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The Voices of Poverty

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As the year winds down, we tend to take stock: what was good about the year just ending, and what was bad? What can we expect in the days and months to come?

Here's a raft of things that were, definitively, bad: poverty in America continued to increase, as did inequality. The numbers of Americans needing to access food stamps and other nutritional programs to avoid going hungry increased. The number of people stranded either by losing their homes to foreclosure or being so far underwater on their mortgages that they can't sell their property when they need to move, continued to escalate. And, while unemployment did fall slightly, nearly 14 million people are still listed as unemployed, and millions more are classified as "jobless" -- people who have given up looking for work and thus can't qualify as being unemployed.

At the same time, the country's political classes continued to dither in the face of dismal poverty data: the Republicans focused more on how to preserve tax cuts for upper-echelon earners than on how to make the economy work for those at the bottom and Democrats failed to craft a political message capable of framing America's poverty epidemic in the moral terms that it so urgently merits.

Perhaps the most absurd moment in recent political debate came when Republicans sought to show themselves as finally getting serious about inequality, and Democrats sought to show they really did possess some populist economic roots ... in a rare moment of Congressional bipartisanship, legislators crafted a bill banning millionaires from accessing food stamps. The only problem: to qualify for food stamps, one's income cannot be above 130 percent of the federal poverty line (that line is approximately $11,000 for a single person; $22,000 for a family of four).

Having pushed this sham legislation, Congress then returned home for the holidays ... leaving the real heavy lifting on poverty for another time.

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For the past several months, I have traversed the country, interviewing people about the conditions of poverty in which they live. The website that holds these interviews, www.thevoicesofpoverty.org, went online just before the holidays.

There's Mary Vasquez, a 67-year-old Wal-Mart employee who has gone far into debt because of medical bills her insurance does not cover. There's Byron Encelade, an oyster fisherman whose livelihood was destroyed by the double-whammy of Hurricane Katrina and then the BP oil spill. There's Matthew Joseph, a sheet-metal worker in Stockton, California, all but bankrupted by a combination of unemployment and the housing bust. There's Angela Urquiaga, an advocate at Rancho High School, in north Las Vegas, who tries to help the approximately 200 homeless students who attend her school. And there are dozens of other stories from around the country.

The aim of the audio archive is to break through the stereotypes that too often constrict our understanding of who is poor, of where poverty is concentrated, of what poverty means, both to individuals and to communities. In the voices contained on this site -- voices of people in poverty, and also politicians, academics, and organizers who have worked on poverty, oftentimes for decades -- can be found a saga of modern-day America. It is a tale of hardship-despite-hard-work, of busted dreams, of damaged neighborhoods. Above all, it is a story of institutional failings and a calamitous decline in our sense of communal purpose and responsibility. It is a saga of the emergence of a new squalor-amidst-plenty, of the neglect of millions of people at the bottom of the economy whilst tax breaks and other incentives are lavished on corporate elites and super-wealthy individuals.

There are already approximately eighty interviews and user-submitted stories on thevoicesofpoverty.org. Over the coming months, my hope is that the site will grow to include stories from around the country.

Maybe 2012 will be the year that voters and political leaders finally start paying attention to the tragedy that is mass poverty in contemporary America. It is a tragedy that ought to occupy a position full-center in the American political debate. That fifty million Americans live in dire poverty, their economic security shattered, their prospects dim, ought to trigger both outrage and creativity: outrage that such a situation has been allowed to fester, to grow, for so long; creativity in that solutions to these problems have to emerge at every level of society -- amongst the political classes, but also at the grassroots; amongst regulators and policy innovators, but also in classrooms, in community credit unions, in union halls and amongst the poor themselves.

Understanding modern poverty as a product of specific policies and specific failings of political will sets the stage for change; not the superficial changes embodied by soaring sound bites, but the kind of change that alters generations' aspirations, that shifts a nation's political priorities. That is the challenge, and the hope, embodied in the stories told by the men, women, and children interviewed for thevoicesofpoverty.

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