Why Are So Many People So Poor in America?

The gross national income in our country was nearly $14.6 trillion in 2010 — more than $47,300 for every man, woman and child.

So, as Professor Peter Edelman observes, if the GNI were divided equally, everyone would be middle class.

But, of course, it isn’t. In fact, a greater share has been flowing to the notorious 1% for quite awhile now. For Edelman, this is a key reason it’s so hard to end poverty in America — the subtitle of his new book, So Rich, So Poor.

Or more precisely, income inequality is a key reason. For the last 40 years, he says, “our economy has been very unkind to the bottom half of our people.”

At the very bottom, we’ve got nearly 20.5 million people so poor that their household incomes fall below 50% of the Census Bureau’s very low poverty thresholds.

In 2010, about six million — roughly one in 50 — had no income at all except the cash value of their food stamp benefits. For a family of three, this meant, at most, $526 a month — and, of course, available only to buy groceries.

We’ve got terrific public policy, Edelman says. It’s simply not true, as some say, that anti-poverty programs don’t work. Without them, over 40 million more people would be poor.

But the enactment of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program ripped “a terrible hole … in the safety net.”

In fact, “welfare is gone,” Edelman says. It’s “basically disappeared in large parts of the country” because states have no obligation to provide cash assistance (or any equivalent) to families who would qualify according to a common standard of need.

This, however, is only one part of Edelman’s far-ranging analysis.

We’ve had “a flood of low-wage jobs,” he says. And “people in the bottom half have been absolutely stuck.”

Well, not quite, but pretty damn near. Between 1968 and 2010, inflation-adjusted incomes of households in the bottom half grew, on average, about half a percent a year.

And at the end, incomes of households in the bottom tenth averaged just $11,904 — well under the federal poverty line for a family of two.

It’s a stretch to attribute this to a flood of low-wage jobs, however. And I doubt Edelman means to.

If there are relatively more of those jobs now, it’s partly because our economy has fewer living wage jobs for workers with no more than a high school education.

Many of been exported to low-wage countries. Many have simply vanished. When was the last time you called, say, the gas company and didn’t get a recorded message?

I suppose it’s also the case that more jobs have become low-wage — relative at least to rising living costs.

What we know for sure is that wages have been stagnating for a long time. In other words, workers haven’t been getting a fair share of productivity growth, as they did during the post-World War II period.

This is especially true for workers without a college education.

The Economic Policy Institute reports that real wages for high school graduates in the private sector increased by 4.8% between 1989 and 2010 and by just 2.6% for those in state government. During the same period, productivity, i.e., the total output of goods and services per hours worked, grew by 62.5%.

Lots of reasons for this. I’ve mentioned a couple. A fine paper from the Economic Policy Research Network takes up these and many others.

Edelman deals not only with low-wage work, but with poverty children inherit from their parents, disparities rooted in race and gender discrimination and the problems single parents (usually mothers) face trying to support themselves and their children.

Also housing policies, public education and, as Nation blogger Greg Kaufmann says, “much, much more.”

Notwithstanding the complexities, however, Edelman believes that poverty in our country is not an unsolvable problem — or rather, collection of problems.

We need “much more political will” to attack them. That, he thinks, will require, above all, a widely-shared view that it’s in our common interest to have “an economy that includes everybody.”

The sticking point here, he says, is that the vast majority of us middle-class voters think we have more in common with the people at the top than the people at the bottom.

This, I suppose, has something to do with the extraordinary hold the myth of boundless upward mobility has on our imagination. The Great Recession has certainly shaken it, though by how much and for how long is hard to say.

But, says Edelman, if we in the middle don’t see “which side of the line” we’re really on — that our fate rests with what happens to the bottom half — “we are cooked.”


2 Responses to Why Are So Many People So Poor in America?

  1. Sebastian Garcia says:

    this really helped me on a school essay

  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    Thank you for telling me. It always makes me feel good when someone says that something I wrote was helpful.

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