Poverty in the United States

April 2, 2018 (Analysis) We have a serious problem in the United States. We are not aware of serious issues that affect all of us. We might see the symptoms. The rise in homelessness is hard to miss. Perhaps your neighbor that confides in you that they are going bankrupt because of a medical emergency. However, we have a problem. Even if we have bread lines, and signs of economic inequality everywhere when you ask the average American, what are you? Chances are they self identify as middle class. This is independent of skin color, or region of the country. It is also independent of educational attainment, or income. This is one reason Donald Trump connected so well with the anxieties of a large swath of the people. He spoke the language of that utterly expansive middle class. He was one of them.

There are issues of racial anxiety as well. Trump connected the best with residents of suburbia in the former industrial powerhouse that were Michigan and Wisconsin. We make a serious mistake when we try to explain this only under the economic anxiety that has overtaken the country.

I can hear it now, but Trump is a billionaire! Granted, but reality has nothing to do with this powerful myth. In the mythic space we have built around ourselves, poverty does not exist. We are all in this together, and the poorest among us, and the wealthiest among us are all part of that mythic middle class. It is a story we tell ourselves. Work hard enough and you too will get a house in the suburbs, that car and a wife. Never mind that this myth has not been reality for a few generations. For some Americans it was never reality either.

If you are deemed not to be part of that space, if you are not middle class, you are part of an elite. This elite thinks less of the American myth, and that elite is foreign. Why Coastal Democrats are portrayed as coastal elites. It is highly coded language. Granted, these Democrats seem oblivious, and despise those in “fly over country” as if they were not Americans either. As Amy Chua has sagaciously written, this is almost ethnic. It is also the language that precedes hot civil wars.

Sure, American public culture has Gavroche as part of it. However, that young child of the French slum is French. Try to find an American equivalent to that child, who dies in the fires of revolution. Sure, Annie might fit since she is an orphan living in poverty, but she was rescued by her adoptive father from that state that does not exist. She became part of the American dream by the virtue of being saved. We never learn what happened to her friends. It is as if they did not exist beyond cardboard backdrops in a morality play.

We have a similar dynamic with Minions (full disclosure, one of my favorite recent popular culture phenomena.) The three girls. in the story are rescued from poverty by their well meaning, if criminally inclined adoptive father. The kids have no worries after that, they have made it. Never mind their father is not the best of role models, he is a loving father that provides for every whim.

It is not just American popular. media, Roseanne notwithstanding. When was the last time you saw a story in the local or national evening news that delved deeply into poverty? Recently a local station in San Diego went into the cost of housing, which is out of proportion of where it should be. That news story was a big exception to the rule. We, as a rule, do not speak about poverty or the underlying economic anxiety that has become a reality. It is a subject we avoid, and instead talk of March Madness, and other subjects that ultimately help maintain the illusion. It is as if we prefer to suffer in private and maintain the illusion of myth.

For the most part, our news media, it does not matter what formal ideology they follow, avoids these deep subjects. Never mind that to understand the Trump phenomena you need to understand both the economic and racial anxiety, which is not just white or poor, or working class. This is partly the anxiety rising from exurbs, where college education is understood to be essential, but increasingly out of reach for most families. It is an anxiety tainted by racial fears, as the country becomes a majority-minority nation. And yes, the news media, and TV shows refuse to talk about these fears, and new realities.

So how do we talk about this? Well, we are in fight club, so we will talk about fight club. The first important point is to face the reality that poverty is increasing in the United States. So let’s talk about some facts. Both housing and food insecurity are critical.

Food insecurity is not just a problem of the urban core. It is common across suburbia, as well as rural counties. So is roof insecurity. 42 million were food insecure in 2016. Meaning, there were moments when they did not know when the next meal was coming from, or where. This also leads directly. to housing insecurity and low access to health care.

Drilling into San Diego, we have some very powerful numbers. Feeding America has the following profile about their clients, which are 473,500 of County residents.

