Poverty’s in the news again. I usually teach in a class on poverty and politics this time of year, but not this fall.
It’s one of my favorite classes, because it brings together a mix of students from all kinds of background. A passionate discussion inevitably breaks out when I ask, “What causes poverty?” and a sorority girl says, “Laziness,” and then a student who grew up in poverty lets her have it. It happens every time. It’s really remarkable.
And it’s so much fun to help the students think about the complex causes of poverty in the United States and around the world, and to see them realize that complex causes require complex solutions that go way beyond the simple suggestions of the political right and left.
The class is especially interesting since the Census Bureau always releases annual poverty statistics during the first week of class. Just like clockwork, those numbers came out yesterday.
For the first time in the Bush presidency, the poverty rate stayed the same this year. Every other year he’s been in office, the rate has increased. I guess that’s something.
In Texas, however, things are worse–17.6 percent of my fellow Texans live in poverty. Despite the fact that we are resource-rich and have plenty of wealth to go around, we are in the company of states like Mississippi and New Mexico in terms of the number of people who live in poverty.
This is, by the way, all a gross underestimate of the actual number of poor Texans and Americans. The poverty line in the U.S. is not an accurate measure of who is actually poor, who is actually incapable of meeting basic expenses month-to-month.
Something most of my students, and I think also many Americans, are not aware of is the fact that it is possible for a two-parent family to have two adults working full-time and still be poor.
Minimum wage is so low that in Austin, for example, you can’t support a family of four on two full-time, minimum wage incomes. It’s very difficult to escape such a situation, too, because you don’t have time to develop skills that would enable you to get a better-paying job.
I was thinking about all of this last week while watching Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke: a Requiem in Four Acts. It is an incredibly powerful film about Hurricane Katrina and America’s realization that there are poor people in our country.
I missed a lot of the coverage of the hurricane last year–I’d just gotten back from the Congo and didn’t have television or Internet access. So it was amazing to me a few days later to see serious discussions about the fact that there are American citizens who can’t afford to evacuate when a major storm is headed to their homes.
It’s so easy to forget about the poor, especially the working poor. Most of us live in the parts of town where we don’t see our neighbors struggling to make rent. We don’t hear kids coughing because they don’t have health insurance to see a doctor before they get really sick.
It’s a problem that is especially acute when it comes to America. We’re pretty good at ignoring global poverty, too, but things like the ONE campaign are making us more aware. My church has a global hunger banquet every year to remind us of the issues surrounding global poverty, and other churches are starting to have similar programs (Ethics Daily has a new resource for this if you’re interested in doing a global poverty emphasis at your church.).
This is good. And it’s good to go spend a day building a Habitat house, or to do yardwork for a senior citizen who finds that her home is now on the wrong side of town. But we would do well to remember, as Southside Community Shelter director Ruben Garza says, that, “Those who were barely making it are not making it.”
There’s something fundamentally unjust about people who work hard never having a chance because the deck is stacked against them. How can we serve the working poor?
Laura Seay is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin and member of First Baptist Church in Austin, who has studied and lived in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. This column appeared previously on her blog, Texas in Africa.
Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College. She studies African politics, conflict and development, with a focus on central Africa.