Yesterday the Census Bureau presented its annual report that showed how the poverty rate in the US had significantly risen. Today 1 in 7 Americans is living in poverty. Now the report has all sorts of numbers that may be of use to news reporters, but for the average person going about their business day-to-day, whatever numbers the report put out doesn’t even began to tell half the story. To start, we have a number, (1 in 7) that talks about people ‘living in poverty’, that number doesn’t include the folks who are part of the ‘working poor’. That’s where you really likely to hear tales of woe.
Nor does this report reflect those who simply fell off the proverbial grid. In other words, there are folks who been out of work for over a year, who have run out of unemployment benefits, lost their homes and have fallen through the cracks. Many have been led to believe their downfall is their fault and thus they have been too embarrassed to speak out and emerge from the shadows. How they’re making it may be stories onto themselves. I see folks like this everyday.
Many are living in their cars or couch surfing. Many will park their cars in their old neighborhoods where they can no longer afford to live, but know its safe and familiar. They keep their 30 dollar a month gym membership so they can shower and keep themselves up. They take advantage of the free wi-fi at coffee shops where they spend lots of time looking for jobs on trying sell things via E-bay or Craig’s list. Today’s homeless person is not some drunk or crackhead type of ‘undesirable’. He or she may be your next door neighbor trying to put up good appearances so as not to lessen their chances to bounce back.
The sad part is for many there will be no bounce back and thats where we have this major disconnect between the Have and Have Nots. Many who Have are completely out of touch and hold a fairytale view of what’s going on with folks who are in economic peril. They think this is temporary and with a little more elbow grease things will turn around. Sadly at times this notion seems to be one held by our president.
When this Census Bureau economic report came out, I immediately thought back to a scathing video put out earlier this year by longtime scholar, author and Civil Rights leader Cornel West. On the one year anniversary of President Obama‘s presidency the Princeton professor took him to task for not talking about the plight of poor people. West an early supporter was very pointed in his remarks as he expressed his profound disappointment. He said the President Obama and his cabinet had ‘technocratic’ approaches for dealing with the poor folks and that it was far removed from what is really needed. He noted that the approach much be such where they as political leaders are in the trenches alongside the people, building with them from where they stood and not so detached.
Cornel’s remarks suggested that its one thing to look somberly into a camera and say ‘Many Americans are having a tough time’ as if this is a temporary thing like missing a car payment that could made up next period. It’s another thing to truly understand what its like when a family has run out of options and will be out on the streets with no skill sets on how to navigate and survive. West like many who work on the front lines for change understood that part of this disconnect complicating their challenge to Obama were seemingly high-profile, well to do media pundits and opportunistic politicians who would give lip service to the plight of poor people or use them as political footballs.
We saw this at the start of the summer when GOP Senators held up unemployment benefits for a few weeks as a way to send President Obama a strong message and ‘teach him a lesson’ about spending. It was also a way to get Democrats to cave into lobbying efforts from Wall Street hedge fund managers who wanted to see proposed tax increases included in the spending bill, disappear.
We saw this play out in the spring when former Major League baseball player turned GOP Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky did some outlandish procedural maneuvering to hold up benefits. He too wanted to send a strong political message to Obama. Sadly it came at the expense of ordinary folks who were just barely getting by. While Bunning and others tossed these political footballs around, many lost homes. Many had their electricity turned off. Many had their cars repossessed. What we saw on TV was Bunning standing firm and shaking his fist at the camera calling for economic restraint. What we didn’t see or hear too much were from those who were seeing the last of their world crumble.
We didn’t hear from the person who lost their job, lost their home and simply didn’t have enough deposit money for an apartment. We didn’t hear from the person who lost their job, fell behind on their bills and suddenly couldn’t get a job because their credit rating was bad. We didn’t hear from the person who was out of work and had been looking for a year only to discover that because he or she had been out for so long was now deemed undesirable in the job market.
When such viewpoints were brought up in public space, you always had news anchor with a million dollar salary be dismissive or some sort of pundit with lucrative speaking dates lined up telling us times are tough but they’ll soon get better.
