I’ve written before about how Lyndon Johnson initiated the war on poverty in the U.S. 50 years ago. Now, 50 years later and trillions spent, about the same number of people, percentage-wise, in this country are still mired in poverty. To say nothing of the billions of people on this planet also living in the most desperate squalor. Especially in Africa, Asia and South America. The thing about poverty is that one is not only forced to live under the most inhumane conditions; but it deflates one’s spirit and self-worth the way a pin prick would allow the helium to come oozing out, thus deflating a hot-air ballon. So, is there anyone out there of major importance who is speaking out on behalf of the plight of the poor. Certainly no one in this country, including President Obama. But there is one figure on the world stage that has now became a major advocate for the world’s impoverished; and that figure is newly inaugurated Pope Francis.
The new Pope, who had previously worked closely with those down-and-out in Argentina, has made some recent declarations that have had U.S. right-wingers and those who believe in laissez-faire capitalism, quite upset. First he indicated that trickle-down economics was a bad thing thing that especially victimized the poor. A BAD THING? Why, trickle-down economics, where a few people who are highly proficient in manipulating our capitalist system become so rich that they’re willing to let a few shekels trickle down to the rest of the peasants, is the heart and soul of the Republican Party’s platform. How can that be a bad thing? The Pope’s proclamation had a number rich, Catholic donors to the GOP, almost apoplectic. Catholic, right-wing demagogues on Fox News like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity were near having total meltdowns.
Next, Pope Francis had the temerity to state that there there should be a justifiable re-distribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. OH MY GOD. Now he’s really gone too far. The Koch Brothers and their ilk began labeling the Pope as a Marxist, if not an out-right Communist. Asking the rich to part with some of their wealth to enable the poor, why that was just plain, out-right subversive. How could the Pope even call himself Catholic. Everyone knows that if people are poor, it means they’re just too lazy or too unambitious or too stupid, or perhaps all three, to make something of themselves. As a result of the Pope’s heresy when it came to statements regarding capitalism, Francis was forced to, at least partially, walk back some of these “jarring” proclamations on wealth re-distribution. Otherwise, how could rich, catholic, right-wing capitalists the world over, live with themselves.
In any event, I thought it might be worthwhile to examine what poverty looks like here in the U.S. since few topics have more myths, misconceptions, stereotypes and distortions surrounding them. The notions that poverty affects a relatively small number of people, is primarily confined to minorities living in the inner-cities, and results because people don’t work hard enough, are flat-out wrong. Research has indicated that nearly 40% of Americans between the ages of 25-60 will live at least one year below the officially designated poverty level. The number rises to 54% if you include those that are just at, or slightly above the poverty line. Also, nearly half of all American children will, at some point, live in households that require food stamps to be able to put food on the table. And, contrary to myth, only 10% of those in poverty live in extremely poor inner cities. The rest can be found throughout a variety of urban and suburban landscapes, and especially in small towns across rural America. Also, instead of mainly minorities, two-thirds of those below the poverty line are identified as being white, a number that has been consistent over several decades.
Well, you might say, especially if you’re a Republican, what about the huge benefits the Government supposedly lavishes on the poor. Again, a myth. Contrary to political rhetoric, the American social safety net is extremely weak and filled with gaping holes. It has become even weaker over the past 40 years because of continuing budget cutting measures. The U.S. stands alone among first-world industrialized nations in failing to provide universal health care, (even under ObamaCare), affordable child care, free or low-cost college tuition, or reasonably priced and decent low-income housing. That’s why, Europe, for example, has a far lower poverty rate than the U.S. Those who are mired in poverty, are often shocked to find how little Government assistance is available to ease their dire circumstances.
Finally, the myth that the poor are too indolent to improve their living standards should also be put to rest. The vast majority of the poor have worked or are currently working. The problem is that they usually lack the job skills and/or education to find employment that pays decent wages. And because we have a generally lousy economy, it’s extremely difficult those that lost their jobs in the latest downturn to find new offers. Couple that with the millions of jobs U.S. companies have shipped overseas so they can pay even lower wages, and the plight of the working poor, becomes even more dire.
Now one must recognize that the definition of poor in this country is a lot different than what it means to be poor in a place such as Africa, for example. In this country, the poor may live in the most squalid of quarters, but they do have a roof over their heads. Most will likely have color TVs, cell phones, computers and perhaps even a car. In Africa, vast chunks of the population don’t even have electricity, let alone all the assorted gadgetry. Many in Africa experience such abominable sanitary and living conditions that their average life expectancy is about half what it is in this country. But the one thing that unites all the world’s poor, is the way poverty drains the human soul of any feelings of self-worth. So, since no other world figure seems to be up for the job, it would appear that Pope Francis needs to continue to be a strong advocate for the world’s impoverished.