Diligently collecting cans and bottles for cash would likely yield more than that in an hour and the person wouldn’t have to hear about how lucky they are that you hired them.

July 30, 8:54 pm | [comment link]
12. Karen B. wrote:

Hi all, this is a very interesting discussion!  Sorry I’m catching it so late in the day but was busy with work all day and had no time for blogs until now when I should be sleeping!  grin

Just a quick note about poverty and developing countries.  in response to comments #2 and #3 in particular.  Capt. Warren wrote:

People in other countries would laugh themselves silly [in envy] at those in “poverty” in this country: many own their homes, have at least one car, have a cell phone, a color TV, microwave, utilities, food on a regular basis.

You might be surprised at some of the homes I visit here in a very poor neighborhood in West Africa… satellite TV dishes on wooden shanty roofs (powered in some cases by car batteries if there is no electricity in the neighborhood), and some friends have multiple cell phones (each from competing cell phone providers to allow for the cheapest calling.  It’s cheaper to call from Company A to Company A and Comp. B to B, than to call from Company A to Company B…)

So, even here in Africa there is a problem of commercialization and even very poor people devoting scarce resources to “luxuries” instead of “daily needs.”

One big problem here, and I suspect in some poorest households in the U.S. is an inability / deep-seated cultural resistance to planning ahead, budgeting, saving and setting goals.  There is very much a “spend what you have today, today” mentality and let tomorrow take care of itself.  Here a lot of that is caused by fatalism, reinforced by some aspects of the local Islamic Culture which require anyone with money to help anyone (esp. a relative) who is financially needy.  So, people here don’t want to hold on to money or save because if they have money they will be hounded for money by relatives…! 

In the business training programs we run we are really trying to encourage people to not let relatives’ needs and pressure to give cause them to liquidate their businesses or give away capital they need to reinvest in stock, but rather try to encourage their relatives to think of a healthy business as a long-term cash cow.  But the cow has to be mature and healthy to continue producing milk…!  You can butcher off parts of the cow each week or each month and expect it to live and provide milk!

Once again, I’ll link one of the best articles (actually a short editorial) I have read on the topic of Christian ministry and poverty, and the idea of building up spiritual capital in poor communities.  I really encourage people even in the U.S. to read this article on breaking the poverty trap.

http://www.missionfrontiers.org/issue/article/poverty-getting-to-the-heart-of-the-matter

Here’s a quick “synopsis” I wrote about this article for some of my prayer supporters 2 years ago:

I thought this short piece did one of the best jobs I’ve ever seen at showing how spiritual transformation is a key towards breaking poverty, thus showing perhaps how those of us in NGO work & development can better integrate CP (chch planting) with our CD (community development work).  Here’s a key quote from the article:

      Without a moral structure based on biblical principles, short-term self-interest becomes the prime motivation, and people will lie, cheat and steal to get what they want instead of doing the hard honest work that builds the trust and spiritual capital that makes successful economic interaction possible. Transformed lives are the foundation upon which any society can build an economy and overcome poverty.


Also, this article emphasized something our team has really begun to grasp and focus on in the past few years:  the importance of capacity building and using a “self-help” approach to break patterns of dependency.  We are less and less running programs FOR a community, but helping the community to learn and develop the skills and mobilize resources to run their own programs.

But most importantly, more and more we see the importance of focusing on the foundations for development in a community - a changed worldview.  Breaking fatalism.  Helping people to believe change IS possible.  So even our “secular” development work needs to begin with addressing key “worldview” issues.

July 30, 10:44 pm | [comment link]
13. Sarah wrote:

Ack—there are several false assumptions in some of the comments above.

1) The minimum wage is not designed to “support families” . . . it’s designed to allow people entering the job market to get on the lowest rung of the ladder and to steadily climb it as one’s experience and skills expand and one becomes a sought-out asset to businesses.  Businesses do not hire people as acts of charity but rather because those people will *add* to the reach and skill-set of the business.

So.

When you first enter the market of employment, your goal is to become hirable at higher and higher wages as your experience and skills expand and as you become a more and more valuable asset.

