Friday, July 27, 2012

The ranks of America's poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net.

The news report is so disturbing that it has already been reprinted in multiple publications and on any number of social media feeds. It also invokes many possible responses -- dismay that more people living in poverty; concern that our safety net is crumbling; alarm that children will be poorer than their parents; and distress over the future of our nation as a result.

Those are not my immediate responses. I think about the day-to-day reality of being poor. One recent evening, I went to Wal-Mart with my husband and my 14-year-old son. My son needed something for school the next day, but had forgotten to tell us until that evening so we ran to Wal-Mart to get it. In front of us in the checkout line was an older man buying food. He had Vienna sausage, Spam, day-old white bread, and canned beans. Nothing in his basket needed to be cooked, and nothing cost more than a dollar.

The 2010 poverty level was $22,314 for a family of four, and $11,139 for an individual, based on an official government calculation that includes only cash income, before tax deductions.

It's very easy to look at this number and think only in abstract terms. But I prefer to think in concrete terms -- what do those figures mean when considering what someone needs to live? The poverty level presumes a family of four can live on less than $22,314 a year, but how? Let's assume rent is low -- say $500 a month (and I don't know anywhere a family of four can find a place for that) -- rent alone has already taken up more than a quarter of the year's money. And that rent may not include utilities like gas, electric and water -- let's add another $200 a month for that. Have we talked about transportation? A car with gas, insurance and maintenance can take a significant portion of the remainder, but even public transportation such as buses and subways require money -- travel is not free. What else is essential? Food, clothes, insurance, insurance co-pays, over the counter medication (insurance does not pay for aspirin or Benadryl) child care, not to mention cleaning supplies and hygiene products. Even if a family receives some assistance from the government, that assistance is minimal and limited to food, rent subsidy, or small amounts of cash that usually comes tied to conditions such as work or training programs.

And I also think about the disadvantages people without money face in getting a good education or otherwise breaking free from the cycle of poverty. I think about these things because these are the concrete realities of poverty. The numbers are disturbing in the abstract, but when you bring them to a personal level, like the man shopping in Wal-Mart, they are downright heartbreaking.

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