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My first political memory was of wealthy Republicans laughing at Walter Mondale for talking too much about "the poor." They were watching the 1984 presidential debate. I was 5 years old. My father worked for Reagan and we were at a political soiree at a mansion in Northern Virginia.

Although I grew up Republican, I later became a Democrat in part because I decided that society should help the poor, not mock them or ignore them.

One thing I've noticed, however, is that there has been less and less discussion of the poor in our nation's political discourse as the years have rolled by. Instead, politicians are always talking about "helping the middle class."

There's nothing wrong with helping the middle class, but there are some people in America who need much more help. And let's call it like it is: those people are poor. Downright poor.

As the chart shows, the bottom quintile -- that's 20% of all Americans -- earn an average annual household income of only $11,490. The next quintile up -- another 20% of Americans -- earn $29,696. So there are basically 40% of all Americans who earn less than $30,000 per year for their entire household.

These are the invisible Americans. Their concerns and needs never discussed by politicians. The word "poor" itself has been mostly banished from our political vocabulary -- so outmoded that Mondale might have been the last mainstream politician to use it!

The poor? Oh, you mean those starving people in Africa, right? No. The people all around us, here in our own country, who live lives of struggle and shame, and are totally ignored by our nation's leaders. They stock shelves at Walmart, flip burgers at McDonalds, clean toilets in people's homes, and do underpaid temp work and unpaid internships in corporate offices. Many of them have college degrees and cannot find a job in their field. Many of them, despite having the desire and ability to work, cannot find a job at all.

If the poor are all around us, among us, then why are they so invisible? Part of the reason is that they have been taught to think of themselves as "middle class." Nobody wants to admit to themselves and others that they're actually "poor."

This is an American phenomenon which is likely rooted in our nation's Calvinist religious heritage and the modern proliferation of the self-help movement and "name it and claim it" charismatic Christianity. Many Americans worry that to be poor means to be rejected by God. And they have been persuaded that admitting the reality of one's negative circumstances will attract more bad things to oneself via the "law of attraction."

So, instead of poor people in America developing a consciousness of their true economic situation and fighting to change it by reforming the economic system that has put them at a disadvantage, they retreat into shame and false hopes that they can pray their way out of a poverty they do not acknowledge.

I don't claim to have all the answers for how to lift America's poor out of poverty. But a good start would be simply to talk about the fact that poverty exists in America and is growing -- that our nation is filled with poor people, and more people are falling out of the middle class and into poverty each day, and most of these people are just like anyone else: they try hard in life, go to work or fill out job applications as vigorously as non-poor Americans. Most importantly, we as a society need to start admitting that the poor are not "temporarily embarrassed millionaires" nor are they part of an all-encompassing top-to-bottom "middle class," but they are just poor, and most of them are likely to stay that way despite their best personal efforts unless economic policies are changed.

Jesus said "The poor are always with you." Yes, yes they are. Even in 21st century America. But they don't have to be. That's up to us. Solving the problem of poverty begins with admitting it exists. Bringing back the word "poor" into America's national debate could help to focus our attention on its reality.

Originally posted to Eric Stetson on Sun Apr 20, 2014 at 12:35 PM PDT.

Also republished by Street Prophets .

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (35+ / 0-)

    The most serious problem in American politics today is that people with wrong ideas are uncompromising, and people with good ideas are submissive and unwilling to fight. Change that, and we might have a real democracy again.

    by Eric Stetson on Sun Apr 20, 2014 at 12:35:59 PM PDT

  •  Adjunct, like me (13+ / 0-)

    The adjunctification of America means that more and more of us are working 30+ hours a week and still not making a living wage. I never thought with a PhD that I would be poor. I knew I would never be wealthy, but I thought that going to university and earning a PhD would help me get a job that had a living wage.

    Zen is "infinite respect for all things past; infinite service to all things present; infinite responsibility for all things future."--Huston Smith's Zen Master

    by Ree Zen on Sun Apr 20, 2014 at 01:20:36 PM PDT

  •  Are the income numbers inflation adjusted? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Eric Stetson, elwior

    Seems like they are not, but I couldn't find a clear answer in your post.  When I went to the census bureau site to compare with their data, I found that they have 2012 CPI adjusted data available there.  But it does not match your data.

    Please clarify.

    Understanding is limited by perspective. Perspective is limited by experience. America is a great place to live but it limits our ability to understand.

    by CindyV on Sun Apr 20, 2014 at 01:21:30 PM PDT

    •  Good question. I got this chart from another diary (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      CroneWit, elwior, happymisanthropy

      The Myth of a Middle Class in a World of Economic Inequality

      Could you post a link to the different numbers that you're referring to? Hopefully we can figure this out. Thanks!

      The most serious problem in American politics today is that people with wrong ideas are uncompromising, and people with good ideas are submissive and unwilling to fight. Change that, and we might have a real democracy again.

      by Eric Stetson on Sun Apr 20, 2014 at 01:29:45 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  This is what I looked at (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Eric Stetson, elwior

        http://www.census.gov/...

        It is a report rather than raw tables (tables are in the appendices).  But the same area of the census site also has some raw tables.

