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.

Marriage as the cure, America’s reality problem

America has a reality problem and it ain’t Snooki, J-Wow and Honey Boo. Americans are stuck in the dreams of yesterday and a place and time where life was a lot more black and white and not the shades of grey that have become the reality of modern day life in America. Our reality problem or rather refusal to look at reality as a collective whole is why we avoid looking at what we have become and working towards real solutions, instead we assess blame and look the other way.

Recent Census data shows that America, the land of dreams and prosperity has taken a terrible detour, we are lost. Yet instead of acknowledging that we are lost, it’s easier to nitpick hence a report I heard on NPR this morning ‘Can Marriage Save Single Mothers From Poverty’ of course folks on the conservative side think that marriage (but only marriage that involves one man and one woman) is the magic cure-all. Sure 40% of all births in the US are out of wedlock, but rather than look at the fact that wages have been stagnant and in the past decade the middle class has been hammered and the poor have been forgotten all while the rich have grown richer, it’s easy to say get married and the number of poor will decrease. Really?

In the NPR piece, Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College, makes a good point, sure women know that marrying a man who earns a good wage probably will be beneficial but the reality is these men with good wages are often not available. In lower income communities they simply don’t exist as wages have stagnated and even in so called good communities, many of these men have watched their own opportunities decrease as evidenced by this piece featured a few weeks ago in the New York Times. Where once solidly middle class men with wives are no longer the breadwinners, instead it’s the wives who are earning the bread. In many cases, globalization has changed the game and in this case, the game has changed for good.

To take a financial issue and turn it into a moral/social issue once again takes the pressure off the powers to be to create real change. It pits neighbor against neighbor and creates a false sense of security for the remaining haves while they cast dispersions at the have-nots. To even link single motherhood to poverty and use marriage as the cure, once again threatens the rights of all women and threatens to take us back to a time when women were less than.

Marriage under the right circumstances can be a beautiful thing, hell I have done it two times and so far seem to be pretty successful at it this second time around. Make no mistake though, more marriages crumble due to financial matters than anything else. If we look at the upper middle class and above and say they have higher rates of marriage and lowers rates of divorce, we can’t ignore the fact that financial stability allows a couple to have less pressures and more access to resources when there are problems. A financially solid couple can see a marriage therapist, afford the babysitters and time away that can keep a marriage on track, all things that are harder to do when you are just trying to keep the lights on.

Until we all have access to financially stable jobs with solid benefits, let’s just leave marriage out of the discussion.

Safety net…oh you mean the safety string?

Mitt Romney’s foot in mouth moment has inspired me to take a few minutes to post, since today being a half day of school for the wee lass and a full day of work for me means this is a long day. Yet when the guy who looks like he is going to be the GOP nominee starts uttering ridiculous shit, well I have to say something.

In case ya missed it, yesterday Mitt Romney basically stated that his focus is on the middle class, not the very rich (for obvious reasons) and not the very poor because the very poor have a safety net. Really? They do? Mittens you are talking an area where I know the deal, see I guess you’d say I have been in the helping poor people business now for 15 years and let me tell you the safety net is not a net. It’s a few strings at this point.

Can we start off with the fact that half of Americans are technically poor or low income, in other words they are making less than $50,000 a year. Now depending on where you live and how you live, 50G’s will keep you fed and housed but as far as building wealth or any of that shit, it’s not happening.  Thing is a lot of those people in that classification are living off way less than 50G’s a year, hell some may barely have any money at all. Someone asked me the other day, don’t all families with kids get tax refunds, I said no…and it’s true, the earned income credit phases out in the upper $40,000’s but thanks to what I am calling the poorification of the US., it means an whole lotta folks do get these credits and subsequent refunds. They aren’t getting tax refunds because they have kids; they are getting them because they are poor or low income. When so many people with kids are getting tax refunds that it’s perceived that they are obtaining them due to the kids but it’s really because they are broke, that says a lot!

In America we don’t talk money, it’s not polite but the reality is more of us are sliding into economic despair and hardship and frankly a lot of formerly middle class folks are learning we have no nets in this country. The only real net program we have is food stamps or SNAP benefits as they are called these days. Yet guys like Newt Gingrich sneer and call President Obama the “food stamp” president as if Obama is standing on street corners passing out food stamp cards. If more people are on food stamps than ever before it’s because people cannot afford the ever increasing cost of food.

The safety net is barely there, in states like mine the governor wants to cut people off the Medicaid program because we can’t afford it. Never mind most of these people are on it because they for starters they meet the income qualifications which last I knew in Maine could be near $40,000 a year. Sure that sounds luxurious but if you have a family of 3-4 on 40G’s a year and your employer doesn’t offer you coverage, how else do you get it?

When people like Mitt Romney and well-meaning but clueless people say there are safety nets they are talking out of their ass. Government assistance to the poor is limited and drying up, again using my current state as an example; heating assistance to low income folks was slashed and in a state that heats with heating oil that is bad news. Average Maine family will go through at least 800 gallons of heating oil in a winter and with prices starting at damn near $3.50 a gallon and up and the  average allotment of assistance coming in at $300 tops that means someone will be cold. Hell, someone could die.

Programs for housing have waiting lists across the country, when I last lived in Chicago; the waiting list to get on Section 8 was closed, even in Maine it can now take upwards of 3 years to get into subsidized housing. Three years is a long time to scramble for affordable housing. Let’s talk food, even with food stamp assistance; it takes creativity and ingenuity to make your benefits last all month. Despite the tales of carts laden with junk food, steaks and lobsters, the reality is not everyone who receives food stamps gets hundreds of dollars for some it may only be $100 a month; it’s based off individual economic circumstances. For many, local food banks, pantries and soup kitchens are the bridge to eating all month. However they too are hurting. I just took a call a few days ago from a local food pantry asking for help with a food drive, they are now seeing over 100 families a day when they are open, the demand is greater than the supply. I am seeing more hungry kids at my center and there is nothing worse than asking for help to keep kids fed and being met with a lackluster response. Local agencies and churches can barely keep up with demand.

So we have the government who in recent years has reduced its programing to the poor, we have local agencies that simply do not have the means to help everyone and we simply have more people in need of help. Now where is that safety net?

To Mitt and anyone else who thinks like him, I say you need to get off high street and come on down to commoner lane and spend some time talking to people who are struggling. You may learn a thing or two.