With campaign season in full swing, it seems everyone has a panacea for what ails us. And while I wish such a simple solution to the division of our indivisible nation existed, the reality is more complicated, requiring first and foremost that we understand the gravity of the situation.
This month, I gave a speech as part of the TedX series on this very topic. This post is adapted from that talk, hoping to shed light on the reality of poverty in America -- that it's everywhere, has no age, race or creed, and affects us all, whether we live in poverty or not.
The face of poverty is one like Charlene's, a single mom working hard to raise two daughters on minimum wage, with bills for her eldest's asthma medication mounting and an unenviable decision before her -- pay the electric bill or buy food?
I care about Charlene's future -- and her children's -- not just because it's my job or because that's the mission of the nonprofit where I work, but because as a human being, I am inextricably linked to Charlene. That's why I'd like to share eight facts about poverty that will provoke your head and haunt your heart. These facts and stories are not meant to overwhelm you, but instead, inspire you to see the world differently, to see that the fate of one impacts the fate of us all. And ultimately, show how you have the power to impact change on a life in need.
1. Our kids are poor.
At some point in their lives, half of all U.S. children will be on food stamps. This suggests problems of poverty AND hunger. Half -- 50 percent of American children. Right now, a family of three that nets more than $1,545 per month is NOT eligible for the program. It seems unimaginable that fully half of all American children will start their lives like this, but it's true. This cycle must be broken -- for their good and ours.
2. Our adults are poor.
Half of American adults will experience poverty by the time they turn 65. That means half of our neighbors will experience having an income of $22,000 or LESS for a family of four. Adults living in poverty often have a disability or are weathering extremely difficult times -- single moms struggling to raise families, or someone who's contracted a serious disease.
3. Our elderly are poor.
One of every six elderly Americans live in poverty. It's not just about gross income. Many times social security and pension income raise income above the poverty level. But when you take into account how much of their disposable income they spend on health care costs, particularly medication, and housing, they drop below the poverty line.
4. Too many of our workers are poor.
One quarter of the workforce earns poverty level wages. Right now, for a family of four, that's $23,050 per year. These aren't just part-time workers who can't find full-time work. In Illinois nearly 100,000 full-time, year round workers still fall below the poverty line. These are folks who put in a long day at work, yet still can't afford to put a roof over their heads and food on the table, always just one unexpected expense from catastrophe.
5. Our building blocks out of poverty are weak.
The very supports that are needed -- things like affordable housing and health care as well as access to good jobs -- are inaccessible to those who need them most.
- Health Care: The number of people who lacked health insurance last year climbed to just about 50 million.
- Housing: The number of families who pay more than 50 percent of their income on rent keeps rising -- increasing 20 percent according to the most recent study -- which raises the risk of homelessness for those families.
- Jobs: Unemployment is at 8.5 percent. And the average length of time Illinois workers are unemployed has doubled since 2007.
6. Poverty is expensive.
Child poverty costs the U.S. economy a minimum of $500 billion per year -- the equivalent of nearly four percent GDP -- when considering lost earnings potential, crime and health care costs. That's about what the President's budget outlined for defense in 2012.
Care for those without health insurance coverage totaled $35 billion in 2004, which is largely shouldered by taxpayers. Investing in the short-term to solve these social issues can save us trillions in the long run.
7. Poverty CAN be reduced by 50 percent.
Through our research, I know we can reduce the number of those living in extreme poverty by half. (Extreme poverty refers to those who live below 50 percent of the federal poverty threshold -- that means a family of 4 who makes less than $11,000 a year.)
By providing a short-term bundle of services -- housing, health care, jobs and justice -- we can help people lift themselves out of extreme poverty and stay out of poverty for good:
Housing: Making sure everyone has a roof over their head -- a safe place that's affordable. This is key -- a place to call home is the first step.
Health Care: If someone is sick, or malnourished, or can't afford medicine, they can't make the journey out of poverty. You have to be healthy to work.
Jobs: Work is the backbone of escaping poverty. Folks need the education and the skills to work. We need to help them make that happen.
Justice: If someone can't find work because of discrimination, or is being held hostage by a violent situation, they can't be productive. We must ensure justice for those who find themselves ostracized from our communities.
8. Change starts with you.
In today's discourse, there's too much "us" vs. "them." We need to change that focus to "we" -- all united, working together to ensure everyone has the opportunity to live a better life. Our country was founded on notions that anyone can pull themselves up from their bootstraps. But our divided nation continues to strip away at the tools needed to grab hold of those bootstraps. We've been negating our proud tradition of believing in the common good.
We can't allow politicians to chip away at the services that keep people fed, housed, and on the road to becoming self-sufficient. We can't allow the nonprofits who work one-on-one with people in poverty to lose their funding and strip them of the ability to help those in need. And we can't continue to see the problem of poverty as someone else's problem. Because we can all make a difference to a life in need.
Take Betty Anne for example. She's struggled all her life with serious mental illness, but she's now living in a subsidized apartment and doing well. Every month when she gets her disability check, she puts a little money in a bag and asks her neighbors in the apartment building to do the same. She collects that money to buy food at the local grocery and makes sack lunches to distribute to people with serious mental illness who are living in the park.
Betty Anne gives back because she can and she knows it makes a world of difference to those folks in the park. She's walked in their shoes, and it's important for her to extend the kindness and care that strangers extended to her when she was alone and on the streets.
You can make a difference too. Educate yourselves about what's needed to help people out of poverty, volunteer at a local organization that's helping people in need, forgo that latte each morning and donate that money to help a family put food on the table and a roof over their heads. And when the time comes, vote -- not just for your interests but for the interests of our whole, divided, indivisible nation.