Saturday, January 30, 2016

Poverty 70 years ago compared to today

I've never seen a really good definition of structural or institutional poverty--probably because those are terms the left uses to criticize and demonize the right, so they lie about causes and solutions and ask for more money to throw at the problem.  It's a great term for creating a straw man and then accuse someone else of knocking it down.  The idea is that something within society is working against people to keep them from decent jobs and housing.

When I was a child, I actually knew poor children who were from poor families. In those days there were no wealth transfer programs, no school lunch, no welfare checks. We went to school together, and occasionally we played together. I don't remember any attending church (there were 3 churches, plus rural churches, so it's possible they did and I didn't know it).  From my limited childhood understanding of economics, poor children had poor parents. In most cases I had never met their fathers, but had seen a mother--in those days (1940s/1950s) poor children had married parents, which is not usually the case today. The poor children I knew often didn't have underwear or socks, and their clothes were soiled and sometimes they smelled like urine. They did poorly in school.  I knew children who were in foster care because their parents were too poor to take of them; I knew children who moved about every three to six months because their fathers were tenant farmers, and not very good ones because they drank.  I knew children whose parents couldn't take care of them so they lived with their grandparents. I knew a few children that only had a mother, and she was often a waitress or just  appeared occasionally.  I noticed even in those days (I was maybe 8 years old by then), they had a vocabulary that included bad grammar, dirty jokes and words we weren't allowed to say. I knew one boy who had lost an arm in a farm accident, and another who was accidentally killed when he found his father's shotgun under a bed.

Of course, poverty is relative.  Even my friends who weren't poor might have a dinner of soda crackers crumbled into a bowl of milk once or twice a week, had tongue sandwiches from butchering (gag), wore hand-me-down clothes from their cousins, and for Halloween a paper sack with a face drawn on it would be a suitable costume. Even families who weren't poor may have not had a home with an indoor toilet. For their once a week bath, the heated water came from the stove and was carried to the bathtub and three children might share the water.  But being clean meant you weren't poor! The holes in our clothes were neatly patched and when they were outgrown they were given away, and if worn out, they were cut into strips and Mom crocheted a rug.  Most of us who weren't poor had mothers who canned produce from gardens they had planted, weeded and harvested with the children's help, and we all wore dresses or trousers our mothers had sewn.  But my goodness, we certainly didn't think we were poor, even if we only had one pair of shoes which had to last until our toes were squashed.

Now when I see poverty in Columbus, I still don't see institutional poverty.  I see poor children with poor parents. The share of U.S. children living in poverty has actually increased by 2 percentage points since 2008. But unlike the 1940s these parents have lots of help from the state and federal governments--SNAP, Section 8 housing, WIC, school lunch and after school and summer time snacks, Medicaid, and all sorts of material aid from churches and non-profits, from food pantries to furniture to clothing to an automobile.  Many of these poor families are headed by women. The majority are white. If they are lucky, they have an older "wise" woman in their life to help them negotiate the system.  I met one the other day which was three generations and they were living in an unheated garage and were about to be evicted. But just like the children in the families I knew 70 years ago, the children are poor because  the adults had made really bad decisions--about relationships, alcohol/drugs, education, and jobs.  But especially relationships. The women become entangled with men who don't work or are petty criminals, then they are abused, and left with the children as he moves on to another woman or goes to prison. And the next guy she finds is more of the same.  They are much better dressed than those I grew up with, but I can't forget the desperate look in the adults' eyes--the children don't seem to know they are poor.

The wealthy non-profits with well paid CEOs, the government bureaucrats and the academics in ivory towers seem to think that some are poor because others are rich. They want billions, no trillions, to close some sort of gap.  It's like they've never looked at or talked to a poor family.

“Young people can virtually assure that they and their families will avoid poverty if they follow three elementary rules for success – complete at least a high school education, work full time, and wait until age 21 and get married before having a baby.  Based on an analysis of Census data, people who followed all three of these rules had only a 2 percent chance of being in poverty and a 72 percent chance of joining the middle class (defined as above $55,000 in 2010.”

Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, testifying before Congress on June 5, 2012

No comments: