Is Being Poor Everywhere Alike?

The short answer is: definitely not. Some 1,050,000,000 breathing, suffering souls live on $1 a day or less. For $1 a day you can buy: Some beans or some rice. That’s it! There’s no place in your allowance for clothing, shelter, or much of anything else. The point often made by conservatives is that, by that standard, we have no poverty in America. However, the poor just might have something to say about that.

What should the least fortunate
of our citizens
have?

Perhaps it comes down to a question of what the least fortunate of our own citizens should have. I have no respect for anyone who would answer: Some beans or some rice. These are decent people who work hard. They deserve their share of the richest country the world has ever seen.

Old saws are no less true for being old saws, and one of the oldest is that a society can best be judged by how it treats its poor. This is not just a philosophical argument; it’s a practical point that affects us all. Most of us believe that the least wealthy among us should at least have things like healthy food, adequate clothing, decent shelter, opportunity to learn, access to medical care when needed, and adequate pay for work.

We do not adequately value the common
work that so many people do.

Don’t most of us feel that the people who have only Some beans or some rice, ought to have what poor Americans have? But the fact that our poor have so much more than their poor is no excuse for those circumstances that hold our poor down. Every day that we fail to improve equality is a day we diminish ourselves, quite literally.

We’re talking about those millions of good people who do their best, who embrace the all-American values of family, work, moral behavior, and so on—and are not doing well. What do these good people deserve?

In no state can a minimum wage worker afford
a two-bedroom unit at Fair Market Rent
.

I will say as often as possible that we do not adequately value the common work that so many people do. Millions upon millions of people work for the least pay their employer can get away with. These are jobs that “anyone can do”, but that doesn’t make them easy and it doesn’t mean they don’t require skill and understanding. Nor does it mean that you or I could actually do the job.

Here’s something that will shock you: In no state can a minimum wage worker afford a two-bedroom unit at Fair Market Rent, working a standard 40-hour week. (MoveOn.org) In the conservative Republican ideal All-American Family, consisting of a father who works one of these millions of low-wage jobs, a mother who stays at home, and two children, the American dream is permanently out of reach.

With the ideal Republican family
and the jobs that millions have,
the American dream is
permanently out of reach.

A $10 per hour wage (the national minimum wage is $7.25) provides gross pay of under $21K annually. Even without health insurance of any kind, just paying for food and shelter doesn’t leave much to jingle in your pocket. An inexpensive health care premium of $10K per year is altogether impossible. The worst part about it is that higher education and a better life for the next generation will always be out of reach. In short, we have created a class of permanently poor people simply by failing to reward their work with a reasonable wage.

Why should this matter? Haven’t there always been poor?

Yes, but that doesn’t make what we do to them moral, and as I have shown in a previous post, data show that when equality is improved, the benefits actually go to everyone. Everything bad is decreased, and everything good is increased. A broad range of publicly available data from all over the world show that this is true. By failing to improve inequality we injure ourselves.

By failing to improve inequality
we injure ourselves.

A new book just out, How Nations Fail, by Acemoglu (it’s a Turkish name) and Robinson, presents good reasons gathered from all of history about why people around the world fail to take advantage of the opportunities that seem to be all around them to lift themselves out of poverty. The answer is always that throughout history, in one way or another, the rich always find a way to take away the products of the initiative and labor of the poor, so there is no good reason to try. More about that another time.

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