America’s poverty problem, it ain’t those other people!

For decades America’s view of what poverty looked like was either some brown or black face in a third world country, urban poverty, again relegated to a brown or black face or poor whites in rural Appalachia. In other words for the vast majority of Americans, poor people were those other people. People whose plight could easily be explained due to lack, whether it was lack of education or some other arbitrary trait but times have changed! Poverty in America has a new face and it just might surprise you. Though for those of us in the helping professions, we aren’t surprised at all, we have been seeing this change for quite some time, but now everyone knows.

A new book from the Brooking Institution, Confronting Suburban Poverty states that poverty in America has climbed over 64% in the last decade, more than twice as fast as the poverty rate in urban areas. Gee, I could have told ya that, but no one asked me.

There are those who will say that this increase is due to immigrants and others looking for cheaper housing in the suburbs which I imagine to be true but some of it is simply a result in my opinion to a changing America. We have pretty much accepted that the rich are getting richer, hell we all know about the vaunted one percent. Problem is everyone else is falling down the rabbit hole of economic despair and that includes the folks in the middle, most aren’t treading water, they are trying desperately to keep from being sucked down the hole…next stop, you are officially poor!

For the past couple of years, I have seen a change in the types of folks that I see looking to receive social services. No longer is it the so-called typical poor person, it’s folks who up until a few years ago used to help the poor themselves. Now they need help. Sadly in most parts of the country, once you leave the larger cities, social services in most rural and suburban areas is woefully inadequate to assist the surge of the newly poor. I was just in a meeting today, trying to plan summer feeding programs in the community that I work in. Three years ago, my agency was the only summer meal site for one of Maine’s largest cities, now we will be one of nine sites this summer. In my line of work, that type of growth isn’t necessarily good especially when we are discussing kids in families without the means to adequately feed their own kids.

Poverty in the land of plenty is a dirty little secret, especially in a society that decided that talks of income and money is just gauche. Yet I know personally in my own personal circle, most people that I know who are teetering on that edge are people you never would expect. Some time back a casual acquaintance revealed that she and her husband were receiving food stamps, this is a woman I knew that just a few short years ago was driving a pretty plush Mercedes. I did a double take when she told me; this is a college educated woman, solid background…what happened? Closer to home is a friend of mine who has taken to publicly writing about her journey to poverty from her upper class privileged background.

America may be a place of dreams but for too many those dreams have become nightmares because once you cross the line into poverty, poverty is a lot like the Hotel California. You can check in, but your chances of checking out and staying out are damn hard. The only way we will break this trend is to start talking openly and honestly about poverty, stop thinking that it is something that happens to other people and start demanding real safety nets and discuss and plan ways to change the economic inequalities that have become the norm.