14 March 2012

US Poverty Growing, Values Eroding?

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“Poverty” from an article “Census Bureau Points to a Huge Increase in Poverty” by US Daily Review Staff, Dec. 1, 2011. “Poverty” from an article “Census Bureau Points to a Huge Increase in Poverty” by US Daily Review Staff, Dec. 1, 2011. http://usdailyreview.com/census-bureau-points-to-huge-increases-in-poverty

[This is the second blog in a Lenten series on poverty]

In the first installment on poverty I argued that from a Muslim and Christian perspective the scandalous economic inequalities we now witness in our world can only be tackled with a holistic approach: short term relief for victims of hunger and natural disasters and long term pressure on the powers-that-be, locally and internationally, to redress structural injustices. Here I use the USA as a case study, and more specifically a recent debate in the media and among top policy analysts.

One of the fallouts of the “Great Recession” is a national shouting match over rising inequality, never more eloquently portrayed than by the Occupy movement’s slogan, “we are the 99%.” But lost in the shuffle is the changing nature of poverty in America. It’s getting worse and the old clichés about poverty and race are now questioned. In fact, according to New York Times columnist and respected writer/activist on behalf of the world’s poorest, Nicholas Kristof, the white working class now risks being “locked in an underclass."

Kristof was writing about the release of Charles Murray’s book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray is a scholar for the staunchly conservative American Enterprise Institute and, unsurprisingly, his book was cheered on the right and booed on the left. Yet it did spark a needed debate about a sobering phenomenon.

Shockingly, I ask myself, did it take the realization that a number of whites were joining the throngs of blacks, Latinos and Native Americans already overrepresented among the fifteen percent under the poverty line to start a national conversation about poverty? Meanwhile, racist structures continue to make it more likely for people of color to be poor. How else can you explain that 70% of the US prison population is non-white? But that’s another topic.

Nevertheless, the stormy debate generated by Murray’s book highlights important issues about poverty in the US. Among the "Five Myths about White People." Murray offers in a Washington Post article published just before his book’s release, I choose to discuss three:


1. Working class whites are more religious than upper-class whites – wrong, he says, for “nearly 32 percent of upper-middle-class whites ages 30 to 49 attended church regularly, compared with 17 percent of the white working class in the same age group.”

2. White working-class men have a strong work ethic – wrong again: numbers have been growing fast for working-class men giving up on full-time work or any work at all.

3. Marriage is breaking down throughout white America. Overall, this is true, but among whites, “there is a sharp class divide on marriage.” A high school education turns out to be the watershed – he defines “working class” as those with a GED or less. He explains:

"The share of upper-middle-class whites ages 30 to 49 who are married has been steady since 1984, hovering around 84 percent. During that same period, marriage for working-class whites in the same age group has fallen from 70 percent to 48 percent . . . Marriage now constitutes a cultural fault line dividing the socioeconomic classes among white Americans."


For Murray all three are the result of liberal social welfare policies and declining moral/religious values. Admittedly, these are complex issues; yet I make two points with confidence in this blog. First, Murray’s analysis is flawed because incomplete; and second, applying Christian values (which are overwhelmingly shared by Muslims and Jews) could help bring lasting solutions to poverty in America.


Poverty – with or without “values”

I will start with Murray’s commentary on the second myth – that white men with at most a high school education have lost their strong work ethic. His figures are striking:


“In 1968, 97 percent of white males ages 30 to 49 who had at most a high school diploma were in the labor force — meaning they either had a job or were actively seeking work. By March 2008 (before the Great Recession), that number had dropped to 88 percent. That means almost one out of eight white working-class men in the prime of life is not even looking for a job.”


Murray naturally excludes post-2008 figures, because his argument is that this is a systemic problem – I will argue that too, but from a different viewpoint. For him it’s caused, on the one hand, by too many government handouts; and on the other, by declining family values. Fewer and fewer men stay married and those who are seem to care less about providing financially for their families. Solid marriages are indeed a poverty buster. I’m less impressed with the failure of government programs.

