When I think of the words “bus tour,” a few things come to mind: politicians staging far-reaching romps around the country to spread the gospels of Freedom and American Exceptionalism, images of the Constitution and the American flag carefully placed on the broadside of a behemoth Motorcoach, and oodles of stops along the way to dutifully recite the soaring rhetoric to which our 24-hour news cycle has grown so accustomed.
That’s why it was so easy to notice when broadcaster Tavis Smiley and professor Dr. Cornel West organized a “Poverty Bus Tour,” highlighting the political plight of America’s poor. It stuck out like a sore thumb. In the United States, poor people have lost the flesh of acknowledgment, and their bare bones hang as skeletons in the vast American closet.
Sure, unemployment has received plenty of coverage in our post-housing bubble media environment. But let’s remember that we’re in a middle class recession, and it will be a middle class recovery. When the economy eventually rebounds and the working middle class can look in the mirror and see some semblance of its former self, the extremely poor will remain as beaten and battered as ever. The unemployment rate almost doubled between 2005 and 2010 – and it will likely go back to between 6 and 7% when the job market stabilizes. Meanwhile, the same “return to normalcy” might not be applicable to the very poor, whose numbers have historically stayed relatively stable except when there have been extremely concerted efforts to reduce them, as was the case with Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Poverty today is urgent in ways that it has never been before. Throughout the 20th century, America was a beacon of social mobility for all those who knew success would come, eventually, after persevering through a life’s hard work. Now, the US is less economically mobile than many European social welfare states, including Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Germany, and France. One in six Americans is living in poverty, the largest proportion in nearly two decades. Annual income is at a decade low.
Some of these statistics are the result of 2008’s recession, but our poverty policies are doubling down on the problem. Early childhood education, healthcare, and social programs are being cut left and right, while unproductive high-income tax cuts rot through our federal balance sheet. And when a poor family has to choose between preschool and medicine, it’s no surprise that those born into extremely poor are likely to stay poor – the sacrifices made in order to stay afloat chip away at future opportunities for economic advance.
Poverty is not a partisan issue. Bleeding-heart Democrats cringe at potentials gone unfulfilled just as quickly as Wall Street Republicans dismay over an uneducated, under-motivated workforce; a workforce that could potentially alleviate our dependency on foreign workforces if we invest in effective training programs. Too often, those in favor of poverty reduction measures are portrayed as social engineers – those who exploit pathos for political gain. In reality, poverty has a real effect. Children who grow up poor are more likely to have bad health, participate in criminal activity, and be less productive in the work force. These are all moral issues, but more than that, they all have an profound effect on the United States’ economy. In 2007 (pre-recession), the Center for American Progress estimated that “costs to the U.S. associated with childhood poverty total about $500B per year, or the equivalent of nearly 4 percent of GDP” through increased health care costs, crime and penal costs, and lost productivity.
The solutions are complex, and they reach across party lines. In addition to comprehensive pre-kindergarten education and a concentrated effort to improve schools (including addressing the sometimes-negative effects of teacher tenure and federal mismanagement), there is more we can do: protect benefits such as the earned income tax credit, educate students about sex in order to prevent single-parent households, and promote drug rehabilitation programs and vocational schools. These reforms will empower those at the bottom rungs of our economic ladder, and strengthening them will lead to a fortification of America’s economic foundations.
Don’t coddle the poor, but do live up to Emma Lazarus’ immortal sonnet, “The New Colossus”, engrained in permanence in the Statue of Liberty:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!“
America was founded as a nation of exiles – those cast away in search of opportunity and the freedom to succeed. We are drifting from the ideal that anyone can advance here, with the grit and hard work that it takes. If we intend to embrace our founding principles, America’s impoverished can no longer live in the shadows.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.