From working poor to working more

In the town hall-style presidential debate in Nashville on Tuesday night, moderator Tom Brokaw called on a few of the 80 gathered uncommitted voters to read their questions, inexplicably sharing with the television audience their section location, somewhere between A and F.

Since the question of the growing problem of poverty in America did not come up, I heretofore create Section P, from which I will ask questions related to the fate of the poor. Why should I care? Because the poor are always with us, now more than ever. And tomorrow the poor may be you. Or me. As Barack Obama related Tuesday night, his own mother once relied on food stamps. The Los Angeles Times reports today that the number of people in LA County falling into poverty and seeking government help is growing, and there is less help to go around.

It’s not likely that the presidential candidates will be taking my calls, so I put my questions to Mark Rank, an expert on poverty and author of a study, now under review, showing that an increasing number of Americans face economic risk that could lead to poverty in their lifetimes. The questions and answers appear here in edited form.

Q: How can you tell if you’re poor? Is there a “poverty quiz” readers can take that will provide a good indication?

A: The quick and dirty way is to use your earnings from last year. If you were in a family of four that was earning less that $21,000 a year you would be officially poor. That is an extremely low figure. Can a family really get by on $21,000? Europeans use 50 percent of mean income, which would put the number between $28,000 and $30,000. Have you relied on any kind of government aid such as food stamps or TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families)? How hard has it been for you to pay your bills? These are all ways to measure poverty. In European countries the talk has changed from poverty to social exclusion or social deprivation. Poverty is more than lack of income. It is it also being excluded from mainstream things. If you’re poor you’re much more likely to be disenfranchised, to be left out of the larger social system.

Q: Is the poverty rate in America growing?

The overall poverty rate this past year was 12.5 percent, meaning one out of every seven or eight Americans were poor. That figure has remained fairly constant, but it doesn’t begin to address the actual number of Americans who are at risk and who have experienced poverty over time. If you look at poverty rates of people in their 20s, 30s and 40s in ten-year increments you will see that since the 1970s the risk of poverty has increased substantially.

Q: When the number of poor people grows, do we all wind up paying a price?

A: We pay a very high price. It’s not like we’re not spending money, but we’re spending it on the back end of the problem. We have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, which is what happens when people who are blocked from opportunity wind up doing other things. On the front end, one example of a way we should be addressing poverty is through nutrition programs for children. One study puts the economic cost of childhood poverty in American at $500 billion annually. The point is we wind up paying for this one way or another.

Q: Is our willful ignoring of the poor part of the reason we’re in the economic mess we’re facing now?

America is a very individualistic country. You make it on your own and you don’t turn to the government for help. We think of problems as individual successes or failures. Crime, drug use and poverty get reduced to individual pathologies, enabling us to say to ourselves, “I may feel bad about this but it’s not my responsibility and it’s not the responsibility of the government either.”

Q: Are Americans working more to make ends meet?

A: Yes. The median full-time wage in current dollars for a male worker in 1973 was around $44,000. Last year it was about $43,000. Household income has been able to keep up because there are more and more dual-earner families and more people picking up a second job. If you compare how many hours Americans are working with Canada and Europe, Americans are working the most. This flies in the face of the myth that poor people are poor because they are lazy.

Q: So we’ve gone from the working poor to the working more?

A: Yes, the working more, and still poor.

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