But is this an issue of values? More plausibly, loss of family values could be the result, rather than the cause, of vanishing economic opportunities, especially in view of the fact that middle and upper middle-class white males seem just as religious (and married) as before. Indeed, there is more to the picture than Murray admits. Here are some figures Princeton economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman offers, as he argues that most of this white underclass phenomenon can be attributed to “a drastic reduction in the work opportunities available to less-educated men”:


“Adjusted for inflation, entry-level wages of male high school graduates have fallen 23 percent since 1973. Meanwhile, employment benefits have collapsed. In 1980, 65 percent of recent high-school graduates working in the private sector had health benefits, but, by 2009, that was down to 29 percent.”


Back to Kristof, who has no trouble identifying with this problem on a personal level:


“My touchstone is my beloved hometown of Yamhill, Ore., population about 925 on a good day. We Americans think of our rural American heartland as a lovely pastoral backdrop, but these days some marginally employed white families in places like Yamhill seem to be replicating the pathologies that have devastated many African-American families over the last generation or two.

One scourge has been drug abuse. In rural America, it’s not heroin but methamphetamine; it has shattered lives in Yamhill and left many with criminal records that make it harder to find good jobs. With parents in jail, kids are raised on the fly.”


As you would imagine, this pattern wreaks havoc with families:


“Then there’s the eclipse of traditional family patterns. Among white American women with only a high school education, 44 percent of births are out of wedlock, up from 6 percent in 1970, according to Murray.”


Kristof agrees with Murray that “solid marriages have a huge beneficial impact on the lives of the poor (more so than in the lives of the middle class, who have more cushion when things go wrong).” In fact, research has shown a correlation between healthy marriages and a decrease in substance abuse and crime:


“One study of low-income delinquent young men in Boston found that one of the factors that had the greatest impact in turning them away from crime was marrying women they cared about. As Steven Pinker notes in his recent book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”: “The idea that young men are civilized by women and marriage may seem as corny as Kansas in August, but it has become a commonplace of modern criminology.”


Having conceded this, however, he rejoins Krugman in saying that employment is crucial in the overall mix:


“Jobs are also critical as a pathway out of poverty, and Murray is correct in noting that it is troubling that growing numbers of working-class men drop out of the labor force. The proportion of men of prime working age with only a high school education who say they are ‘out of the labor force’ has quadrupled since 1968, to 12 percent.”


So we’re piecing together the strands of a more comprehensive explanation for soaring poverty rates: family values do matter – and as a person of faith I’ll add “spiritual and moral values” – but there are systemic injustices on the macro level that are forcing more and more people under the poverty line and keeping them there. This is above all a moral issue. It’s about the shameful fact that in the richest and most powerful country of the world poverty has steadily worsened over the last few decades (for a more in-depth rebuttal of Murray’s position see Jared Bernstein’s “Charles Murray’s Coming Apart”).


Old prophets and new ones

The Old Testament prophets blasted out God’s judgment on his wayward people. The eighth-century BC prophet Amos sent from Judah to the northern Kingdom of Israel based in Samaria is one among many others calling the Israelites to repentance. With great courage he intones,


“Come back to the LORD and live! Otherwise, he will roar through Israel[a] like a fire, devouring you completely …

You twist justice, making it a bitter pill for the oppressed.

You treat the righteous like dirt …

You trample the poor, stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent …

For I know the vast number of your sins and the depth of your rebellions.

You oppress good people by taking bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts” (Amos 5:6, 7, 11, 12).


God singles out the elites, who misuse their power to trample the poor and enrich themselves at their expense, and he calls them to account.

I have long been a fan of the Rev. Jim Wallis, a contemporary prophetic voice who founded Sojourners about forty years ago – both a journal and a Washington, DC-based Christian community. His 2005 book (God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It) has a chapter that speaks to the issue of poverty in America. At one point he writes,


“The truth is that hungry people are going without food stamps, poor children are going without health care, the elderly are going without medicine, and schoolchildren are going without textbooks because of war, tax cuts, and a lack of both attention and compassion from our political leaders. The deepening injustice of America’s domestic policies is increasingly impossible to justify. It’s becoming a religious issue” (p. 222).


Wallis argues for a multi-pronged attack on poverty drawing on “the insights and energies of both conservatives and liberals” (p. 226). We shouldn’t just look to government, or the market, or churches and charities; we should especially focus on learning new ideas from grassroots projects that are actually working across the country. Indeed, we have to be committed to those conservative values of personal and moral responsibility, as well as family values. But we also can’t forget those hard-working poor that simply could never pull their families out of poverty considering their meager salaries and lack of benefits. And there’s more:


“Overcoming poverty … entails better corporate and banking policies and effective government action where the market has failed to address fundamental issues of fairness and justice” (p. 228).


