One in five American children are growing up in poverty. Problems, as a rule, do not get solved unless we talk about them. I would dearly love to see a national conversation about poverty, and I'd love it to be an intelligent and productive one. Unfortunately, there are a lot of worn-out conversation-enders that tend to come up in discussions about economic hardship. I could live a long and happy life without ever hearing these three again.
1. "People shouldn't have babies if they can't afford them."
I dislike this one for so many reasons.
I strongly feel that when you encounter a child in need, you should help. Arguing with the child about whether he or she has the right to exist is patently unhelpful. The child is here now, period. How he fares in the short term and how he's prepared to contribute to society as an adult depends on how well his needs are met today. Having an existential debate about a baby does nothing to further that cause.
Many people have babies fully expecting to be able to support them, by the way. But they lose their jobs, get sick, get divorced. They find out their home is suddenly worth a fraction of what they paid for it. Or they encounter some other variety of bad luck.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I would never presume to decide who should and shouldn't have children. I'm not nearly wise enough to be trusted with that kind of power; and I'm not sure I know anyone who is.
2. "I was poor and I... "
Many people cite their own hardscrabble youths to illustrate that low-income people don't really need help. "We were dirt poor but never asked for a handout. My mom made do with... "
I'm sure your mom was an amazing, hard-working person. And you are right to be proud of her. But that does not mean people who cannot get by are not working hard.
For example, in 1950 health care was five percent of GDP. Today it is more than 15 percent.
Minimum wage, relative to the cost of living, has been dropping precipitously since 1968. In other words, low-wage workers of today have paychecks that don't stretch as far as they used to. There's a common myth that people are forced into poverty because they squander their money on consumer goods. The fact is that it's harder to buy food, heat your home and put clothes on your children's backs than it used to be.
3. "Why don't they just... "
It's very common to hear some seemingly common-sense solution that will dramatically alter the effects of poverty -- if only people were resourceful enough to see it.
"Well, she should give up her car."
Many jobs that people on public assistance would qualify for are not within reach of public transportation.
"I save 30 percent on my groceries every week using coupons."
That means you have a newspaper subscription or a computer you can use regularly and a printer to print out coupons. It also probably means that you have access to a large supermarket. Many poor areas are served only by convenience stores. Driving to the store is an option if you've got a car and can afford the gas.
"The kids should get paper routes, or after-school jobs."
These kinds of earning opportunities are few and far between. Newspapers are hurting for customers. Subscribers who do get home delivery are rarely served by kids on bicycles. The youth unemployment rate for U.S. is above 16 percent. And many of those who do find work are stuck in low-quality jobs.
There's so much that we can and should talk about when it comes to poverty. But let's make sure we're talking sense.
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