Poverty in America: Demythifying a Class Society

“The Czar of all the Russias is not more absolute upon his own soil than the New York landlord in his dealings with colored tenants. Where he permits them to live, they go; where he shuts the door, they stay out. By his grace they exist at all in certain localities; his ukase banishes them from others. He accepts the responsibility, when laid at his door, with unruffled complacency. It is business, he will tell you. And it is. He makes the prejudice in which he traffics pay him well, and that, as he thinks it quite superfluous to tell you, is what he is there for.” (Riis, How the Other Half Lives, 1890)

“One of the most distinctive things about most American cities is that it is not easy to distinguish social class on the streets. Clothes are cheap and increasingly standardized. The old “proletarian” dress—the cloth hat, the work clothes—either disappeared or else was locked up at the shop…… The ironic dialectic that threads its way through the culture of poverty is at work. The industry that comes to these places (rural America) is not concerned with moral or social uplift. It seeks out rural poverty because it provides a docile cheap labor market. There is income supplementing as a result, but what basically happens is that people who have been living in the depressed areas of agriculture now live part-time in the depressed areas of industry. They get the worst of two worlds.” (Harrington, The Other America, 1962)

“In the aftermath of the election of 1980, the Reagan administration and its big-business allies declared a new class war on the unemployed, the unemployable, and the working poor. By the summer of 1981, congressional approval had been obtained to slash $140 billion from the social programs over the years 1982-1984, more than half of it from the income-maintenance programs that provide low-income people with cash, food, health care, and low-cost housing. At the same time, the Reagan administration announced that additional social program reductions of $45 billion and $30 billion would be proposed in 1983 and 1984…” (Pive & Cloward, The New Class War, 1982)

“In the United States, the federal government defines poverty very simply: an annual income, for a family with one adult and three children, of less that $18,392 in the year 2003. That works out to $8.89 an hour, or $3.74 above the federal minimum wage, assuming that someone can get a full forty hours of work a week for all fifty-two weeks of the year or 2,080 working hours annually. With incomes rising through the economic expansion of the 1990s, the incidence of official poverty declined, beginning the new decade at 11.3 percent of the population, down from 15.1 percent in 1993. Then it rose slightly in the ensuing recession, to 12.5 percent by 2003.
But the figures are misleading. The federal poverty line cuts far below the amount needed for a decent living, because the Census Bureau still uses the basic formula designed in 1964 by the Social Security Administration, with four modest revisions in subsequent years. That sets the poverty level at approximately three times the cost of a “thrifty food basket.” The calculation was derived from spending patterns in 1955, when the average family used about one-third of its income for food. It is no longer valid today, when the average family spends only about one-sixth of its budget for food, but the government continues to multiply the cost of a “thrifty food basket” by three, adjusting for inflation only and overlooking nearly half a century of dramatically changing lifestyles.”
(Shipler, The Working Poor, 2004)

Even going by the thrifty food basket standards that clearly undermine needs of people to go beyond food (free time, luxury to spend those times, staying fit, watching movies, traveling, learning technical skills, reading books etc., to realize human potentials), poverty in America is on an alarming rise. There are 37 million Americans living below the poverty line today. This not only indicates an increase by five million since President George W. Bush came to power, it also should remind us that more than one in 10 citizens are below poverty line. The number is actually higher when we calculate the needs of people for education, employment and necessities in life other than just cheap, junk, fatty foods.

In the meantime, Congress has endorsed NASA’s mission to Mars which will cost $500 billion. (Of course, during the 60’s, American poor children sang, ‘Who wants to go to the Moon, Ma? I want to go to school’.) But even before that plan materializes, the Congress has already let more than $250 billion to be spent in the war in Iraq alone (not to mention the consequential costs for civilians, or the dozens of other wars, where no investment ever reaps returns). And we need just $24 billion a year to fully fund every anti-hunger effort in the world.

If for some reason, any reasonable person has doubt about capitalism’s contribution to world poverty, one just needs to look at the storehouses of illicit wealth that fosters the disparity between the haves and have-nots: the billionaires of the world, quite naturally, the highest number of them in the planet, 269, live in the United States. As a traditional bastion of ill-gotten wealth, the billionaire club has amassed such wealth in exclusionary lines. Not just through colonial weapons have certain western countries monopolized over world resources, even within them, certain groups of people have held the power of money so far. As a result, in the United States, whereas almost a quarter of all black Americans live below the poverty line; and 22 per cent of Hispanics fall below it, the figure for the whites is just 8.6 per cent.

The statistics can be pretty informative, but for those who need to seek the solutions, the same statistics can also be used quite effectively. In case of world hunger, if we know the disproportion, we also are aware that only a small minority actually controls the huge majority of the world resources, and in them or lack of them, lies the solution.

Long gone are the days when half of the people in the world did not know how the other half lived because they did not care. With advent of capitalism, only a few people do not appear to care how the rest of the world lives. And if this is not opportunity enough for people to realize that the apathetic few arrogantly immersed with undeserved wealth are not exactly the ones who deserve tax-cuts, then nothing is.

Fortunately, nothing can be said with as much clarity as the class issues. There is no ambiguity, there is no pretension. There is a clear demarcation between those in command, and those in state of despair. Maybe this is the reason why there is no talk around economic class, in a country where every ninth person is unsure of where the next meal is coming from. For, if the real issues come to surface and people ‘come gather round’ and talk it out, there is surely going to be a change in the times.

Till then, the elite minority that anyway controls the mental means of productions, creates a cultural vacuum that drifts away from the issues into the world of sit-coms, fantasies and comedy shows. If that doesn’t suffice, then it reinforces the law and order to silence the potential resistance from protesting the existing structures of inequities of a massive class society.

This should not come as a surprise that the real issue with America today—conflicts of interests between its two economic classes—is thwarted constantly by the media, since there is an attempt at manufacturing both content and consent to draw people’s mind away by the owners of media houses—who are again, from the club. But what should come alarming is that even as the conflicts of interests take place every passing day among these classes, their interpretations are encouraged to be done in an individualistic, religious, and meritocratic way, instead of being prompted to act on the grounds of social justice—organized and agitated, to stake claim, and challenge. Its not poverty of wealth in the world that should matter at this point when we know only too well that this world can spend $500 billion in Mars; rather its the poverty of mass directions that’s grappling today’s age which fails to help the world rise up to the demands of the day. For revolutions do not take place in a historical battlefield. Revolutions must occur in our politicized minds first.


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