I couldn’t put down Kathy Edin’s compelling discussion of contemporary American poverty, $2 A Day, Living on Almost Nothing in America. I read the book almost nonstop over two evenings, and as I read I became more enraged with each story and description of the current plight of America’s cashless poor.
This is happening in one of the most successful countries in the world. No one would question this if it happened in India, Africa or Central America. Our well-meaning liberals would express outrage that these countries could not take care of its citizens. After all, isn’t America the land of endless opportunity? Unfortunately, it seems that endless opportunity comes with a high price for those living without the same means as those who have the wherewithal that comes from access, opportunity and stability to maintain a higher standard of living.
There is also currently, and for the past 20 or more years, no political will to even acknowledge this kind of poverty in our country where current politicians obsess over the middle class, (i.e. votes). Trump was quoted in today’s news as wanting to do something about the rampant corruption in America’s system of entitlements with no proof whatsoever that this is happening. Kathy Edin’s book asserts repeatedly, that corruption does not exist in any significant way in our system of benefits for the poor. However, once again, an opportunity to garner favor with a political base rears its ugly head as a campaign tactic for the next election by blaming the most vulnerable in our society.
I grew up poor in New York City in the 60’s and 70’s amidst a tremendous amount of family instability. But I never felt that there was nothing that could be done. We survived on the old system, Aid for Dependent Children, after my father, our sole support, sat down one day in a chair and died of undiagnosed heart disease. My mother was left with four children from 7 to 14 years of age at home. She was semi-literate having never completed high school and her chances of employment were close to non-existent. Besides, what was she going to do with all of us? She went on welfare and raised us. Even then, it was a Herculean task to try to keep us safe, healthy and on a good path. However, I never felt that there wasn’t a place to turn to, even if we were treated like second class citizens in whatever office we landed. With welfare money we paid the bills, paid the rent with assistance from section 8, we had three meals a day, and I thrived in school. That is what the old-fashioned welfare system managed to accomplish. We were not cheats. Circumstances caused my mother, a poor black woman who was ill-equipped for skilled work, to fall on hard times, and to ask for help to make sure her children were safe, housed and fed.
Today’s America, has almost no safety net for the poor. It took very little money to stabilize my family. We were fortunate to be able to capitalize on the political will of a very different time during a period of social motion that changed everything. Now the political establishment does not talk about poverty, except to blame poor people for being poor. They, along with large parts of America, believe that if you’re poor, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough. But that American can-do spirit applies to those mired in poverty, as Edin talks about in her book, as much as it applies to the middle class. The resourcefulness of some of the people described in Edin’s book is remarkable. To make it though, sometimes people just need a hand up, even if that is also a handout.
If we are ever to address this issue meaningfully, caring Americans must become engaged in the political life of this country. We cannot strip away every entitlement that’s been enacted since the New Deal to deal with poverty. Edin describes many common-sense solutions in her book. However, these will never become policy unless we hold every person we send to Washington or any local office accountable to our communities. I would argue that we need to upend the political system altogether. This is a tougher road. Most of us just want to live our lives. However, it is the more humane and ultimately more developmental solution to creating a society that cares for all its citizens.
Brenda Ratliff is a senior communications consultant with more than twenty years’ experience in developing, executing and managing successful communications and marketing strategies in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. She is a longtime political activist and philanthropist working to create afterschool programs for inner city youth.