During the 2004 election year at Pentecost Wallis gathered Christian leaders in Washington, “evangelical and mainline, Catholic and Protestant, black, Hispanic, Asian, and white, making a common declaration across the theological and political spectrum of the church’s life.” The outcome was a “Unity Statement on Overcoming Poverty,” which in its last paragraph reads,


“We therefore covenant with each other that in this election year, we will pray together and work together for policies that can achieve these goals. We will ensure that overcoming poverty becomes a bipartisan commitment and non-partisan cause, one that links religious values with economic justice, moral behavior with political commitment. We will raise this conviction in the public dialogue, and we will seek to hold all our political leaders accountable to its achievement” (p. 240).


Another evangelical prophetic voice is that of Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, and author of the 1977 classic book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. He has just penned a new book examining the federal deficit in parallel with the fact of growing poverty. It is aptly titled, Fixing the Moral Deficit. I have no space here to comment on it here, but I can offer a good review of the book in Sojourners.

The last contemporary “prophet” I want to highlight, is David Beckmann, a Lutheran pastor who worked for fifteen years with the World Bank, overseeing large-scale development projects, while constantly applying innovative means to reduce poverty. Then in 1991, he became president of Bread for the World, a Christian, bipartisan organization aiming to eradicate hunger in the US and around the world, including its research arm, Bread for the World Institute. “Bread” mobilizes people in the church and organizes campaigns that bring hunger and poverty to the attention of policy makers in Washington and abroad.

Laureate of the World Food Prize in 2010, Beckmann has been asked to testify in Congress eighteen times so far. Among Bread’s achievements in the last decade:


“Due in part to the persistent, bipartisan advocacy of Bread members, the U.S. government has tripled funding for effective programs to help developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Bread has also helped double funding for U.S. nutrition programs, assisting millions of families in the United States who struggle to feed their children. Recently, Bread for the World initiated a campaign to press Congress to reform U.S. foreign aid to make it more effective in reducing hunger and poverty, and another to protect and strengthen tax credits for low-income working families.”


According to their website, "14.5 percent of households struggle to put food on the table. More than one in four children is at risk of hunger." What is more, 15.1 percent of the American population lives in poverty. Bread for the World strongly believes that hunger is the only direct cause of poverty and therefore sees three main solutions for US hunger eradication:


1. Child nutritional programs: “Child nutrition programs—school lunches and breakfasts, summer feeding programs, and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program—are critical to ending childhood hunger. When children receive the nutrition they need, they are more likely to move out of poverty as adults.”

2. Good jobs: along with benefits that will help hard-working people to climb out of poverty.

3. Work support programs: this includes the Earned Income Tax Credit (tax breaks for the poor) and the child nutritional programs.


Poverty leads to hunger. When childcare, rent, transportation and utilities are paid, low-income families cut corners on food. Somehow a tax system that reduces the burden of the less fortunate, federal and state funded poverty alleviation programs, laws that help in various ways to ensure a living wage, and laws that facilitate entrepreneurship as well as the growth of US manufacturing – all of this and more is necessary to help America eradicate poverty and hunger. Soup kitchens, food coops, and the host of existing nongovernmental (secular or faith-based) charities are needed but can never even come close to solving a national problem that is fundamentally about structural injustice and oppression.


Values and poverty eradication

Is poverty increasing because values are eroding, as Murray claims? Yes, but those whose moral values are eroding include all of us – the poor, and to a larger extent, the other citizens who are complicit in a system that beats down the poor. Then too, the values that count when it comes to overcoming poverty are primarily compassion and love for one’s neighbor in need, and passion for justice and righteous living. And yes, strong, caring families remain the foundation of a healthy society.

Interestingly, David Beckmann also founded the Alliance to End Hunger, which includes 75 members, “corporations, non-profit groups, universities, individuals, and Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious bodies.” Indeed, these are values that all people of faith can build on together. No doubt it will take the concerted will and persistent efforts of all people of faith (and non faith) to overcome extreme poverty – starting in America.