Musings on US Poverty

Thursday, September 26, 2019
Deborah Hill
US Census map showing poverty across the country

I recently visited Ireland to explore my heritage and to tick off a bucket list wish. I am grateful to the many people who took time to share stories of their lives.

One of the things I observed in my informal conversations with people there is how differently the Irish (at least those I met) comprehend poverty. In Ireland, poverty is understood to be directly related to the circumstances of one’s birth, and the educational and employment opportunities where you live. 

In the U.S., our culture idolizes the individual overcoming all odds and achieving great wealth through hard work. We view poverty as a shameful personal failure and as a consequence of personal laziness. Those who are poor just want to be and could fix their circumstances if they really wanted to, right? This could not be farther from the truth.

In reality, many of our public policies created and then structurally reinforce poverty. A policy called redlining in the 1930s identified lower-income Black and non-white community neighborhoods as credit risks. This prevented individuals in these communities from improving their properties, and discouraged community development and investment by businesses that would create employment opportunities. In essence—redlining concentrated Blacks and non-white people within designated areas of poverty and made hard to escape. Although redlining was discontinued 50 years ago, the blatant racial discrimination shaped the demographic and wealth patterns of American communities in ways we can see even today. A 2018 Washington Post article reports that three out of four neighborhoods “redlined” on government maps 80 years ago continue to struggle economically. Ironically, these neighborhoods sometimes get designated as urban renewal opportunities, which means original residents are forced out as urbanization creates trendy and expensive new development.

Another policy, the first GI Bill, signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, was intended to provide veterans of the Second World War funds for college education, unemployment insurance, and housing. Unfortunately, this legislation too became a tool of racial discrimination. A History Channel documentary shows that through implementation of the first GI Bill, Black veterans were shunted into vocational training instead of university education, denied equitable unemployment benefits, and—in concert with redlining—denied equitable home loans. While the GI Bill helped the white middle class accumulate significant wealth and power, Black veterans could not.

Sadly, these are just two examples of the ways in which U.S. and state policies have failed to serve all of our citizens equitably. Other examples include sharecropping, fraud in mortgage lending for land, Black land loss through heirs property laws, and more. Blacks and Hispanics/Latinos in the U.S. face staggering systemic discrimination, and get blamed for their circumstances as well. It’s a national shame and a humanitarian crisis if ever there was one. And it’s no wonder that race relations in the U.S. have reached a boiling point.

Poverty is not a choice. According to World Vision, millions of Americans move in and out of poverty over a lifetime. And, more than half of Americans will live in poverty at some point before age 65. One in six Americans lives in a household that is food insecure, and more than 1.6 million of US children go to sleep without a home each year. These statistics tell a color blind story, however, and our country is anything but color blind. According to Talk Poverty, in 2017, 21.2% of Blacks in this country lived below the poverty line. This is 22.3 million people. And, 18.3% of Hispanic/Latinos (10.8 million people) lived below the poverty line.

There is nothing more valuable than our people. There are no investments more important than ensuring the wellbeing of each and every citizen of our country. We all benefit—socially, economically, and spiritually—when we uplift each other. When we make it possible for each person to full their cognitive, creative, and social potential. 

In my work at the World Food Policy Center, I am learning about food apartheid areas--places where people don’t have reasonable access to enough healthy food to live active, healthy lives. Once called food deserts, Baltimore’s Heber Brown calls them life deserts: places where there are no jobs, no opportunities, no hope.

As citizens of this country, we need to see with clear eyes the mistakes of past policy decisions. We need to listen to those whose lives have been shaped by injustices, accept and understand their anger, and we need to do better by them. We need to disrupt the status quo and truly create equity and opportunity for all. I plan to be part of such change and I hope you will too.