Poverty survives nation’s strong economy

AUSTIN, Texas, (U-Wire) — The United States, the undisputed world economic and military leader, is paradoxically captivated by the specter of its own poverty. College students boast of their five-figure student loan debts, white suburban kids are fascinated by the crime and poverty-ridden blight of the ghetto, and President Clinton even took a whirlwind “poverty tour” of the country this summer.
Strangely enough, the conventional wisdom of the mainstream media is that, from the hillbilly backlands of Appalachia to the South Bronx, the “War on Poverty” is finally being won. As the Dow Jones surges past 10,000 and the country nears full employment, the welfare rolls miraculously diminish and minimum wage slaves have more disposable income.
Even the most backward “pockets of poverty” pull themselves up by their bootstraps with a little help from their benevolent corporate sponsors.
Poverty, unfortunately, is in the eye of the beheld rather than the beholder.
More Americans have declared themselves in serious credit-card debt than ever before and the current figure of persons uninsured for health care in the United States stands at around 44 million — also the highest in the country’s history. While it’s true that income levels are rising at all levels, the richest 10 percent of the population own an increasingly disproportionate share of the wealth, thereby driving up the cost of living for everyone else.
One need look no further than here in Austin to see the nefarious effects of the increasing inequality in America. While Austin is supposedly reaping the dividends of an unprecedented economic boom, the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment has increased 76 percent since 1990. The increase in the median income of a typical Austinite — especially one who works for the University of Texas — has not kept pace. If everyone is supposedly benefiting from the boom, why do bus drivers need to threaten a strike before they receive a paltry raise of 4 percent? Why should University of Texas staff have to fight tooth and nail for a mere $100 more a month?
Considering America’s fascination with its own poverty — especially when it comes in the package of a Dr. Dre album — does the country now have to worry that poverty might completely disappear? Will welfare mothers soon be creating their own Internet start-ups and West Virginia rednecks start investing in mutual funds instead of moonshine?
Not likely. The well-known “pockets of poverty” that the president toured this summer still exist and will probably be around for another generation of stereotypical Hollywood movies and gangsta rap albums. The way in which Americans define poverty, however, is about to change radically.
The U.S. Census Bureau has barely modified its definition of poverty since the beginning of the “War on Poverty,” ostensibly created by L.B.J. in 1965. Under these guidelines, a family of four that earns less than $16,500 is officially below the poverty line. Under the new guidelines, a family of four that earns less than $19,500 will officially be in poverty.
When, and if, these new guidelines take effect, the poverty rate will jump from 12 percent to 17 percent, thereby putting 46 million Americans within poverty guidelines. While the mainstream media would have us believe that poverty is disappearing and is only confined to certain well-known pockets of the country, a redefinition of what it is to be poor in the United States shows that for the poor and working class, times are as hard or harder than they ever have been.
In 1965, many items considered nonessential for the average worker are, in 1999, indispensable: a car, a phone, a computer, as is the emergency cash to repair these costly items when they don’t work.
To be poor just ain’t what it used to be, and considering the debt many poor people accumulate just to make themselves “marketable” in today’s economy, it might not be hard to get nostalgic about the welfare roles and moonshine distilleries.
Russ Cobb’s column originally appeared in Friday’s University of Texas-Austin paper, the Daily Texan.