We live in the world's richest country, a cornucopia brimming with spacious, warm homes; supermarkets stuffed with food; educational opportunities; cradles of innovation; a dizzying cascade of techno-gadgets, mobile devices, and flat-panel TVs; tank-sized cars and luxury resorts; the promise of shopping sprees or dinners-out looped endlessly before us in commercials and on billboards -- and, of course, piles and piles of money.
Despite the economic upheaval of the last several years, America still sits atop a $14.5 trillion economy. China, our closest competitor, tops out at around $6 trillion, with Japan posting relatively similar numbers in third place. Once you move past Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Brazil and Italy, every other country is but an economic whisper compared to the United States.
Piles and piles of money.
Yet we are home to a middle class confronting the erosion of several decades of financial and social gains and a deeply entrenched population of impoverished Americans cursed with diminished opportunities, diminished ways of escape, and diminished expectations.
"The slum is the measure of civilization," noted Jacob Riis, the Danish journalist who began chronicling urban poverty more than 120 years ago. In that context, history and progress for the poorest Americans can seem frozen, and our own modern-day claims that we are fostering a civil society are built on sand.
Today, The Huffington Post is launching a year-long exploration and examination of the lives of middle class and poor Americans in a series called "Breakdown: Americans on the Edge." We'll have about two dozen reporters and editors dedicated to this subject and they'll cover as many facets of this problem as they can -- from health care, education, suburban strife, and the withering social safety net to the special plight of children and the violence and tumult of the world that engulfs those who have been poor for generations.
What ends up in play in this tragedy -- and it's a tragedy that our politicians and our business leaders have turned away from so far during this election year -- are the needs, aspirations and contributions of a broad swath of our fellow citizens.
"This ain't a healthy life," Brooklyn Davis, an impoverished resident of Pittsburgh, tells Tom Zeller, Jr. in a piece we published today. "I feel like I'm stuck, like I can't breathe, like I'm in quicksand."
In an authoritative and sweeping portrait of a small group of Pittsburgh residents who occupy the lowest economic rung in our society, Zeller teases out the human costs behind the stark metrics that define the lives of the poor.
As Zeller points out: "Last fall, the U.S. Census Bureau revealed a troubling statistic: A full 6.7 percent of Americans, or roughly 20.5 million people, were earning less than half the official poverty rate -- a category generally known as "extreme poverty." For a family of four, including two dependent children, that would amount to an annual income of about $11,000 or less."
Those figures are criticized on the right for overlooking public subsidies the poor receive and on the left for overlooking all of the onerous household and medical expenses the poor have to take on simply because they're poor. Still, regardless of how the numbers are blended, parsed or debated, there are about 17 million Americans living in conditions that most people would describe as desperately poor.
For many of these people, an extra $50 or so a month can make or break them. It means, for example, that they can't afford Internet service in their homes, an obstacle to communication and an obstacle to applying for a job. As Gerry Smith notes in his coverage of the digital divide today, about 80% of Fortune 500 companies now only accept job applications online, so if you're not wired you're left behind.
"It's just so exhausting because I use the Internet all the time," says Jillian Maldonado, a 29-year-old single mother whom Smith profiles today and who can't afford to pay for an online connection in her apartment. "I'm always back and forth to the library. Some days, I feel completely defeated."
The economic wheel turns in insidious ways and in unexpected places these days, including such unlikely spots as Silicon Valley. Peter Goodman spent a week with residents of a homeless shelter in Redwood City, California, some of whom once enjoyed fat salaries and bright prospects working in proximity to the country's showcase for high-tech opportunity and affluence.
"Cities still have rates of poverty nearly double those found in suburban areas," Goodman tells us. "But the number of officially poor people living in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas increased by 53 percent between 2000 and 2010, as compared to a rise of 23 percent among city residents."
Those mired in this slide are, Goodman says, "part of one fabric, united by the knowledge of what it means to lose one's way so fully that basic expectations about life -- its risks and its rewards -- are rendered essentially inoperative."
If the slum -- and the rural hovel and the suburban homeless shelter -- are the measures of civilization, then it's a challenge to all of us in this election year and beyond to reconsider why slums persist amid the economic splendor and bounty that have also defined the American moment.
Follow Timothy L. O'Brien on Twitter: www.twitter.com/timobrien