Here in California we saw how Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger implement ‘furlough Fridays where all state workers would be required to take a certain number of unpaid days off. This was essentially a 10-15% decrease in salaries in a state notorious for having a still increasing high cost of living. The practice was put on hold and declared wrong. Workers were told they could get back pay and it gave thousands a sense of relief. Sadly that wasn’t good enough for the governor who fought the ruling and eventually got it overturned. So as this census Bureau report comes out showing 1 in 7 Americans are in poverty, Furlough Fridays return to places like California.
We’ve also seen this play out locally in the city of Oakland when last year the entire city council voted to raise parking rates and increase strict enforcement. It was later discovered that this enforcement would only apply to the city’s poor neighborhoods. This was taking place in a city with a 20% unemployment rate where its been estimated to be even higher in those poorer districts.
During a recent mayoral debate the issue of aggressive parking enforcement came up and generated more buzz on outlets like twitter than any other topic brought up that night. When this was brought to one of the city council people who favored this plan, mayoral candidate Jean Quan she seemed oblivious to the hardships this was causing.
She went explained to me, how the city shouldn’t have free parking and seemed impervious as to what happens when an unemployed or under employed person in the city gets their car towed for unpaid parking ticket which many argue shouldn’t have been issued in the first place.
Columnist Zennie Abraham broke this down in a column he penned last year about Oakland’s parking sting operation. For those who don’t know, the city of Oakland like many other municipalities invested in a machine that reads license plates and so late at night or in the wee hours of the morning parking enforcement officers scour the poor neighborhoods looking for cars to boot or tow.
This is a huge set back for those snared, one that has far-reaching consequences not just for the individual , but also for the small neighborhood businesses that person is likely to patronize. In other words if I own a business and customers suddenly has to scramble to pay 500-1000 for a towed car that’s potential revenue lost from businesses that could’ve circulated that dollar a few more times both in hiring and spending. Quan just didn’t get it.. But her view is reflective of that big disconnect. In her world its a fine. In someone else its a huge set back with far-reaching consequences.
The poverty report just gave us numbers but didn’t tell us about all the increased fees and hidden taxes besieging the poor and being explained away and justified by the rich. In other words, pay your parking tickets or credit car on time and avoid getting hit with exorbitant penalties.. that is of course if you can now afford to pay the bill in the first place.
Lastly this Census Bureau report doesn’t reflect those who are not living in poverty because they prematurely have dipped into their 401ks and have depleted their funds out of desperation.
I had a good friend tell me the other day that she had done everything she could to keep her family above water. She had cut backed, downsized, rented rooms and was working two jobs but none of this was enough with rapidly rising costs. Finally in a last-ditch effort she dipped into her retirement money. She explained it was a hard decision to make, but it was either that or be on the streets. She said “The person in front of you today at age 40 is relieved, but that same person at age 60 will be miserable“. So 20 years from now we may have another economic crises when folks are holding their hands out having spent their life savings 20 years earlier.
My friend was one of the lucky ones because she actually had a 401k to dip into. Many weren’t as fortunate. Many saw their money disappear overnight at the start of the economic downturn hence that 401k was no longer an option. Many never had a 401k to begin with. It was reported the other week a record number of people were raiding their retirement funds just to survive.
The reports showed that many middle aged people were the ones dipping into their retirements, noting that for those over 35 who lost work, it was going to be extremely difficult to get back in the job market. Some of it was due to changing fields and new technology which made old skill sets un-marketable.
The more pervasive but unspoken reality is that many employers don’t wanna pay someone who earned their keep after trolling for 10-15 years at a job. Their logic is ‘Why pay them their worth, when they can dip into a younger work poll of people who were being urged to ‘work for free’ as interns as a way to get their foot in the door or to take considerably less pay under the guise of ‘paying dues’?
The other story not being spoken about was the fact that today many middle-aged folks are in this precarious position of being both caretaker and caregiver. In other words they are taking care of aging parents, many of whom divorced years ago, so they have mom who needs help on one part of town and a father living in another. At the same time they are taking care of kids. If they’re middle-aged, they may have kids who are 10-14 which can be incredibly expensive. Those who have kids ready to go to college are looking at increased fees, some as much as 38% which was the case in California.
It was scenarios like this we aren’t hearing being addressed by Obama and many other politicians. Its not being spoken about by those in mainstream media where the reporters and pundits are doing quite well for themselves. It isreality that with each passing day is rearing its ugly head and will in due time impact us all one way or another
Something to ponder
written by Davey D