Monday, December 19, 2011

Republican Poverty: Lack of Empathy

“Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works…. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash,’ unless it’s illegal.” – Newt Gingrich, Republican candidate for President

Blaming the poor for their poverty is Republican dogma. Herman Caine, before allegations of sexual harassment and a thirteen-year affair derailed his presidential campaign, suggested the unemployed in America shouldn’t blame the Wall Street collapse and the resulting weak economy, saying “if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself.” Romney says the solution to poverty is to stop taxing and regulating businesses. Of course, common sense and experience tell us that serves to make the rich richer and the rest of us at risk from greedy or unscrupulous businessmen.

Most of those doing well in our country come from middle class or wealthy families. The advantage of growing up in a home where physical needs are met, health care is insured, children have exposure to books, learning, and travel, etc. is well established.

Nearly 60% of Americans will live below the poverty line for at least a year between the ages of twenty-five and seventy-five. I spent my twenties in that category because of my choices: dropping out of college to work temporary labor jobs as needed. I chose poverty in protest of the Vietnam War, reasoning that if I did not earn much money, I would not pay taxes to support it. I remained poor through my twenties as I sought to become self-sufficient in rural West Virginia and develop as a professional musician. When I decided to seek work that would offer better pay and job security, I went back to college, taking advantage of our tax-payer subsidized state college system. It was the advantage of a middle class upbringing, including public education which moved me from poverty to the middle class as a teacher.

Most families living in poverty in the U.S. are single parent families, women and their children. Many young mothers become pregnant because of the lack of family planning education or services or because they do not see a possibility of fulfillment except as a mother. Many fall into poverty after divorce.  Forty percent of African-American and thirty percent of white and Hispanic single parent families are living below the poverty line. “Working poor” and low-income working households may constitute nearly 30% of American working families. Does anyone doubt that the Great Recession, with the loss of millions of jobs and the foreclosures of millions of homes, has forced millions of Americans into poverty?

Tone-deaf Republican lawmakers who resist efforts to extend unemployment compensation, mortgage foreclosure mitigation, and infrastructure spending to put Americans back to work are fond of claiming that stimulus spending has not worked. But without it, millions more would be jobless, homeless, and experiencing poverty through no fault of their own.

To be fair to Gingrich, generational poverty exists. As a West Virginia teacher, I have many times heard the expression, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” to describe the cycle in which children of parents who lack education, intelligence, skills, or motivation to work in other than minimum wage jobs often seem destined for the same fate. They lack the ability to catch up with peers who entered school with more skills and the support of better-educated families.

Gingrich suggested students should be paid to replace school custodians to teach the benefit of a job. He is apparently not aware of the many students who already work in fast food restaurants to help support their families and end up dropping out of school because they can’t keep up both work and school. He must not be aware of successful programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone, which is transforming lives and ending generational poverty through cradle to college support of family and community.

During the Great Depression, rampant speculation crashed Wall Street, broke the banks, and millions upon millions of Americans lost their jobs and homes, experiencing devastating poverty. Thanks to the social welfare programs passed in response such as unemployment compensation, Social Security, food stamps, Medicare, and Medicaid the effects of subsequent recessions for many poor and middle class families is reduced. And thanks to President Obama and Democrats who passed the stimulus (ARRA) and rescued the automobile industry, the economy did not continue its slide into a full depression, and millions of jobs have been saved or produced. Unfortunately, a modern economy requires growth in the range of 3% or more to create enough jobs and we are not there yet. Many economists have called for renewed stimulus spending on infrastructure, but Republicans refuse to budge on taxes on the wealthy to fund it. Instead they focus on reducing deficits which has resulted in massive job loss in the public sector.

I’ve taken the liberty to revise Newt’s words: Really rich people and politicians who cater to the so-called “job creators” have no idea what it means to struggle to make a living.  So they literally have no concept of how hard poor and middle class people work to feed their families and pay the rent. They have no sense of shared sacrifice in hard times or that their fellow Americans want nothing more than a good job, a decent place to live, and the knowledge that an illness or downturn in the job market will not send them into poverty.

We can’t let the current crop of Republicans take us back to the era where each must fend for him or herself. Few people in America choose to be poor as I once did. Good jobs, good schools, and programs to intervene to break the cycle of poverty will bring people out of poverty and into the middle class. Fair taxation will help pay for it. A healthy economy such as we had under Clinton will generate surpluses to pay off our debt.