What does it mean to be poor in America? We can offer no single description of American poverty. But for many, perhaps most, it means homes with peeling paint, inadequate heating, uncertain plumbing. It means that only the very lucky among the children receive a decent education. It often means a home where some go to bed hungry and malnutrition is a frequent visitor. It means that the most elementary components of the good life in America–a vacation with kids, an evening out, a comfortable home–are but distant and unreachable dreams, more likely to be seen on the television screen than in the neighborhood. And for almost all the poor it means that life is a constant struggle to obtain the merest necessities of existence, those things most of us take for granted. We can do better.
More than 35 million Americans–one out of every seven of our fellow citizens–are officially poor. More than one in five American children are poor. And the poor are getting poorer. In 1994, nearly half of poor children under the age of 6 lived in families with incomes below half the poverty line. That figure has doubled over the past twenty years. The number of people who work full time and are still poor has risen dramatically as well. In 1975, 6 percent of young children who lived in families with one full-time worker were poor. By 1994, that figure had gone up to 15 percent.
Poor people are increasingly hemmed into poor neighborhoods, with everything that entails: poor schools, crime, violence, lack of accessible jobs and all the rest. The number of people living in concentrations of poverty (in neighborhoods of more than 40 percent poverty) went up by 75 percent from 1970 to 1980 and then doubled between 1980 and 1990. More than 10 million Americans (that constitutes about 4 million poor families) now live in very-high-poverty neighborhoods.
Minorities are poorer than the rest of Americans: 29.3 percent of African-Americans and 30.3 percent of Hispanics were classified as poor in 1995. Female-headed households are even poorer–44.6 percent of the children who lived in such families were poor in 1994, and almost half of all children who are poor live in female-headed households.
It’s an old saw that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. For nearly two decades that cliché has been a painfully demonstrable fact. Nearly all of America’s economic growth has benefited the wealthiest among us, and the tiny slice of the pie allotted to the poor has actually gotten smaller. From 1977 to 1992 the richest 1 percent of Americans gained 91 percent in after-tax income, while the poorest fifth lost 17 percent of their income. The top 1 percent’s total income equals that of the entire bottom 40 percent of the population.
I will be the first to say that adults in our society need to take responsibility for themselves if they possibly can. But until we come to a real understanding of the structural problems in our economy and society that are getting in our way, we will continue to legislate by bumper stickers and slogans. We need to have an honest national conversation, and an honest conversation in every community, about what is really going on, why we face the unacceptable level of poverty and near-poverty, and what we are going to do about it.
We must not let the current debate over welfare or the role of government be used to mask the grim realities of poverty. Most poor people are not poor by choice. Most would prefer to work for a decent wage. Nor can we offer a justification for the children who are born into a poverty that they did not choose or deserve, and whose conditions prevent them from gaining the skills and ambitions that would allow them to escape.