Other voices: Poverty in the US is still invisible

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 25, 2016

Author Michael Harrington’s conclusion in his 1962 book “The Other America: Poverty in the United States” — that the poor have become invisible — couldn’t be more true in 2016.

Both presidential candidates have announced their economic plans, but those packages don’t hold out much for the nearly 50 million Americans who live below the poverty line.

Moreover, there are more poor people — and in some respects their poverty is more acute and more chronic — than in 1962 or 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty.”

The presidential candidates have taken note of the skyrocketing cost of child care that keeps many families from financial advancement. And they have both advocated raising the minimum wage. Both also favor making the rate flexible so states and localities can adjust minimum wages to local circumstance.

But neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump has made poverty in America a central message in the campaign. There aren’t many votes there.

How can we help the chronically and multigenerational poor break the cycle of poverty?

What will it take for the working poor to be able to make it?

Is any campaign this year — for the House or Senate, for example — seriously addressing these questions? What does it mean to be poor?

One basic answer is inability to cope.

The vicissitudes of life strike us all. But when life gets difficult for the poor, economically or emotionally, or most often both at once, it can pitch them into complete chaos. If Mom’s car breaks down; if her child is sick; if another child is in trouble at school; if the water heater needs replacing — daily routines can break down. And sometimes a job is lost.

This instability plagues millions of Americans, but it is not covered on the evening news.

In the past, presidential candidates pledged to increase affordable housing. In fact, President Bill Clinton established the National Home Ownership Strategy, and President George W. Bush made it a goal to create 5.5 million new homeowners within a decade. Nothing like that is being proposed this year. …

Nobody suggests ignoring the middle class. But the working poor are a growing number of Americans. A skilled steel worker or autoworker may make $25 to $26 an hour. A typical salary for a home health care worker is $10 to $11 an hour, roughly $21,000 a year. Try to raise a child and support yourself on that in most places in this country.

There is a new book out on Robert Kennedy. It traces his now familiar pilgrimage from cynical and rather ruthless pragmatist to idealist. The change was jump-started by his discovery of the poor — the chronically poor and the working poor. Bobby Kennedy toured poor America — from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Appalachia. His eyes were open and he listened. It changed him.

He said that having millions of Americans living in poverty was unacceptable in this nation; it could not stand.

But it did. After all these years of toxic charity and government or foundation-funded poverty professionals telling the poor how much they care, poverty is worse in parts of Brooklyn and worse in virtually all of Appalachia. The poor have again become invisible ­— to politicians, to television, to most of America.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette