American Poverty is on the Rise
Why history explains the $107,772 average wealth gap between black and white Americans
America was clobbered over the head with more bad news this month when the Census reported that the domestic poverty rate, and deep poverty rates, have reached record highs. Over 44 million Americans are living below the poverty rate -- $11,139 for one person, and $25,625 for a family of four -- and one out every seven Americans are poor.
One out of five children live in poverty, while one out of six is being served by at least one government anti-poverty program. At 14.3%, these are the highest poverty levels since 1994, George W. Bush’s first term.
Republicans have immediately and almost universally laid the blame in a neat package at President Obama's doorstep. They argued that the stimulus package failed and other Obama programs created a monumental drag on the economy. They have also argued that Obama's policies overtax job creators, the otherwise most wealthy Americans. Finally, they argue that his policies have stymied job and wealth growth in the middle class and in low-income communities.
They are proven wrong, however, by the fact that the Census numbers are from 2009. Obama, had not been in office long enough to generate policies sufficient to make such a seismic shift in the economy. It is more accurate that the report is yet another indictment of Bush-era economic policies.
But regardless of who is to blame, it may be appropriate to visit a key question. Why are people poor?
Undoubtedly, depending on your party affiliation, you will answer differently. Conservatives consistently note American exceptionalism: Give individuals unregulated, unadulterated free roam, and they will achieve. As the cliche goes, individuals, without any help from the state, will pull themselves up into the upper echelons of success by their bootstraps.
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a reliable progressive voice and defender of the impoverished and disenfranchised provided a counter argument: “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody -- a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns -- bent down and helped us pick up our boots.”
To take it step further, at nearly every moment in American history when poverty expanded, there was a correlary or systemic action by government that generally caused it or supported the effect. For example, Americans have seen a climb in poverty since 1996. That year, President Clinton, working with a Republican-led Congress, passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. It ended or limited many of the programs enacted by Congress under President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 when he declared war on poverty. Clinton’s effort was the result of years of conservative pushing to diminish the welfare state. Since then, America has seen a steady climb in the poverty rate.
But perhaps American policy’s effect on poverty is even more basic than that. It may be embedded in the very inception of the American experiment. In America’s early years, white Americans were awarded the right to property ownership. The standard American conduit for trading and transferring wealth was and still is property. White Americans passed wealth, in the form of property, from generation to generation.
Black slaves, however, did not own or transfer property. In fact, black slaves were property. It was not until the Supreme Court decision in Jones vs. Meyer in 1966, about 45 years ago, that black Americans fully gained the same rights as white Americans to own, sell, hold, lease and transfer property. The combination of America’s policy of enslavement and a fundamental decision not to bestow upon black Americans all of the rights and privileges of property ownership are key causes of poverty in black communities across the United States.
Many have been shocked at recent reports regarding the $107,772 average wealth gap that exists between white and black Americans. But the truth is, we can’t talk about a wealth gap nor about black poverty without talking about the heinous American policy ties that bind both: slavery.
So how do we fix it? Many elected leaders have tried, and while none have completely eliminated poverty, there are efforts that have played key rolls in substantially reducing poverty: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal package, Abraham Lincoln’s decision to borrow cash and invest in rebuilding after the Civil War, and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Economic Opportunity Act, the key component in his war or poverty. There is a consistent theme in each effort that the President and particularly the Republican controlled Congress, should draw from. All government policies that had a dramatic effect on reducing poverty required historic amounts of government investment.
So in advance of banal conservatives calls for a fresh round of boot strap pulling, perhaps we should ensure that everyone has at least one pair boots.