The oft-ignored problem

Written by: Janée Johnson

We face a problem in the United States that is often pushed aside in an effort to minimize the enormity of it. While our congresspersons are at each others’ throats completely unable to come to a compromise on health care reform; while gay Americans struggle against the discrimination of a military policy that should have never been put in place; and while our economy attempts to generate jobs after verging on a second depression, around 13% of this nation’s citizens are living at or below the poverty line.  If this number seems small or large to you, let me also make clear that the percentage would be much higher if the country raised the poverty line, as should be done in order to make it more representative of the amount of money it actually takes to raise a family of four.

In 2008, the poverty threshold for a family of four was $21,834, but I challenge any person to live a life that could not be considered poverty or very close to it on a salary of less than $40,000 for her family of four.  If someone has a plan for raising a family on $21,834, please inform me of it. Make certain you include the cost of rent and utilities (including gas, electricity, water, trash service, etc.) for their home, and also include the cost of gas for the family’s small car, health insurance, auto insurance, and food.  These are just the necessities—this doesn’t even begin to include other things that comfortable families of four have and would hardly think twice about—cable/internet/phone service, new clothes and shoes for the kids, gifts and parties for birthdays and other holidays, an occasional dinner out with the family, giving $10 to your 13 year old to see a movie with her friends, and any emergency that may happen—the car breaks down or the washer stops working.

A salary of $21,834 is about $1820 a month. Living in a small suburb, a family would probably pay around $800 for rent, $200 for utilities, and $500 a month for food (bare minimum). That leaves $320 per month for insurance costs, gas for the car, and any “extras” the family might need. That is laughable! These people live paycheck to paycheck.  They can barely pay for the necessities, so what happens when there is an emergency––when the car breaks down? If they’re unable to fix the car, their is no way for them to make it to their job––the job that is paying them less than $2000 a month. They have to make a choice—do I feed my children this month, or do I make sure they can have heat? So, the bills pile up, they fall behind, and it’s only a matter of time before their belongings are lying on the front lawn for the entire neighborhood to see.

On Friday, I read a story in the New York Times about Shantana Smith, a single mother from Milwaukee who was evicted from her home after falling three months behind on her rent, which was caused by the loss of her job.  She lived in a small two bedroom apartment with her three daughters and two small grandchildren.  The sad fact of today is that this is not a rare occurrence; the rate of eviction for black women in black renter neighborhoods is 1 in 14. These women (and men as well) are humiliated when they come home from working ten hours and see their lives strewn across the front lawn.

Poverty in this country is a vicious cycle.  Young people are born to poor families, and they see their parents barely able to make ends meet.  They live in poor, inner-city neighborhoods and go to under-funded schools. This is precisely where it begins: school. If the government put more money toward educating students who are disadvantaged which would grant them the tools to succeed, they would work harder toward getting an education and getting out of the depths of poverty.  However, today’s children don’t see a future, and who can blame them.  Young black men see their fathers working and earning barely enough money to sustain the family—and that’s assuming the father is even present. So, instead of working for seemingly nothing, these young men turn to selling drugs. Who needs to waste time in school when drugs will earn them more money than school or any other job? They know their families won’t be able to afford sending them to college, so why bother with high school. Stop wasting your time and earn a living on the street. They take this route and have children who take the same one.  If they don’t turn to drugs or go to prison, they work and work and work, and their children have to go to work, and education falls by the wayside.  Then their children grow up and live the same life their parents lived. The cycle is terrible, and nothing is done about it.

So, let’s begin there. How about we raise taxes (OH NO!) and provide free higher education for everyone in the country. Let’s give young men and women the ability to succeed by providing them with education. Doesn’t everyone deserve that chance?  We have to stop the cycle of children believing they have no chance.  They need someone to tell them they can—someone to believe in them and to tell them they’re smart enough to get off the streets and have a better life. If they believe they can go to college and make a better life, they wouldn’t feel the need to sell drugs, or even their bodies.  This would, in turn, help solve some of the problems with our prison system as well. 75% of prison inmates are illiterate. See the connection? Criminals often commit crimes because they believe there is no other way. If we educate our citizens, if we provide free higher education to those who believed there was no way out, our prison populations would lessen because there WOULD be a way out and they would know it.

This country does next to nothing about the problem of poverty.  In President Obama’s stimulus last year, $1.5 billion went to emergency housing aid to help out women like Shantana Smith.  But that is not enough! About 39 million people live in poverty in the United States. That $1.5 billion is only temporary and only helps out a small amount of those who need it. If health care reform passes in Congress, most of the people living in poverty who do not have health insurance still will not be able to afford it. A temporary fix to an ever-growing problem.

Now, I know the middle class is important, but let’s not forget about the 39 million people living in poverty, and the number of people who aren’t considered to be in poverty but are very close to it. Imagine looking your child in the face and telling her there is just nothing to eat for dinner tonight. Imagine telling her that Santa Clause won’t be coming this year. Imagine her face when she sees the few toys she has sitting out on the front lawn with the rest of the families’ things. And don’t ever say it’s because they are lazy.  Sure, many people work the system, but even more people work two or even three minimum wage jobs with barely enough time to see their families. These people are working the only jobs they can, and they are not lazy. Don’t ever tell me that they deserve it—that everyone is given an equal chance—because it’s just not true. They are a part of the cycle and the government does nothing to help them get out of it.

This country ignores it.  It is something that many people don’t want to think about, but it’s here! It’s right here in front of all of our faces, but we still ignore it.  In order to fix the problem this country must first become aware of it, and then we must fix it.  Education, welfare reform, and raising the poverty line are just a few options. It’s unacceptable to allow poverty to grow and still be virtually ignored.  Congress makes it difficult to get things done; instead of fixing this country, they go at each other like petty teenagers.  Democrats and Republicans alike simply need to grow up.  Instead of focusing on what will get you reelected, focus on what will make this country better, and if you don’t get reelected, at least you’ll have done your duty.

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