: Alyssa Katharine Ritz Battistoni is one of five finalists in The Nation‘s 2007 Student Writing Contest. Read more about the competition on StudentNation.com.
I’m going to phrase this pretty starkly, because that’s the way things are: 37 million Americans are living below the poverty line, and inequality has increased to a level not seen since before the Depression and the New Deal. I could batter readers with statistics forever, shock you with the percentages of children who go hungry and families who lack stable housing, but that would be missing the point.
The point is that an enormous number of people living in the richest nation in the world are struggling to get by, while a sliver of folks at the top just keep raking it in.
There are some who would point out that poor people in America are still rich by world standards, that compared with the 1 billion people who live on the oft-repeated “dollar a day,” they are doing pretty well for themselves. It’s certainly true that those of us who live in this country are very lucky to do so. But a key aspect of evaluating poverty is considering the ability to participate in one’s society, and that is growing increasingly difficult for poor Americans to do.
The opportunities and choices available to low-income individuals and families are so different from those available to their wealthy and even middle-class counterparts that they might as well be living in another country. You’re more likely to get sent to Iraq, more likely to go to jail, more likely to have an unplanned child, more likely to have asthma from breathing polluted air if you’re poor. More likely to have to choose between paying for food (none of that organic stuff, either) and medical treatment, less likely to get adequate care if you choose the latter. Pointing out that there are still people in the world who are worse off in an absolute sense does not absolve us of the responsibility to address our own country’s need.
Why is this important for young people? Well, first of all, young Americans make up a large percentage of those below the poverty line, a percentage that is increasing more rapidly than that of any other age group. As the gap between the rich and the rest increases, more and more of us young folks are likely to find ourselves flirting with poverty. But even those of us who are heading for jobs at Google should be worried about the principles of the country we hold so dear, the one that first declared that all men are created equal.
The invocation of the American dream is more disingenuous than inspiring these days; the America that we’re inheriting is one that treats its own residents disgracefully. Poor people have become second-class citizens, and the stigma attached to poverty is justified by the illusion that we live in a meritocracy. Segregation is acceptable as long as it’s rationalized by socioeconomic status, since that is supposedly determined by a person’s choices in life. We don’t like to admit that it helps to have been born into the right neighborhood, race, gender, family.
It’s much easier to dismiss poor people as undeserving, unsavory, crackheads, welfare queens–not like respectable middle-class Americans–than to acknowledge the enormous problems that continue to plague our society. What it really comes down to is not morality or work ethic but that some of us have sufficient resources to cushion us from our mistakes and others do not. For millions of Americans, one fluke event can turn a delicate balancing act into financial free-fall. And when the government doesn’t provide an adequate safety net, it’s a long way down to the bottom.
I once read a study for a sociology class that showed that risk-averse people, when given a choice at a young age, choose to live in a society that is relatively equally distributed over one that is equally rich but grossly lopsided. Seems like a no-brainer, right? But as people age and find themselves in the higher brackets, the lopsided society doesn’t seem quite so bad. People with power don’t act to end the oppression of those without it unless pushed by some sort of force.
The growing gap between those at the top and the bottom of the socioeconomic scale is perhaps the greatest moral issue facing America today. If we, the young people of America, don’t attack it with all the idealism and energy of our youth, who will? Desperate and afraid, we can turn on whoever seems to present a threat–immigrants, perhaps–or we can open up a constructive dialogue about the reality of poverty in America and what we can do about it.