According to the United States Census, poverty in the US is at an all time high, consisting of 43.6 million people who make up 14.3 percent of the population. Yet, it is a topic that has managed to evade the mouths of candidates and many elected officials alike.
This election year is a continuous audio and video stream of all the hot-button temper driven issues. The ear of the American electorate is constantly flooded with ads or news clips on the mortgage crisis, Bush-era tax cuts, immigration, unemployment, gay marriage, war, healthcare, huge amounts of foreign election cash, and most recently in Kentucky, the Rand Paul college prank dubbed “Aqua Buddha.” Get the point?
Through all the political stump noise, where does poverty fit on the political spectrum? Is it somewhere behind or beneath “jobs”? Ideology should not be an issue, as unemployment for minorities is near double that of whites. Where does poverty fit in the candidate’s consistent messaging strategies?
Most recently the minimum wage was attacked by Republican Senate and Congressional candidates as causing too many restrictions on businesses within a free market economy. Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee Chairman, did not know what the current amount of minimum wage was for Americans. Robert H. Frank, an economics professor at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University states, the “share of total income going to the top 1 percent of earners, which stood at 8.9 percent in 1976, rose to 23.5 percent by 2007. But, during the same period, the average inflation-adjusted hourly wage declined by more than 7 percent.”
Despite the mounting evidence of the rich getting richer, in African American communities many have become accustomed to the ills of poverty and look within for change and solutions. These individuals seem to eventually drink the “kool-aid” and blame themselves for all their circumstances. Further, they look within as if there is no consistent evidence to the great income divide among minorities and whites. They are driven to the overt and subliminal messages transmitted by capitalist conservatives that the free market will sort everything out. It is the self prescribed right wing American way.
Out of the nation’s inability to come to common ground about the realities of poverty in one of the world’s most prosperous economies, bailouts notwithstanding, a critical debate arises. There are those who blame poverty on the refusal of poor people to embrace the capitalist free enterprise system, as well as their failure to pull themselves up by their boot straps. This argument further places blame for poverty in African American communities entirely on the shoulders of African Americans.
The other side of the debate considers long-term, multi-generational poverty and looks at what Professor William Julius Wilson describes as “the cumulative effects of” second class citizenship and living poor. According to a New York Times article, Professor Wilson, “whose pioneering work boldly confronted ghetto life while focusing on economic explanations for persistent poverty, defines culture as the way individuals in a community develop an understanding of how the world works and make decisions based on that understanding . . . [F]or some young black men. . . the world works like this: If you don’t develop a tough demeanor, you won’t survive. If you have access to weapons, you get them, and if you get into a fight, you have to use them.” Consequently, for those who associate violence with poverty, consideration must be given to the development of survival tactics, though such response to poverty may not be acceptable in what is commonly described as America’s mainstream.
When Bill Clinton, responding to conservative propaganda that poor people want a handout, changed the public assistance program to encourage work as the path for poor people to rise as a class, the ethos was that people are in such condition because they refuse to work.
The thought has resonated among a class and culture of people most discriminated against in the U.S., African Americans. As is the case in the No Wedding, No Womb (NWNW) initiative, which seeks to “to get the 72 percent single mother birthrate in the black community down a bit.” Should African Americans limit their population by organizing to lower the amount of black babies born? Though an internal effort, the NWNW initiative parallels the past “Culture of Poverty” thought of Oscar Lewis.
The New York Times reported:
[t]hat distinction belongs to the anthropologist Oscar Lewis), his description of the urban black family as caught in an inescapable “tangle of pathology” of unmarried mothers and welfare dependency was seen as attributing self-perpetuating moral deficiencies to black people, as if blaming them for their own misfortune.
The NWNW initiative appears to be an internal knock-off of the 1965 idea of the “Culture of Poverty.”
As to poverty in the African American community it is gross negligence for America to conveniently dismiss the culture of racism and its impact on the sum total of African American life, history, culture and economic standing. Slavery in American was real. Jim Crow and separate but equal were real. Discrimination in employment and in opportunity to access capital to invest in business enterprise was and is still real. The denial of the right to vote was real. Redlining was real. The urban ghettos with their excessive rents were and are real. Concentration of poor people in depressed communities is real.
Further, the residual of each of these realities has produced generational poverty where only a few are able to emerge and compete in mainstream America.
It is interesting and confounding that mainstream America does not acknowledge that they stand on the shoulders of those who benefited from slavery and a system that was sculptured to protect their interests. What is more difficult to swallow is the position of the Bill Cosby’s of the world that join the chorus of the conservative right to blame the poor for their condition. What makes Mr. Cosby place so much emphasis on the manner in which African American youngsters wear their pants and not acknowledge that these same youngster may have grown up in circumstances that were far from ideal. It is irresponsible for members of society who have been blessed with exceptional opportunities to blame the poor for being poor.
Generational poverty is a challenge that the African American community must take on. The political tide should be geared toward changing the lives of all Americans so that the country stops delivering lip service to the notion of equal opportunity for all. The dialogue must be continual and directed at raising the quality of life for each and every child born in America, whether at a public hospital or a private specialized women’s hospital in the upper income area of any town in this country.