        Understanding is limited by perspective. Perspective is limited by experience. America is a great place to live but it limits our ability to understand.

        by CindyV on Sun Apr 20, 2014 at 01:34:52 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Ahh... Here's our answer in that post (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Eric Stetson, elwior, Catte Nappe
        Now go back and look at the income graph. That data is not adjusted for inflation.

        Understanding is limited by perspective. Perspective is limited by experience. America is a great place to live but it limits our ability to understand.

        by CindyV on Sun Apr 20, 2014 at 01:37:39 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Can't believe I missed that. Thanks! (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          AJayne, elwior

          So does this mean that the problem is even worse than how the chart makes it look?

          The most serious problem in American politics today is that people with wrong ideas are uncompromising, and people with good ideas are submissive and unwilling to fight. Change that, and we might have a real democracy again.

          by Eric Stetson on Sun Apr 20, 2014 at 01:40:04 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Sort of (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Eric Stetson, Meteor Blades, elwior

            But after adjusting for inflation, the change in income is most striking for the top 5% (significant increase).  If you dig thru the census report from my link and compare the adjusted income levels for the second to bottom quintile, you'll find that they range between $27k and $32k from '67 to '12.  But this report adjusts the numbers using a "2012 CPI" factor, so it is also possible that the way the CPI is calculated has caused some skewing that might show an even bigger change if these were purely adjusted for inflation.

            Understanding is limited by perspective. Perspective is limited by experience. America is a great place to live but it limits our ability to understand.

            by CindyV on Sun Apr 20, 2014 at 02:05:38 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  Sorry, also meant to add - thanks for posting (7+ / 0-)

    I very much agree with your concept that we need to be more willing to face this head-on.  There are just too many people struggling and really not making it in our society.

    Understanding is limited by perspective. Perspective is limited by experience. America is a great place to live but it limits our ability to understand.

    by CindyV on Sun Apr 20, 2014 at 01:23:29 PM PDT

  •  Glad you're writing about poor people (12+ / 0-)

    And I just started reading, but this jumped out at me:

    As the chart shows, the bottom quintile -- that's 20% of all Americans -- earn an average annual household income of only $11,490.
    Well, yes -- but no. too.

    That $11,490K is the top incomes of those classed as poor.  Earn 1K more and you're wealthy enough to be shoved into the next higher bracket.

    And poor people are welcome to have much less income that that $11.490  -- what does that come to, $958/month (rounded up).  It wold take ~250/mo to get me up to that.

    Like many old women, all I have is social Security Retirement (SSR) based on the wages we made back when the male/female wage ratio was 60 cents to the man's dollar.

     To put that ratio  in perspecive, let me tell you about how this worked in the mid-80s, twenty years after I entered the workforce.  I was working for Manpower as one of the people who interviewed/tested applicants and sent temps on assignments.  Our entry-level temps, male and female earned about $6/hr.  For the women, those entry-level clericals had to pass tests in typing speed/accuracy, producing a word-processor letter from a (laminated, standard) handwritten letter with spelling errors and a grammatical error that changed the meaning of the sentence (bonus points for asking the tester if they should type that as-is or correct the error), a data-entry test (dedicated data-entry was a thing, then), and convince us that they could 'perform well, multitasking heavily in an ever changing work environment (those phrases didn't exist then, but what they describe did) while maintaining a 'professional demeanor' and a 'professional appearance' before we could sen them out.  Men to earn that same $6/hr, had to :  Show up clothed and on time; not be too drunk/drugged;  and not be too filthy, before they could be sent out to unload trucks or pick through the trash at the municipal dump (a favored assignment, because the guys could sleep in the truck en route, and lunch was provided.)

    But this is a digression into pay equity and the kind of pay-for-labor we women got while accruing our Social Security nest-eggs.  So back to the $11,490 --

    Women of my generation are getting usually around $700 - $800/month  to live on, and for many , like me, this is all we have.  This year, I will get $8688 for the entire year.  That's $2802 less than the 'poorest' ceiling you cite.

    I know I soulnd cranky, but I'm not cranky at you -- I'm cranky at The System.  But please, if you would, could you refer to us as 'poor people' instead of 'the poor'?  'The Poor' is government-speak intended to keep the fact that we're 'poor People' out of sight and out of mind -- just as the categories that define $11,490 as 'what the poor earn' make the millions who earm less invisible.

    Thanks for your work, please keep raising these issues here.

  •  Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered just (7+ / 0-)

    as the Poor People's Campaign was in it's final planning stages. His final statement on the campaign called for a Economic Bill of Rights. His widow continued that message in May of 1968.

    Dr. King wanted to bring poor people to Washington D.C., forcing politicians to see them and think about their needs: "We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, 'We are here; we are poor; we don't have any money; you have made us this way...and we've come to stay until you do something about it
    People went to DC and camped out in wet, muddy conditions until finally evicted. Poor people faded from sight from that time on.

    "The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?" ~Orwell, "1984"

    by Lily O Lady on Sun Apr 20, 2014 at 02:46:34 PM PDT

  •  Yes. All you hear about is the middle class (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Eric Stetson

    and very frequently " working families".  Would like to hear more mention of the working poor and poor people and the disastrous effects of this economy on them.  After all, it's those ranks that are increasing,  not those of the middle class.

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