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Photo: flickr.com/Jeffrey Smith

The Stain That Is American Poverty

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We Americans are proud of our billionaires. Terms like the “wealth gap” and “economic inequality” scarcely even register with middle-class citizens. And the elites scarcely offer a downward glance at the 41 plus million Americans living in third world conditions. New York City is the wealth capital of the world, and more wealthy people live in American cities than anywhere else in the world. Here’s a brief acknowledgment of the fellow countrymen of these elites, and the stain on our whole system.

I was reading this morning a UN investigation from back in 2017 about Alabama having the worst poverty in the developed world that prompted me to write this report. In a world of information overload, I somehow missed the fact that a state I once lived in is still so poor. While I’ve seen poverty close up during my career, I was not aware that so many rural residents of Alabama are still without basic sanitation.  Even more disturbing for me was what concerned these UN investigators most about the poverty situation in this southern state, the increase in incidents of hookworm. This infestation/disease is usually most prevalent in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa; one thought to have been eradicated in the U.S. decades ago. A report from 2017 at The Guardian frames the situation:

“Scientists in Houston, Texas, have lifted the lid on one of America’s darkest and deepest secrets: that hidden beneath fabulous wealth, the US tolerates poverty-related illness at levels comparable to the world’s poorest countries. More than one in three people sampled in a poor area of Alabama tested positive for traces of hookworm, a gastrointestinal parasite that was thought to have been eradicated from the US decades ago.”

Ironically, The Guardian piece quotes an official mentioning Bill Gates in a mention of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funding clean water elsewhere in the world, but not in Alabama. The British newspaper report goes on to cite a Dr. Peter Hotez, who is the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine. Dr. Dean estimated that “as many as 12 million Americans could be suffering from neglected tropical diseases in poor parts of the south and Midwest.” For reference, that’s more people than the population of either Portugal, Hungary, Sweden, or Cuba.

But Alabama is only one state of 50 where poverty is gripping millions. The numbers tell part of the story when we consider that the median income of families living in poverty is well below the poverty threshold is only $9,600 per year. While this sounds like a lot to people in other countries that are stunned by austerity measures, in the United States the cost of living and the gap in lifestyles proves painful. Just feeding and clothing one or two kids seems a staggering mountain to climb on less money than a U.S. Congressman’s dry-cleaning expenses.

In a recent study at Princeton and Northwestern researchers concluded that our government’s policies only reflect the desires of the wealthy. The report went on to state that “the vast majority of American citizens have "minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” What this means is that things are only destined to get worse. The French economist Thomas Piketty, in his book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” agrees with my assessment here, but goes further to suggest that America is drifting away from democracy into an oligarchy. Evidence that this has already happened comes in the form of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley accusing the  U.N. representative of grossly exaggerating the amount of poverty in America. Now get this. The Trump administration says there are only 250,000 people in the whole United States experiencing extreme poverty. I’ll let you chew on the irony here for a moment.

To make matters worse, the elites who inhabit the brain repositories along think tank row in Washington is backing the president up. Apparently, the Trump administration is using bean counters at The Heritage Foundation, who’ve come up with their own measure of what abject poverty is. That’s right, Washington has a brand new rationale for the ultra-rich to rest on. This quote from Washington Post author Jeff Stein encapsulates the new dogma:

“Citing a recent survey of American households, Heritage found only 0.08 percent of American households (or about to 250,000) are in “deep poverty,” defined by Heritage as living on less than $4 a day.”

So, if you live on, let’s say $10 a day, then your whole family is in the clear financially? Interestingly, each U.S. Senator is allotted a 5,000 square foot office space in his home state, plus $40,000 dollars worth of furniture. Of course, if he or she wants a bigger office space, then taxpayers get to divvy up an additional $1,000 for each additional 200 square feet. See (PDF) Congressional Salaries and Allowances for more “wealth gap” magic. Right here it seems appropriate to tell you that Alabama is not even in the top ten of states with horrendous poverty. Here is the most recent list starting with the worst poverty.

  1. Michigan’s poverty rate is 27.6% with over 1.5 million people
  2. Mississippi has 634, 000 people living in abject poverty, or 23.2% of the population
  3. Arizona is third with 1.2 million poverty-stricken or 21.3 percent of the population
  4. New Mexico has a poverty rate of 19.6% or about 347,000 people
  5. Arkansas’ poverty rate is 18.5% with 539,000 souls
  6. Georgia stands at number six with a rate of 18.5% or about 1.3 million people
  7. The District of Columbia has an 18% poverty rate
  8. Texas, the land of Trump’s oil boom, has a 17.4% poverty rate
  9. Kentucky sits at 17.1% with 812,000 people suffering poverty
  10. North Carolina has over 1.6 million living in poverty, a 17% poverty rate

Alabama is 11th just ahead of Tennessee and Indiana at the bottom of this list. Another list via USA Today takes poverty down to the local level in many of these states. Places, where the percentages in poverty are, might be unimaginable in the past come to like with towns like Centreville, Illinois (50.1%), Hamtramck, Michigan (49.7%), New Square, New York (70%), Fabens, Texas (48.8%), and South Tuscon, Arizona (48.9%) remind me of the America that once was. These towns and hundreds more once thrived, but have turned to veritable ghost towns in the last 30 years. But I guess the reader gets the point here.

America has accomplished so much in the last 70 years. The world looks to the United States for guidance still, even with disastrous foreign relations blowups. We’ve come to admire many great heroes of our own too. Athletic greats like Jesse Owens, Jim Thorpe, NFL great Jim Brown, and NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain compliment great leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, JFK, Dwight Eisenhower and even industrialists like Henry Ford. But today we shower admiration on strange billionaires who seemed to come out of nowhere. The world’s richest (allegedly) man, Jeff Bezos is one example. How does launching an online Sears & Roebuck catalog rate godlike status? Maybe creating a computer software like Bill Gates is tantamount to inventing the cotton gin? Or hedge funds? Why George Soros and Warren Buffet are superstars in our eyes, aren’t they?

Please allow me. Compared to what we might have accomplished in seven decades since World War 2 ended, American today is a pale shadow of what she might have been. While we do not like to admit failure, every true American knows how to keep a baseball box score. And millions on our team do not even have a uniform or a glove to play ball with. This much poverty in America at the dawning of the 21st century is a travesty, appalling, sickening for anyone who lived through the civil rights era or the old Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, and the more recent Great Recession. Our leadership should be ashamed of their failures. But they obviously have no conscience or humility.

I’ll have more from underneath the mainstream news on poverty in America soon.

Author: Winston Smith