Adam Ash

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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

We've got a nation of the poor as big as Canada living in the U.S.

From The Nation:
Why Bush is Wrong on Poverty -- by Katrina vanden Heuvel

In his September 15 speech to the nation, President Bush asserted that poverty in America is mostly restricted to the nation's Southern states. Like a lot of right-wing ideologues when it comes to issues of race and poverty in America, he's in denial.

Many Republicans seem to believe that poverty is confined to one region of the nation, that the past (i.e. what Bush called a "history of racial discrimination") should shoulder the blame for the problem, and that individuals make choices that determine their station in life. Bush's supporters hold the White House and the Republican agenda blameless, and argue that the president's vision for building an "ownership society" will enable America's poor to build a better life for themselves and their families.

The first thing wrong with such arguments is that poverty is not simply found in the deep South, as Bush suggested in primetime. Poverty is a fact of life in every city and state nationwide. Sociologist Andrew Beveridge (at the request of the New York Times) recently conducted an economic survey of New York City and confirmed what other studies have already shown--that New York is divided between the rich and the poor. This fabulously wealthy city has more than its share of entrenched poverty and racial economic disparities.

In the Bronx, the poverty rate is 30.6 percent, outranked only by three border counties in Texas where living costs are far lower. Overall, New York City's poverty rate was 21.8 percent, and people of color are more than twice as likely to be poor as non-Hispanic whites. Beveridge's study revealed as well that the bottom fifth of Manhattan's income-earners are paid two cents for each dollar that the top fifth currently earns. Economist Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute argues that Manhattan by itself is actually "an amplified microcosm" of poverty in the nation at large. (Manhattan is also leading the way when it comes to another ominous trend: as the Fiscal Policy Institute recently warned, the city's middle class is being wiped out.)

America's claim to shame is that it has the highest level of poverty in the industrialized world. Bush's four and a half years of trickle-down theories have failed miserably. The poor have become even poorer. The nation's poverty rate has climbed from a 27 year low of 11.3 percent to 12.7 percent last year. Thirty seven million Americans are living below the poverty line, a group so large, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter pointed out in a post-Katrina cover article, that it amounts to "a nation of poor people the size of Canada or Morocco living inside the United States."

Bush may talk about addressing poverty in this rich nation, but his coldhearted agenda has made the problems much more pronounced. His administration gave a massive tax break to corporations and the wealthiest individuals in his first term; since then, despite evidence of rising income inequalities, a growing sea of red ink, and $200 billion needed to fight the war in Iraq and another $200 billion we will spend to rebuild the Gulf region, Bush has ruled out repealing any of his tax cuts for the rich.(And this while household incomes failed to rise for five consecutive years--for the first time on record.)

Bush leads a Republican party that has refused to increase the minimum wage (stuck at $5.15 an hour since 1997), tried to cut Medicaid, food stamps, housing for the poor, Social Security, and promoted "faith-based initiatives" to rally "armies of compassion" that are supposed to assist the poor through the right-wing panacea of charitable, religious giving. His Gulf Opportunity Zone is a sham. And while this White House tries to cut worker's pay in rebuilding the Gulf region, it lines the pockets of those poster boys of corruption--Halliburton and KBR--with no-bid contracts. As Derrick Jackson wrote in the Boston Globe last week, Bush's plan "will squeeze yet more pulp out of the poor."

If there is a bright spot amidst the despair and catastrophe, it is that some in the mainstream media have started addressing issues of poverty, race and class in America. I don't know how long this moment will last. But if some in the big media consistently and aggressively report on poverty and class as central issues in US politics and society --and a few leading political figures find the political will, the imagination and the courage to fight for policies that have proven to work in tackling such an intractable problem--maybe we will see some progress.


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