I've had a lot of unusual stress dreams in the last week, and it wasn't just the flu medicine. It wasn't just the images of children escaping an elementary school leaving their massacred friends behind. It was also because I've been doing deep and sobering research for this special GOOD Ideas issue on poverty.
I already knew that poverty isn't something one solves merely by getting a job. And I understand well that cycles of poverty originate from historic events that, if not equalized, create generations of people who cannot defeat the fate of their elders. I also am aware that wealth creation is very difficult when the playing field isn't level; when so many people couldn't get home or business loans into the 1990s because banks "redlined" them due only to their ethnicity; when some schools are so much better funded than others.
I know, like gun violence, poverty is complicated, and we cannot solve it by only focusing on one spoke of the wheel.
But in my research, I learned horrifying things I didn't fully understand, at least more than anecdotally, about the reasons for poverty. Like this: The poor earn less today in absolute dollars then they did 40 years ago because American companies shut down manufacturing jobs in the United States, often moving them to other countries where they pay their workers barely a living wage and, in some cases, allow sweatshop conditions to exist, increasing poverty there, too.
Those manufacturing jobs usually were full-time with good hourly wages, regular schedules, health benefits and opportunity for advancement. People who dropped out of high school even could make a decent living and care for their families.
As we show in this issue, male high-school dropouts between ages 25 and 34 earned an average of $35,087 a year (in 2002 dollars) in 1971. Thirty years later, by 2002, the average had dropped 35 percent to $22,903 a year. And this drop affects African American men but is bad for all men who don't attend college. Female dropouts' average earnings were only $19,888, but have dropped, too, to $17,114.
The Heartland Alliance Mid-America Institute on Poverty attributes this change directly to the jobs that are available now to replace the manufacturing jobs for the unskilled and low-educated: service jobs. These jobs are often part-time with low hourly pay and shifting hours (making family care difficult and costly), little or no health benefits, and minimal room for growth. As a result, in the 21st century, high-school dropouts and even graduates who don't attend college are much more likely to live in poverty than decades ago--based on sheer math and the jobs that are available. And this study was done before the recession started.
It also may surprise you to know that far more white Americans live in poverty than people of color--although non-whites are more likely to be pulled into it due to deep-rooted causes and factors more prevalent in their communities.
Availability of decent jobs is far from the only factor pulling and keeping people in poverty, but this manufacturing-to-service-jobs slide illustrates something very important: Opportunity is slipping in America even as the rich are getting richer and the wealth-inequality gap is widening, including here in Mississippi.
Put another way, poverty in America is not about a nation of moochers, as some fools would tell us: It is about the lack of opportunity and barriers to wealth creation. It is about not being able to earn enough to pay for child care. It is about not having adequate health care, leaving you unable to work because you're sick too often and can't afford to go to the doctor.
All of these factors, and more as you'll see in this issue, cost society and taxpayers more resources than if we figured out intelligent ways to break the cycle of poverty, especially for all the children living in it.
Instead, many policy proposals would have the exact opposite effect, much as all the mental-health cuts since the Reagan era have left more mentally ill people without proper care or oversight.
That brings us to the other costs of poverty: innocent lives. The research about cycles of poverty show how interconnected poverty and crime are: One leads to the other leads to the other, and so on. The longer we ignore this and resort to overly simplistic responses such as "it's up to the family," we will all be hurt by the crime our denial brings.
It's also important to understand that not everyone who lives in poverty is in what many consider to be a "bad" neighborhood. Many households headed by women, especially, fall below the poverty line and are more likely to in the presence or aftermath of domestic abuse. In today's U.S., where the new normal is companies saying they must move jobs offshore, young people of all backgrounds and races who aren't ready for higher education have few job choices.
Add to that the "poverty of spirit" that breeds in many of our communities, from the inner cities to gated suburban subdivisions, with many young glued to their computers and TVs rather than interacting with and learning the experiences of a diverse group of peers, and we have a recipe for the kind of disaster we saw last week in Connecticut.
I believe I was having stress dreams because these problems are so damn hard to deal with. I'm guilty myself: I've studied juvenile justice and isolation issues in-depth; I've done shelves full of research on gun violence and school shootings; and I've long been interested in poverty issues. But even here at the JFP, we shy away from tackling gun violence (and gun access) often enough, or calling for people to immediately address the growing poverty in our state and nation and helping create a roadmap for it.
Why? With guns, you get tired of being pecked to death by a lot of ducks quacking nonsensical analogies (and having to remind them over and over again that, yes, cars and buses are already regulated more than guns). And with poverty, it can seem so damn daunting that it is easier to focus on corruption and mindless politics like voter ID.
But here's the thing: We can't ignore gun violence or poverty in the United States any longer. Yes, they are difficult to solve, but so was ending Jim Crow in Mississippi, and that happened. And we can't pick one over the other because one feeds the other in so many ways, directly and indirectly.
We also cannot believe that there is one answer to either of these crises. We will fail if we decide we must pick one of the factors to address, and ignore the others. We don't have the luxury of dealing with access to assault weapons and not mental health, or vice versa. We don't have the time to mull whether to focus on at-least adequate education for all kids or on reducing domestic abuse or on getting good health care to all citizens. It's not either-or. We must get to work on all of those things at once for any to succeed.
This is a hard truth. But there has never been a better time to face hard truths. Babies are being blown away at school, and children are hungry at home. We must move past division, dumb analogies and divisive politics, and get busy healing our nation. Let's roll.