The Effervescence of Poverty Will Eventually Go Flat

05/06/2015 04:38 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2016

The events of Baltimore are temporarily in the nation's rearview mirror.

If recent history holds true to form, it will only require that a similar event take place elsewhere, or that the verdict on the six police officers indicted for the death of Freddie Gray not meet expectations within the court of public opinion, in order for a repeat performance.

It is so tempting to debate such events in the context of meaningless distinctions. Were the events in Baltimore riots or uprisings? Did thugs and looters or those clinging to society's margin conduct the violence?

How one responds to the aforementioned questions is invariably based on one's particular level of comfort -- and comfort may offer an oversimplified and reactionary solution.

Many, including me, have offered that the events in Baltimore reflect the underlying issues of poverty. But does that go far enough?

The public demonstrations like those in Ferguson and Baltimore are merely the "effervescence of poverty." It is the escaped gas of frustration that rises to the top but ultimately goes flat.

The "effervescence of poverty" creates temporary discomfort. But if we are to make real strides in addressing poverty, America must go through a phase of ongoing discomfort -- not in the sense of the violence that was witnessed recently in Baltimore but in the sense of a discomfort that refuses to leave the nation's psyche. There can be no authentic discussions about poverty in America when those least impacted by it can define it by their worst assumptions -- the straw man of their antipathy.

Likewise, poverty becomes a secondary consideration at best when the above-the-fold headline is about violence in the streets. If the only time poverty is discussed is in the aftermath of events such as those we saw in Baltimore, it is a dialogue with no intention of changing the existing narrative.

But an authentic discussion about poverty in America should be an authentic one that creates discomfort. Is not discomfort a perquisite for change?

Meaningful discussion about poverty does not center exclusively on economic lack. One must also consider poverty in terms of its psychological, anthropological, sociological, and political implications.

In the discourse about poverty, there are so many assumptions that are accepted as fact but fail to correspond with reality.

Analysis conducted by Dr. Laura Tach of Cornell University refutes many of the contemporary stereotypes about poverty. She finds:

  • Only 9 percent of low-income, urban moms have been single throughout their child's first five years. Thirty-five percent were married to, or in a relationship with, the child's father for that entire time.
  • Sixty percent of low-income dads see at least one of their children daily. Another 16 percent see their children weekly.
  • Among men who don't live with their children, black fathers are more likely than white or Hispanic dads to have a daily presence in their kids' lives.
  • The federal poverty line for a family of two parents and two children in 2012 was $23,283. Basic needs cost at least twice that in 615 of America's cities and regions.
  • In 2012 about 1.1 million people who made less than $25,000 a year worked full-time and were heads of household and had a bachelor's degree.
  • The number of households with children living on less than $2 a day per person has grown by 160 percent since 1996.
  • In 2012 total welfare funding was 0.47 percent of the federal budget.

Tach's findings, which run counter to many of the existing narratives commonly held about poverty, raise an important question: Do we know how to hold a discussion about poverty?
Prolonged poverty places one in an airtight seal of agony, rendering them blind to possibility. Moreover, it creates a morose connection between policy makers and those in economic blight.

If those languishing in poverty can be blind to possibility, is there not a corresponding spiritual cataract among those in positions to change the existing narrative? This assumes it is possible to have a discussion about poverty that is not ideologically driven.

Poverty is not something that can be addressed reactively. It spite of the stereotypes held, there are many Americans who are in the untenable situation of, in the words of singer Sade, "dying in order to survive."