To Have and Have Not: Rising Poverty and Job Plans

In the wake of President Obama’s election, we have seen the GOP bat down every suggested job plan, as well as be vocal about undoing already passed plans designed to help citizens. While Democrats have been way too kind over the continuing idea of “compromise,” Republicans long ago announced that whatever it was that Obama and his party were proposing, they would undeniably veto. So it comes as no surprise that Obama’s new job plan, a $447 billion project, has the Republican majority Congress gnashing their teeth. Rightly so, as one of the main ways Obama is planning on paying for the bill is by ending tax breaks for corporations and wealthy individuals earning over $250,000.

Of course, why bother ending these particular loopholes when you can create more, as proposed by Republican state legislators in Pennsylvania who would legally alter the makeup of state electoral colleges by determining how votes are allocated. The proposed plan would change from the standard electoral vote system to one where each congressional district gets their own electoral vote. So instead of devoting time to an economic recovery plan that actually creates jobs, Republicans are scheming to undermine potential reelection to gain back control, a plan that now has The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact scrambling.

How did we get to this point? When did sticking it to the black guy become the No. 1 priority of the Republican Party? While unemployment benefit requests jumped to 420,000 last week (the highest level in three months), all politicians seem to be able to do is dig their feet into the ground, cajoling the evils of birth control instead of actually doing something about the rapidly growing unemployment situation. While Republicans might bear the most responsibility for this, it is dishonest to let equally resistant Democrats off the hook. One might think we were coming up on an election year and that everyone was scrambling to cover their own ass.

While it’s nothing new to watch our nation’s leader have full-blown political tantrums, what is startling is how those tantrums are affecting the nation’s people. The Census Bureau just released its report on the 2010 data regarding the economic situation in country, and despite claims that the economy is doing well, the average median wage, as well as quality of life standard, are all dropping. For the first time in years, most individuals in the U.S. are becoming less financially sound than their parents, a situation that, while not shocking for all, does indicate to how the U.S. population is quickly becoming poorer.

So how is it affecting citizens? Well, for starters, the nation’s poverty rate rose last year to 15.1 percent, the highest level in 17 years. Approximately 46 million people were poor, and the median income dropped last year by more than two percent to about $49,445. But it doesn’t end there:

  • Poverty rates (based on pre-tax incomes of $11,139 for individuals, $14,218 for couples, and $22,314 for a family of four)
  • 3 million men have been out of a job since 2007, falling by 650,000 last year. Women’s earned income fell by $2.8 million and on average earn a salary of $36,931 per year.
  • 46.2 million people are now considered to be in poverty (standard being $22,314 a year for a four-person family) , an increase from the 43.6 million in 2009. It is the fourth consecutive annual increase in the number of people in poverty.
  • Between 2009 and 2010, the povery rate increased for non-Hispanic whites to 9.9 percent, for blacks it went from 25.8 percent to 27.4 percent, Hispanics from 25.3 percent to 26.6 percent, Asians 12.1 percent. *(Data on Native Americans was not included.)
  • The number of people in poverty in 2010 is the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published.
  • Between 2009 and 2010, the poverty rate increased for children under the age of 18 from 20.7 percent to 22.0 percent.
  • As of 2010, there were 49.9 million uninsured persons.
  • It is predicted that poverty rates will rise to 16 percent by 2014
  • The U.S. now has the highest poverty rate among developed countries

Concerned? Chew on this: NPR just released part one of a report on the widening income gap between white and black families. According to Pam Fessler at NPR, “The typical white family has 20 times the wealth of the median black family.” It’s the widest gap in 25 years, a time period that also marks the beginning of when these reports began. While we can imagine that the recession has greatly impacted these numbers, there are also more hidden obstacles, such as employment rates for each defining racial group and racial prejudice, i.e. the practice of bringing in interviewees with more “Anglo” sounding names.

“What we did is, we made up 5000 resumes: on half of them we put an African American name, on half of them we put a white name. Otherwise, the resumes were exactly the same. Then we sent them out. Which got called back more? What we found was that the same resume, when it had an African American name, was 33% less likely to get an interview than when it had a white name. So if a white person is searching for a job for ten weeks, an equivalently skilled African American person will be searching for fifteen weeks. Those are five long weeks if you’re unemployed.” ““ Dr. Sendhil Mullainathan, Harvard University Professor of Economics, Freakonomics

Economic privilege also comes into play, another factor that is often tinged with racial differences. White individuals are far more likely to receive financial support from their families, receive an inheritance, put a deposit on a home as well as eventually own their home, receive tax breaks, have access to a higher education, and even live in a climate that emphasizes on the “cans” more then the “cant’s.” It settles any question about the old adage that if you want to get rich, you have to be rich. Of course, while rich is a very subjective term, the study proves that if you have had financial advantages in your life, you are more likely (though less likely now) to have more choices than someone who does not have those same benefits.

“It’s funny, the American dream is sort of steeped in this myth of work hard, be self sufficient and push yourself forward, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that kind of thing. But much of the wealth in this country was not built on that, in no way, fashion, or form,” Dametra Williamson said in the article that explored the differences between her experience and Stephanie Upp. While both women have led lives that ultimately are very similar, their differences are apparent in the small advantages that can either offer a choice or mean the difference between paying the gas bill and going hungry. Williamson’s experience as black woman in America, versus Upp’s as a white woman, are colored by vast differences in socioeconomic advantage, mostly coming down to cultural attitudes towards school, employment prospects, and family support.

Barry Switzer once said, “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” I would add that because class differences are so vast, and often very invisible to those who benefit, it only furthers the cycle of wealth building on wealth, and the teetering on the edge of ruins by living paycheck to paycheck. The stigmatization of these types of financial struggles and the limited choices they present hit further home when this week, a 24-year-old uninsured Cincinnati father died from a tooth infection because he could not afford both antibiotics and pain medication, nor the initial tooth removal. While of course many overlooked the reality of the situation and instead decided to blame the man for choosing the pain meds, I have to wonder how many of these people are or have been uninsured.

Only the coming months will tell us whether or not the dismaying numbers will begin to finally come down, something that looks bleak when compared to the track record of the past few years.  We can’t help ourselves when we start to feel disconnected from the two guys arguing in suits that cost as much as our rent pontificating on how the poor abuse the system, but never mind their lobbyist perks. So until then, those with a head start can keep on going until they finally can’t anymore, hoping that they will have a bit of a safety net. As for those 46.2 million in poverty? They will just have to keep working harder, with less to show for it.

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