Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Poverty and the Commons

The Coalition for Human Needs issued a release (PDF) this week compiling very grim poverty statistics and showing that things are simply getting worse for our nation’s poorest residents, a number that is growing daily and as always, disproportionately affects children.

Here is some of what they had to say:
Today's Census Bureau report that the number of Americans living in poverty increased by nearly 2.6 million to 13.2 percent in 2008 is a stark reminder of the toll the recession was already taking on families even before the economic picture worsened this year.

Last year's 39.8 million poor people comprise the highest number of Americans living in poverty since 1960. …. Unemployment averaged 5.8 percent last year compared with the August rate of 9.7 percent. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that assuming an average unemployment rate of 9.3 percent for 2009, poverty would increase to 14.7 percent. Higher unemployment will hit children disproportionately hard. Their poverty is expected to rise from 19 percent in 2008 to 25 percent this year, which translates into one in four children living in poverty.

In a family of three that means trying to provide children with a roof over their heads, adequate health care and a nutritious diet on an annual income of $17,163. Still worse, the proportion of children living below half the poverty line ($8,600 for a family of three) is rising steeply, from 6.4 percent in 2000 to 8.5 percent in 2008.

As I read this, I thought that people get into poverty and stay there because of lack of health insurance, lack of decent paying jobs, poor schools, and so on—the list is long. And all these things are related to poor tax policy. But what makes poverty so grinding and grim is that things which should be free, accessible, available to all are not nearly common enough. Things like safe and beautiful public parks sprinkled throughout all neighborhoods, libraries with banks of computers, books, magazines, rooms for small children to play while their parents send out resumes, with people standing by to help you use the resources there, community gardens where people grow their own food and share with their neighbors, and so on: that list also goes on and on.

I am in Montreal right now. Here there is rule that everyone has to be within walking distance of a public pool (which costs $2 to get into) and there are pools all over the city, even though you can only swim a few months of the year. Here there are banks of bicycles, which you can rent for $5 for 24 hours. These bicycle stands are all over the city, so you can rent a bike in one place and return it in another. The bikes are very nice and well maintained. And of course I am in a province that has universal health care and universal child care. Quebec has a lot of issues, and has some poverty. It is not perfect.

But what I am struck by every time I come to Canada is that we in the United States could have all of this, and more. We are just as smart, just as creative, and in many places we have better weather! All we have to do is make “the common good” our paradigm: to maintain and expand the commons and to demand fair and just taxation.

Will we do it? Or would we rather know that every time we see a bunch of small children gathered together, 25% of them are not getting enough nutrition, their parents don’t have health insurance, and their housing is probably substandard.

Yesterday someone asked me very innocently and not rhetorically, “What will it take to change your country?” I hope one of out of four children is enough.

For more information:
Click here for key points about the grim poverty and health insurance trends (PDF)
Click here for a first fast look at the national poverty and health insurance data (PDF)
You can also find national and state poverty, health insurance, and household income data and analyses on the Coalition on Human Needs website.

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