On Being Poor

In 1833, publisher and economist Mathew Carey wrote a series of essays titled “Appeal to the Wealthy of the Land, Ladies as Well as Gentlemen, on the Character, Conduct, Situation, and Prospects of Those Whose Sole Dependence for Subsistence Is on the Labor of Their Hands.”  He dedicated this pamphlet “as a small mark of approbation of their Liberality, humanity, and fostering care, directed towards the relief of a large, oppressed, and suffering class of females, whose case often presents scenes of distress, to which nothing but ocular demonstration could secure credit, in a country far more prosperous than any other portion of the habitable globe.”  Wow! That’s a mouth full for sure, but in all of those fancy words, Mr. Carey made a keen observation – people in America, this new country full of opportunity and prosperity, were too poor.  Sadly, they still are.

I have been firmly in the middle class ever since striking it out on my own.  I’m one of the lucky people that was able to get out of abject poverty.  As an adult, I’ve never worried about where I would sleep and I’ve never gone hungry.  I’ve always had the ability to pack up my things and move when the mood struck and that often meant crashing on couches and spare rooms until I figured out where the next road would take me.  Currently, I could decide to move to a dozen different states and about five countries without much planning because I’ve got a friend or two who would accept me with open arms.  Mobility is one of the marks of the middle class; the ability to change, hopefully for the better, your situation.   People who live in poverty and only know others who are in the same situation don’t have that ability.  They are stuck in whatever situation they are in with no power to change it.

As I mentioned earlier, 1833 America had the same problem as 2016 America — once a person became poor, by birth or circumstances, they usually stayed that way.  Mr. Carey was one of the few people of his time who believed that it was everyone’s responsibility to try solve the poverty problem – through direct assistance and fair labor practices. (Sound familiar?).

In his pamphlet, he mentions 4 arguments that the middle and upper classes gave against helping the poor.
1. That every man, woman, and grown child (over 8), able and willing to work may find employment.
2. That the poor, by industry, prudence, and economy, may at all times support themselves comfortably, without depending on charitable aid, from said employment.
3. That their sufferings and distresses chiefly, if not wholly, arise from their idleness, their dissipation (waste), and their extravagance.
4. That taxes for the support of the poor, and aid afforded them by charitable individuals, or benevolent societies, are harmful, as, by encouraging the poor to depend on them, they foster their idleness and improvidence, and thus produce, or at least increase, the poverty and distress they are intended to relieve.

Does that list sound familiar?  Of course we no longer expect 8 year-old children to work    ( 16 is apparently a good age to start supporting the family), but the rest certainly seem to still fit in with America’s view of the poor.  How many times have you heard people say that the poor are just lazy? What about wasteful? How about drunks and drug addicts?  According to The Kairos Center, 48% of the US population are considered low income or impoverished.  That means one out of every two people have very uncertain futures.

While 48% of the population don’t, or barely, make enough to live off of, only 23% of the population receives some form of public assistance.  What’s even more shocking is that 56% of those recipients are employed.  That’s over half! That means that almost 20% of American workers don’t make enough to fully support themselves.  The “lazy” argument doesn’t really hold up, does it (I’m talking to you GOP)?

“They’re spending it on drugs” you say.  Well, actually not so much.  A few states have tried implementing drug testing programs for recipients.  It turns out that these states wasted tons of money for a statistically insignificant amount of positive results.  So, no they’re not a bunch of drug addicts.  “But, they’ll become dependent on the system.” Again, no.  Over half of all people who receive assistance come off of the programs within 2 years.  People don’t want to “live off of the system”.

I can hear you asking me what the problem is then.  Its the same thing it was in 1833.  Wages.  Mr. Carey lays it all out.  In 1833 a day laborer, with his wife and children all working, could expect to make $156 per year.  That same laborer could expect his expenses to be $166.21 per that same year.  That left a $10.21 deficit if all of them were able to work 365 days a year – these were not 40 hour work weeks either; such luxuries didn’t exist.  Today, if a person making minimum wage works 40 hours a week 52 weeks a year, he or she will make $15,080 a year.  Again this is assuming that they take no days off ever.  If their rent is $500 a month, which is a low ball number for most areas, then almost half of their income is almost gone and that doesn’t even count what they pay for utilities.  Can you see where I’m going here?  They are in the same situation as laborers almost 200 years ago.  How do we fix this?  Getting a higher paying job isn’t the answer because, according to the jobs report, 60% of all jobs being created pay minimum wage.

I find myself asking this question a lot, but how is this still okay?  How can we, as a nation, decide that almost half of all Americans are not deserving of financial security.  We have to either raise the minimum wage or expand assistance programs.  Period.  We can’t continue to pretend there is “nothing we can do.”  We can fight poverty with legislation.  We can raise the minimum wage.  We can implement a system of Universal Healthcare.  We can offer assistance for childcare.  We can make getting a college education more affordable.  There IS a lot we can do.  We just seem think that some people are more worthy than others and that everyone should be able to make it on their own no matter what the wages are.  Well America, you’re wrong and in the words of Mathew Carey, “This is one of those decisive facts which ought to silence unnecessary objections for ever on this important subject” – we are letting down 48% of the population and its not okay.

If you disagree with me, check out what the Department of Labor has to say on what will happen to our economy if we raise the minimum wage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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