That is why the minimum wage is such a pernicious and dreadful policy—it strips away the bottom rungs of the ladder, and forces the unskilled and the unexperienced to never even be able to step on the ladder at all!

On another related note—that’s why the rise of free internship offerings as expanded so much lately.  Workers—desperate to gain experience and skills and to “apprentice” at workplaces willing to give them a shot—offer themselves for “internships” which are unpaid. That’s what they’re willing to choose—now that the government has, through its minimum wage, stripped those lower salary rungs off the ladder.  People are willing to work for free—but boy, it’d be nicer to earn that experience and skill-set for four bucks an hour, rather than for zero bucks an hour.

2) The reason why college educations have become their own little price-bubbles is because of the government additions of mounds of money to colleges and universities. Higher education is basically now like the housing bubble—with the influx of masses of tax dollars, tuition has soared—and it’s directly relatable to artificially inflated bubble caused by government money.  The industry is flooded with money, which means that the student money from tuition is far less “valuable” now.

3) The answer to this question—“what business wouldn’t be “happy to hire” people at $4 per hour?—is “why, the businesses that need far more skilled and experienced workers than those whose skills are worth merely $4 per hour!”

Which was precisely Bart’s point—what do you do when a no-experienced, low-skilled worker who does not add more value to your company than four bucks an hour wishes to get a job?

Answer: you do not hire him!

So our country has decided that it is better for a person to *not be hired at all* or to make zero dollars an hour in the form of an unpaid internship [and of course, only the relatively privileged people entering the workforce can afford to do the latter] then to make four bucks an hour.

Ah well.

4) As a person who has collected cans in ditches in order to make some money as a young person, I can assure everyone that making four bucks an hour would have been an improvement. Unless one—every hour—comes across a massive treasure trove of chunks of cans residing in one spot—four bucks an hour beats the money one makes on selling metal by a long long shot. I’ve made many a trip in the summer sun—either on my bike or later on with a truck—selling scrap and aluminum at the local metal recycling place.  I know.  ; > )

July 31, 9:44 am | [comment link]
14. Capt. Father Warren wrote:

Ah yes, and Sarah, what about the hubris of those who decide that they will not allow people to work for $4/hr.  How wise and all-knowing such people must feel that they are.  I never collected cans in ditches, but my first job was hawking newspapers on the side of the road.  No pay, straight comission, and you learned to run when someone stuck their hand out of the car.  Second job was helping to repair textbooks one summer for the public school.  As I recall, that was $1.25/hr and it was more fun than standing in the hot sun or rain to sell newspapers.

And let’s not forget how the minimum wage forces some companies to ship jobs offshore where the wage fits the value to be imparted to the manufacturing process in order that American companies can try to stay competitive in a global market.

But we are in a time where “good intentions” trumps “common sense”.

July 31, 11:02 am | [comment link]
15. Sarah wrote:

Well said, Captn Warren.

But . . . our betters know best for us.  ; > )

July 31, 2:07 pm | [comment link]
16. Teatime2 wrote:

Oh no, businesses don’t hire unskilled Americans with no experience for $4 an hour—they count on the flood of illegal immigrants to hire and they pay them $5 per hour because, after all, the whole family, including kids, work so they can keep their households afloat.

As for the need for highly skilled workers, they look to countries such as India for that. They come able to speak English, with excellent skills, and much lower salary requirements. According to the placement center at the university my son attends, each engineering graduate could once count on at least 3 or 4 excellent job offers. Now they are lucky if they get one offer.

The claim that there aren’t enough highly skilled American grads in fields such as engineering is a myth. There are plenty for the current market. But the businesses would rather arrange the special visa for Indian or Pakistani engineers because they can save $10K-15K in salary. The other myth American students are being sold is that the market requires many more engineers than are being graduated. Again, according to the folks I’ve spoken with at the university my son attends, an engineering degree is overkill for most of the jobs available. My son was pursuing a degree in computer engineering but his advisor recommended that, unless he would be happy sitting in a cubicle writing code all day (and he didn’t think he would), it would be better to pursue a business degree in information systems. Most of the jobs just don’t require all of the skills of a computer engineer.

