The fall of the Roman Empire is best captured in the phrase that “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” Set on pursuing his own pleasures and indulgences, Nero could not see the walls crumbling around him. Similarly, our leaders seem oblivious to the walls crashing in on us, bickering about the way that relief on our employment situation should be structured, while poverty rates are soaring.
The employment data that came out recently included no surprises, but in some ways, it was a stunning indictment of the economic gridlock that has plagued us for the past year. While Congress has been yammering on about debt ceilings, more and more Americans are without work; more and more have experienced poverty.
The poverty rate rose from 14.3 percent to 15.1 percent between 2009 and 2010. That means that the number of poor Americans grew by 2.6 million people, from 43.6 million to 46.2 million.
For the past three years the poverty rate has continued to rise, and income has continued to decline. In the past year, the average income has dropped by 2.3 percent to $49,445. Of course, the African American level of income saw a steeper decline, from $33,122 to $32,068, or by 3.2 percent. While median Black income dropped by more than a thousand dollars a year, White income, from a higher perch, saw a lesser decline of about $900, or from $52,717 to $51,846, about 1.7 percent. With much less, African Americans are hit much harder.
Thus, while the overall poverty rate is 15.1 percent, it is 27.4 percent for African Americans, 26.6 percent for Hispanics, and 9.9 percent for Whites. More than 40 percent of African American children live in poverty. There are further indications of increased poverty and dire news for years to come. There are 2 million more “doubled up” households, meaning that more than one family is living in the same home. Yes, we used to do this “back in the day,” but today entire families are moving in together because of economic exigencies.
Poverty rates for youngsters, those under 18, have risen from 20.7 to 22 percent. Nearly a third of those families headed by women are in poverty, and women are still earning 77 percent of what men earn. Are civil rights laws being enforced in this age of so-called fiscal prudence, or would the likes of Michelle Bachman throw the civil rights agencies under the bus, as she promises to do with the Department of Education if she is elected president?
As poverty rises, the number of Americans without health insurance is also on the rise–49.9 million people, one in six Americans, have no health insurance. For African Americans, it’s one in five; for Hispanics, it’s nearly one in three. Those who sit at the margins of this economy languish there without the ability to deal with preventive healthcare, and unable to afford medical treatment in times of illness. This erodes our national productivity and well being. Why can’t healthcare be a simple human right in our nation?
The Census report, “Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010” (http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/p60-239.pdf), details the ways that poverty has increased in just one year. In some countries, this would be a cause for alarm. In the United States, it seems to be business as usual. While poverty strikes some communities harder than it does others, the fact is that we have more people in poverty than we have had since we began to measure poverty in 1959, and we’ve only seen poverty at this level twice since 1965. Then, we declared a war on poverty. Now, we seem content to accept it.
Those who are poor are victims of a corroded economy. While many would like to blame the 46.2 million Americans who are experiencing poverty, the real culprit is our nation’s economic failure. We are economically unhealthy, we are not generating jobs, compelling investment, or focusing on our future. Our children have fewer prospects than many of us had because even those who follow the rules find the payoff lower and the risks higher.
This does not mean that we should give up. It means that we should organize and galvanize ourselves to take our economy back. Dozens of congressional representatives have ignored the poverty data, but they wouldn’t be able to ignore it if we grabbed their attention. More than 40 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. planned a Poor People’s Campaign. Who will plan it now?
Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.