Go shopping at the grocery store. Order a burger or a taco. Buy clothes at the department store. Go about your normal life.
There are no poor people. Or just a few, as you drive by the homeless shelter, where a few people might be smoking outside. Or you see someone in ragged clothes shuffling around downtown. Maybe someone asks you for a quarter.
So there’s a few poor people, but not many, not enough to make more than fleeting impressions on your day.
The newspaper doesn’t show poor people, either. There’s no poor person explaining how they get along on page 1, no reports on policies in Washington that take poor people seriously. Poor people don’t make the sports or culture or society pages and are even unlikely to appear in the obituaries, which cost money.
Students at prestigious universities won’t see poor people in their classes. Most poor young Americans, aged 19-22 and in the bottom 20% of incomes, are not in college. Those who are don’t show up at the famous private universities, where, for example, all our Supreme Court justices were educated. Many of those schools enroll more students from the top 1% than from the bottom 60%.
More than 1 in every 8 Americans lives below the poverty level, over 40 million Americans. The greeter at Walmart, the young woman taking your food order, the shopper looking for day-old bread – they might all be poor.
But you have been surrounded by poor people all day. More than 1 in every 8 Americans lives below the poverty level, over 40 million Americans. The greeter at Walmart, the young woman taking your food order, the shopper looking for day-old bread – they might all be poor.
You just don’t know they are poor. You don’t know about their struggles to put food on the table for their families, about how poverty causes health problems, about how they choose between paying rent and getting health insurance. You don’t see them buy clothes at the thrift store, because you only ever go to the side entrance to drop off things you don’t need. You don’t see them at the emergency room, because you can schedule an appointment with a doctor and pay a quarter of what an uninsured person would be charged. You only see their neighborhoods through car windows and don’t have to think about how they got that way.
Adding to their invisibility, the poor are more concentrated in rural America than in cities. One-quarter of rural American children live in poverty, somewhat more than the one-fifth of urban children.
Poverty has many causes. Some are personal choices, like drug use, while others are bad luck, such as an accident. But the level of poverty in a nation is a consequence of political choices. The United States has more poor people than all other countries with similar economies, because of decades of political choices. More than 1% of Americans, that’s over 4 million people, live on less than $1.90 a day. Among the 10 countries with the highest per capita income in the world, the United States has by far the highest proportion of very poor people, more than twice as many.
Poverty is an inherent part of the American economic system. Over the past 40 years, the American economy has boomed, but the number of people living in poverty has grown steadily with our population. The boom helped the rich, not the poor. In that period, the incomes of the top 1% doubled, while the incomes of the bottom fifth grew a total of 4%.
Conservatives have made poverty into a liberal cause. Anyone could advocate for the poor, but conservatives in America have chosen to blame the poor for their plight, depicting the poor as venal, lazy spongers. Ronald Reagan picked out a singular woman con artist as a “welfare queen” to illustrate his view of everyone who was on welfare. FOX News regularly offers “evidence” that the poor live comfortably from welfare. Paul Ryan compared the safety net to a “hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency”.
Americans who are conservative tend to blame the poor for being poor. More than half of Republicans believe that people are poor because of a lack of effort, true for only 19% of Democrats.
Poverty is more than twice as likely for blacks, native Americans and Hispanics, than for whites. So white Americans tend to greatly overestimate the connection between poverty and race, which feeds into the conservative tendency to blame poor people, who are assumed to be minorities, for their poverty.
Those attitudes explain Republican efforts to cut holes in the safety net for the neediest Americans. The Republican tax reform paid for huge cuts for the wealthy by reducing health care funds for the poor.
It’s easy to ignore the poor, to pretend there aren’t very many of them, that they get what they deserve, that they have nothing to do with us. None of that is true. No child deserves to get poor medical care or to have to miss meals every day. The poor do the jobs we don’t want and their low wages mean we can afford more of what we don’t need.
The poor don’t live off of us – we live on them.