  • 64% of households include a member who has worked for pay in the last 12 months, 38% in the last four weeks
  • Of individuals who worked most in a household, 27% worked over 40 hours per week
  • 58% of households have a monthly income of less than $1,000
  • 70% of households have incomes below 100% of the federal poverty level

Unlike the conservative myth, that also seeks to ignore the whole issue, these are not lazy people. Poverty is hard work. Here are some other pieces of data, this time involving the cost of housing. This is via the Union Tribune:

The findings make San Diego the nation’s second least affordable city for buying a home behind San Francisco. The report says a person in San Diego would need to earn $98,534 a year to buy a $483,000 home, the county’s median price in the first quarter.

“It’s a very expensive part of the world to live in,” said Keith Gumbinger, vice president of HSH. “It’s a matter of compromise and adjusting your expectations and looking for things that fit your budget.”

The median household income in the county for an individual is $50,900, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For its price calculation, HSH assumed a 20 percent down payment, 28 percent debt-to-income ratio, a 4.56 percent mortgage rate and included insurance costs and property taxes.

This is not accidental either. Development policies over the last twenty-five years have encouraged expensive developments, over affordable housing. This is not a San Diego exclusive problem. This has been policy across Southern California, San Francisco, and places east.

City Lab has the issue in stark color:

Policymakers are beginning to realize this problem. As we wrote earlier this year, California Governor Jerry Brown made that point in his state budget. He’s said that he’s not putting any new state resources into subsidizing affordable housing until state and local governments figure out ways to bring the costs down. Last year, opposition from labor and environmental groups blocked the governor’s proposal to exempt affordable housing from some key regulatory requirements. Brown had offered $400 million in additional state funds for affordable housing if that proposal was adopted. Brown took that money off the table.

“We’ve got to bring down the cost structure of housing and not just find ways to subsidize it,” Brown said in is budget speech.

And the costs are substantial. In San Francisco, one of the largest all-affordable housing projects, 1950 Mission Street, clocks in at more than $600,000 per unit. That number isn’t getting any lower: new units in that city’s Candlestick Point development will cost nearly $825,000 each, according to recent press reports. Brown’s point is that at that cost per unit, it’s simply beyond the fiscal reach of California or any state to be able to afford to build housing for all of the rent-burdened households. And while the problem is extreme in San Francisco, it crops up elsewhere. In St. Paul, affordable housing — mostly one bedroom units — in a renovated downtown building cost $665,000 per unit.

However, it is not just about permitting or the value of land. It is about social attitudes. How is it possible that a private developer can build cheaper housing than under contract with the government? Granted, building near mass transportation land tends to be more expensive. It is also already developed and occupied. So this land has to be bought. However, we want these dense affordable housing tracts to be near public transportation. It is also about climate plans. If we are to collectively reduce carbon emissions, public transportation needs to be used. Building dense housing near hubs makes sense.

The tip of the iceberg for our deep poverty is the homeless crisis. This story is one that many Americans refuse to confront. Here are some statistics from the UK Independent:

While the overall homeless population in California, Oregon and Washington grew by 14 percent over the past two years, the part of that population considered unsheltered climbed 23 percent to 108,000. That is in part due a shortage of affordable housing.

In booming Seattle, for example, the HUD report shows the unsheltered population grew by 44 percent over two years to nearly 5,500.

The homeless service area that includes most of Los Angeles County, the epicentre of the crisis, saw its total homeless count top 55,000 people, up by more than 13,000 from 2016. Four out of every five homeless individuals there are considered unsheltered, leaving tens of thousands of people with no place to sleep other than the streets or parks.

In many ways homelessness is the obvious window into deep poverty. We live in a country where 80 percent of the population lives in poverty or near poverty. The country is also moving towards social unrest, like we have not seen since the Great Depression. This is a fact that we ignore at our peril.

It is time for our leaders to stop avoiding it, and to stop using coded language. We have created an economic system that leads to deep poverty. But it is also time for both news media and mass media to speak to this issue. We either find solutions now, or will face a social explosion.

We are starting to see the leading edges of the latter, with teacher walkouts across the country and the fight for $15 movement. Occupy pointed to some of the issues as well.

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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