Poverty in America: Why Can’t We End It?

Excerpts from “Poverty in America: Why Can’t We End It?” By Peter Edelman, New York Times, July 28, 2012

RONALD REAGAN famously said, “We fought a war on poverty and poverty won.” With 46 million Americans — 15 percent of the population — now counted as poor, it’s tempting to think he may have been right.

At the same time, we have done a lot that works. From Social Security to food stamps to the earned-income tax credit and on and on, we have enacted programs that now keep 40 million people out of poverty. Poverty would be nearly double what it is now without these measures, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

With all of that, why have we not achieved more? Four reasons: An astonishing number of people work at low-wage jobs. Plus, many more households are headed now by a single parent, making it difficult for them to earn a living income from the jobs that are typically available. The near disappearance of cash assistance for low-income mothers and children — i.e., welfare — in much of the country plays a contributing role, too. And persistent issues of race and gender mean higher poverty among minorities and families headed by single mothers.

We know what we need to do — make the rich pay their fair share of running the country, raise the minimum wage, provide health care and a decent safety net, and the like. But realistically, the immediate challenge is keeping what we have. Representative Paul Ryan and his ideological peers would slash everything from Social Security to Medicare and on through the list, and would hand out more tax breaks to the people at the top.

A surefire politics of change would necessarily involve getting people in the middle — from the 30th to the 70th percentile — to see their own economic self-interest. If they vote in their own self-interest, they’ll elect people who are likely to be more aligned with people with lower incomes as well as with them. As long as people in the middle identify more with people on the top than with those on the bottom, we are doomed. The obscene amount of money flowing into the electoral process makes things harder yet.

But history shows that people power wins sometimes. That’s what happened in the Progressive Era a century ago and in the Great Depression as well. The gross inequality of those times produced an amalgam of popular unrest, organization, muckraking journalism and political leadership that attacked the big — and worsening — structural problem of economic inequality. The civil rights movement changed the course of history and spread into the women’s movement, the environmental movement and, later, the gay rights movement. Could we have said on the day before the dawn of each that it would happen, let alone succeed?

We have the ingredients. For one thing, the demographics of the electorate are changing. The consequences of that are hardly automatic, but they create an opportunity. The new generation of young people — unusually distrustful of encrusted power in all institutions and, as a consequence, tending toward libertarianism — is ripe for a new politics of honesty. Lower-income people will participate if there are candidates who speak to their situations. The change has to come from the bottom up and from synergistic leadership that draws it out. When people decide they have had enough and there are candidates who stand for what they want, they will vote accordingly.

I have seen days of promise and days of darkness, and I’ve seen them more than once. All history is like that. The people have the power if they will use it, but they have to see that it is in their interest to do so.


Kids’ Stories

About a year ago I started writing stories for kids about the lives of two small-town, midwestern families. Each story is tied to a holiday, with the first one describing a period around Labor Day.

I’ve finished Labor Day, Halloween, and Thanksgiving, but I’m snagged on Christmas. I’ve written myself into a hole, I think, and I’m not yet willing to back up and start over. I have the major plot points for Valentine’s Day, Easter, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July.

My characters include two 12-year-old first cousins, Kate and Billy, and their parents and Kate’s brother. The extended families include the kids’ grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other cousins. Folks from town, the church, and the school show up, too.

I’m interested in hearing what people think of the stories so far, and so I’m adding “Labor Day” as a page to this blog. You can find it here.

Question of the Day

Why is medicine so expensive and communication so cheap? 

First consider research, technology development, manufacturing, training, service delivery. Think about factories, distribution, satellites, IT, call centers, retail outlets. Then consider that time spent in the ER, with a few tests and a small handful of medical personnel, can cost $1000 per hour, while our three DVR-equipped Dish-fed TVs, phone landline, two iPhones with massive amounts of capacity, and whole-house wireless internet connectivity costs about $0.42 per hour.

Just sayin’

Uncommon Blessings

The cleaning ladies are here this morning. Three cheerful, careful women come every other Friday to clean our house. They know Sheila likes butterflies, so one day they brought us a dead, but otherwise perfect, yellow swallowtail butterfly that that they found on the sidewalk. They give us tamales at Christmas. They do the windows and floors, and laugh at our comical dogs. I give them two hours of my salary for their six woman-hours of work, plus a holiday bonus that grows every year. I think it’s a great deal and I believe they are okay with it, too.

On Mondays, the Poop Lady comes with her scoop and bucket to clean up our back yard. A month’s worth of her visits is roughly the equivalent of 90 minutes of my salary.

I get my shirts laundered — that’s about six minutes of salary each.

All those services plus painting the bedroom, replacing the furnace filter, waxing my eyebrows, polishing my toenails — all things I could do myself but don’t have to, because of the increasingly uncommon blessing of money to spare.


Do you remember that for a few days after 9/11 planes were not allowed to fly over the U.S.? I stood in my backyard in Denver a day or two after the attack and listened to the absence of airplanes. Everything was strange and raw in those first days but the quiet in the sky was eerie. It added to my sense that everyone was holding their breath.

