Economic Poverty Is Bolstered by Moral Deprivation

03/25/2015 02:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015

The economic data strongly suggest that the country is headed in a positive direction. The stock market roars, unemployment is down, jobs are being created, the nation's right-track/wrong-track metric is improving, and consumer confidence is up, but something is not quite right.

While the 2014 job growth was the best since 1999, there remains the lingering aftertaste of uncertainty.

Could it be that the current unemployment rate of 5.5 percent is incongruent with the Census Bureau's alarming statistics revealing that 21 percent of American children under the age of 18 live in poverty?

The Census Bureau also reports that 37.9 percent of black children and 33.8 of Latino children are living poverty, while the percentage of children under the age of 5 living in poverty is 25.1 percent -- and 9.7 percent live in extreme poverty.

How can this be if unemployment is moving closer to the range that economists define as "full employment"? Is it possible for nearly a quarter of American children to be living in poverty when the economy is in the midst of its longest stretch of monthly job growth in excess of 200,000 since Bill Clinton was president?

According to the American Psychological Association, the effects of poverty are devastating.

They include the following:

  • Poverty, especially in early childhood, has an adverse effect on children academically.
  • Chronic stress resulting from poverty has been shown to adversely impact children's concentration and memory, which affects their ability to learn.
  • The school dropout rate is significantly higher for teenagers living in poverty.
  • Children living in poverty possess greater health risks.

Such conditions, along with others, make it difficult for future generations to liberate themselves from poverty's grip.

The preferred modus operandi is to define poverty as a collection of lethargic, uninspired individuals who simply wait for the government to provide them with "free stuff," blaming the existing phenomenon on President Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty," or to simply say nothing.

The House Republicans' recently proposed budget would reduce spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) and Medicaid, which could wind up cutting off millions from the support they need.

Too often the public discourse around poverty creates a straw man endowed with our worst assumptions. Those who live in poverty, including those who have been conditioned to believe they classify as middle-class, are part of America's caste system, the embodiment of Ralph Ellison's epic novel Invisible Man: Though physically visible, their humanity remains unseen.

Part of the challenge lies in the fact that poverty is only discussed in terms of economic lack; rarely does it include lawmakers who embrace an equally pervasive moral deprivation.

The irony of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who recently became the first to officially announce his candidacy for president of the United States in 2016, signing up for insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act after having orchestrated a government shutdown in opposition to the ACA is an example of moral poverty.

In his speech announcing his candidacy, the day before he told CNN of his plans to use the ACA, Cruz vowed to "repeal every word of Obamacare."

But Cruz's moral poverty will most likely not be an isolated event. Will any viable presidential candidate make poverty central to his or her campaign in 2016?

There is a tacit bipartisan agreement among presidential candidates to mention poverty so long as it does not cause focus-group-tested discomfort.

The mental, physical, and social strains that emanate from poverty will take a major toll on the nation's future. And the answer to the problem is well beyond the parameters of any existing political orthodoxy.

Poverty can ill afford to be discussed as something that is impacting someone else. The politics of self must give way to the politics of self-interest.

This is a national crisis that is flying well beneath the radar as the nation's collective attention gravitates toward the reactionary axis of the issue du jour. Comforted by economic data that differs from the reality of many, lawmakers fiddle away in a Nero-like manner as the flames of poverty engulf a diverse cross-section of Americans.

But the growing dilemma of poverty remains two-fold: marred by an increasing number of Americans, particularly children, experiencing economic lack, bolstered by a moral deprivation to address it.