I don’t get this pervasive belief by some that (small) business owners are all ethical, beneficent good guys who have the best of intentions and business practices. Some are and some aren’t. And as we all learned in grade school, everyone suffers the consequences of the baddies, in the form of new rules and a loss of rewards.

Sarah, there was a feature article in our local paper about a can and bottle man who said he made $40 on an average day. Apparently, the secret is to have neighborhoods of “clientele” who save their cans and bottles for you, and to hit the dumpsters near schools and stadia. This all came up because he was stopped and ticketed by some overzealous cop. A city ordinance, aimed at preventing identity theft, outlawed going through residential garbage totes. It was cleared up and the gentleman wasn’t fine. Folks started giving him their bottles and cans directly, though.

July 31, 3:11 pm | [comment link]
17. Sarah wrote:

RE: “Oh no, businesses don’t hire unskilled Americans with no experience for $4 an hour . . . “

Right—they’re not allowed to because of the corrupt and abusive minimum wage law.

RE: “As for the need for highly skilled workers, they look to countries such as India for that.”

Sometimes, yes—that is often the case.  Good for them for immigrating and being ambitious.

RE: “According to the placement center at the university my son attends, each engineering graduate could once count on at least 3 or 4 excellent job offers. Now they are lucky if they get one offer.”

I believe it—we are in serious trouble in America due to our onerous and overwhelming regulatory and tax environment, among which the minimum wage law is just the smallest sliver of the problem. I expect it will get much worse.

RE: “But the businesses would rather arrange the special visa for Indian or Pakistani engineers because they can save $10K-15K in salary.”

Goodness me—how wicked of businesses to seek to cut costs!

RE: “My son was pursuing a degree in computer engineering but his advisor recommended that, unless he would be happy sitting in a cubicle writing code all day (and he didn’t think he would), it would be better to pursue a business degree in information systems. Most of the jobs just don’t require all of the skills of a computer engineer.”

Sounds like a wise advisor.

RE: “I don’t get this pervasive belief by some that (small) business owners are all ethical, beneficent good guys who have the best of intentions and business practices.”

I haven’t seen any such commenting here at T19. And I’m not certain what it has to do with the intrinsically abusive and awful minimum wage laws either which chop off the bottom rungs of the wage ladder and force the impoverished to simply not work and collect government benefits.

RE: “Sarah, there was a feature article in our local paper about a can and bottle man who said he made $40 on an average day.”

Well hopefully it was an 8-hour day and not a 12 hour day.  ; > )

RE: “A city ordinance, aimed at preventing identity theft, outlawed going through residential garbage totes.”

There we are again—controlling, abusive, corrupt government regulations taking away people’s livelihoods.

It all goes together.

July 31, 3:51 pm | [comment link]
18. Teatime2 wrote:

Sarah, These are largely “chicken and egg” discussions. Which came first, bad behavior or regulation? Probably a combo of both. Without regulations there were all sorts of abuses. On the flipside, there’s an attitude among some that if the law doesn’t forbid/require it then it’s fair game, no matter how onerous or morally repugnant.

But, then again, it seems that you have a far higher view of humanity than I do. Your comments suggest a belief that people will either do the right thing or learn quickly from their mistakes and then do the right thing. As the years rack up and the more I see, I believe that most people are selfish, self-centered, base and complacent, proud of their ignorance and eager to take advantage of others but in desperate need of understanding and embracing the Savior whom they reject (whether they know they reject Him or not). Or maybe this is just mostly in America. wink

Regarding the bin regulation, it was necessary. We had a problem with identity theft in our community and people were caught dumpster-diving for names and addresses. Besides that, they were making a mess. The regulation is a good one on many levels. It just needed to be tweaked.

July 31, 5:32 pm | [comment link]
19. dwstroudmd+ wrote:

Well, by the standards of the Great Society, poverty has been eliminated.  Remember back then it was $6000 per annum for folks in NYC. 
Of course, those were gold-standard dollars.  But since the abatement of the gold standard, the goals have been met but the poverty has remained.

July 31, 8:40 pm | [comment link]
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