I’m in the den in Albuquerque this morning. It isn’t so hot yet that we have to close up the house and turn on the air conditioning. I can hear through the open windows the normal sounds of our neighborhood. In the past 10 minutes or so I’ve heard birds, cars, sirens, dogs, wind chimes, children’s voices, and planes.

The next time you step outside, listen for planes. I imagine that in any urban area, and many not-so-urban areas, you will hear them. You may have to make an effort, though; not to hear them but to know that jets or props are what you are hearing. They are part of the background now. White noise.

Aunt Margaret’s Posse

My Aunt Margaret had a posse. Those women, all born within the first decade or so of the last century, wouldn’t have thought of themselves that way. They were friends, or maybe bosom buddies, or just “the gals.” I saw them as reliable sources of card-game rules, egg salad sandwiches, arithmetic tutoring, and models of how to be a grown woman.

Five of these six women were born in El Reno, Oklahoma. Billie moved to El Reno from Virginia as a young bride. Two of them, Margaret (not my aunt) and Martha, never lived anywhere else. Those who hadn’t stayed, “came home” at some point in their lives because of divorce, broken health, economic necessity, caring for an elderly parent, or retirement. By the time I was a teenager, they were part of the fabric of my summertime life.

When I was old enough, say 13 or so, I would join their card games. Canasta, Spite & Malice, and some weird kind of poker are the ones I remember best. There were glasses of iced tea and glasses of bourbon on the card tables. Little bowls of salted nuts and those semi-soft white mints that melt in your mouth. I don’t know what the conversation was like when I wasn’t around, but I suspect it was neither profane nor sanctimonious.

These were well balanced women, who had seen a fair amount of life (except maybe Martha, who always seemed to be slightly somewhere else, somewhere sweeter) and understood that expectations and resentments were first cousins. They had all worked for their livings for decades. They were teachers, a social worker, a nurse, a businesswoman.

I remember their laughter and that they always dressed up (at least more than my friends and I do) and smelled good. I’m sure they had sorrow and disappointment with husbands, children, jobs, but it wouldn’t have occurred to them to share those stories around me.

I don’t know what bound them together; if longevity of friendship was the secret, or if it took a tightly knit culture and more shared than singular experiences. Just being friends wouldn’t have been enough, though. I have a social set, some dinner companions, a few fellow card players, and a handful of good friends, but I don’t have — have never had — the closeness these women shared.

So here’s to Margaret, Margaret, Martha, Lois, Billie, and Virginia and their 80-year-long posse.

Not larger than life, just lodged in it sideways

Some of you may remember Gordon Jennings, who was an editor of car and motorcycle magazines in the 1960s and 1970s. Most people who knew him found him to be both brilliant and difficult. His hardscrabble beginnings as the oldest child of migrant farm workers in the Great Depression shaped his view of the world as, he often quoted, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Competition of all sorts engaged him. If he couldn’t beat you on the race-track, he’d later browbeat you at the dinner table. Not an easy man to be with; yet, I stayed married to him for a decade. In private moments, when Gordon felt as secure as he ever could, there was a sweetness to him; a gentleness and honesty that made me feel secure with him. He would have been 81 years old today.

Let’s Draft Our Kids

Excerpts from “Let’s Draft Our Kids” by Thomas E. Ricks, New York Times, July 9, 2012

A revived draft, including both males and females, should include three options for new conscripts coming out of high school. Some could choose 18 months of military service with low pay but excellent post-service benefits, including free college tuition. These conscripts would not be deployed but could perform tasks currently outsourced at great cost to the Pentagon: paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, and generally doing lower-skills tasks so professional soldiers don’t have to. If they want to stay, they could move into the professional force and receive weapons training, higher pay and better benefits. And we could raise the retirement age for the professional force from 20 to 30 years of service. There is no reason to kick healthy 40-year-olds out of the military and then give them full retirement pay for 40 years.

Those who don’t want to serve in the army could perform civilian national service for a slightly longer period and equally low pay — teaching in low-income areas, cleaning parks, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, providing universal free day care, or aiding the elderly. After two years, they would receive similar benefits like tuition aid.

The pool of cheap labor available to the federal government would broadly lower its current personnel costs and its pension obligations — especially if the law told federal managers to use the civilian service as much as possible, and wherever plausible. The government could also make this cheap labor available to states and cities. Imagine how many local parks could be cleaned and how much could be saved if a few hundred New York City school custodians were 19, energetic and making $15,000 plus room and board, instead of 50, tired and making $106,329, the top base salary for the city’s public school custodians, before overtime.

And libertarians who object to a draft could opt out. Those who declined to help Uncle Sam would in return pledge to ask nothing from him — no Medicare, no subsidized college loans and no mortgage guarantees. Those who want minimal government can have it.

Ghost Stories

Last night we hosted a mystery dinner party that featured ghost stories told by our guests. We had spooky, eerie stories from Massachusetts, New Orleans, Brazil, New Mexico, and Transylvania. As always at these parties, I am delighted and amazed at the ingenuity of my friends as they prepare their costumes and characters to fit the scant outlines I provide.

I decided to tell a story of my own last night. I’ve expanded it a bit and included it here under the title “Ann’s Sequins.”

I hope you enjoy it.