Shelf Life: The Other War We’re Not Winning

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While no one was looking, we managed to eradicate hunger in the United States, thereby erasing one of our most disturbing symbols of enduring economic inequality. How did we do it?

Easy: We just came up with a more palatable name for it. “Very low food security” is the new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) designation for households that can’t afford to put enough food on the table, which results in “reduced food intake” and “disrupted eating patterns.” The new terminology took over beginning with the USDA’s 2005 Household Food Security report, a switch observed by one eagle-eyed reporter at the Washington Post but not many others. The most recent report, reflecting 2006 data, found that 12.6 million households were “food insecure,” with about a third of those (4.6 million) falling into the “very low” category.

If you hadn’t heard that more than 10 percent of American households are in danger of running out of food, you’re not the only one. We don’t talk much about poverty anymore, in part because it’s a story that rarely makes headlines. “The issue is under-covered mainly because right now, the government is not actively engaged in programs trying to address the problem,” says David K. Shipler, author of The Working Poor: Invisible in America. Without War on Poverty programs to check in on, minimum-wage legislation to track, or new research findings to parse, reporters don’t have “hooks” on which to hang their stories. Consequently, there is a paucity of coverage outside of rare enterprise stories and ubiquitous holiday-themed tales about food shelves and shelters.

The result is that many people have an incomplete picture of poverty and what Shipler calls its “constellation of problems,” which magnify and reinforce one another. Political polarization over whose fault it is doesn’t help, either, Shipler says. Liberals point to the failures of government and institutions, while conservatives blame individuals and families for poor choices. “It’s just impossible,” he says, “to pull apart the tangled causal factors and put them at one end of the political spectrum or the other.”

Perhaps that’s why there’s such reluctance in the mainstream media to identify the root problems of poverty: No one likes a blame game. In an analysis of network TV news between 2003 and 2006, Extra! (Sept.-Oct. 2007) found that fewer than 60 stories about poverty aired on ABC, CBS, and NBC combined. (That’s fewer, the study’s authors drily note, than those networks’ 69 news segments concerning Michael Jackson.) “If you’re poor and want to get on the nightly news,” the study adds, “it helps to be either elderly or in the armed forces.”

I’ve been impressed with recent indie-press coverage of poverty and inequality, though the perspectives of the poor themselves remain surprisingly difficult to find.

From Rags to . . . Rags

“The ghetto appears to be inherited,” writes Patrick Sharkey in the Boston Review’s special section on urban poverty (Jan.-Feb. 2008). The inequalities that stifle upward mobility “fade extremely slowly”; the urban segregation imposed by decades of unenforced fair-housing rights, race-based incarceration, and disinvestment in inner-city communities will not be eradicated by housing vouchers that move some poor people to marginally better neighborhoods. Instead of asking “How can we dismantle the ghetto?” Sharkey writes, urban policy makers might also ask, “How can we make the ghetto less pernicious?”

The Christian social-activism magazine Sojourners (Dec. 2007) reports on one possibility: equitable development, a community planning approach that addresses regional disparities. “The neighborhoods we call home determine the affordability of our housing, the quality of our public schools, our access to jobs, and the availability of public transportation,” the article notes, and poor neighborhoods often suffer shortcomings in all those areas. In inner-city San Diego, equitable development meant getting low-income community members involved in improving public safety, combating neighborhood blight, and tailoring a 10-acre commercial real estate project to their needs by including a grocery store, small businesses, and nonprofit organizations.

Such projects are encouraging because for most people born into poverty, our society’s long-treasured rags-to-riches narrative is a mere fairy tale. A recent study by the Economic Mobility Project, an initiative coordinated by the Pew Charitable Trusts, found that 42 percent of children born into the poorest families remain in the lowest income bracket as adults. (Of those born into the wealthiest families, 39 percent will stay at the top.) As Dissent points out (Winter 2008), the odds are heavily stacked against the poorest African American children, who face a 54 percent chance of economic immobility (compared to 31 percent for white children born to the poorest parents).

The smart, straightforward newsletter Poverty & Race considers the sources of racial inequality. A recent piece mapped out the long-term effects of incarceration on low-income families (Nov.-Dec. 2007). For starters, the household is short one wage earner, and there are expensive collect calls from prison to pay for. Extended family members often make sacrifices of their own to help make ends meet. And then there’s the fact that a person’s “lifetime earning potential” is significantly lower when he or she has been incarcerated. Ultimately, “incarceration inhibits capital accumulation and reduces the ability of parents to pass wealth on to their children and grandchildren through inheritance and gifts,” taking a significant shot at the economic mobility of that family’s future generations.

The Perennially Unsexy Issue of Housing

It’s widely agreed that the poverty threshold, with its 1960s-derived focus on food as a household’s primary expenditure, is set too low to be helpful to many of the country’s poor. For those struggling to get by, housing–a perennially unsexy issue, though it’s less so in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis–is paramount. Most working-poor families spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, reports Shelterforce (Fall 2007), the magazine of the National Housing Institute. Of the poorest households, those that earn less than $19,000 a year, 55 percent spend more than half their earnings on housing.

Most of these people aren’t receiving any housing subsidies, according to Shelterforce, and some of them are dealing with the pressures of gentrification on top of that. The Chicago Reporter (Jan.-Feb. 2008) offers an in-depth look at low-income seniors who are losing homes to development faster than new affordable-housing units can be built for them. In Los Angeles, a push to develop the city’s skid row is forcing out many poor people of color, reports ColorLines (Sept.-Oct. 2007). And as the “criminalization of homelessness” escalates, writes Street Spirit (Dec. 2007), many cities have passed legislation that prohibits organizations from feeding homeless people in public spaces such as parks or sidewalks.

When he started at the New York Times in the 1960s, Shipler says, poverty was an issue “on the political front burner.” That probably won’t happen again anytime soon, but it may move up in the ranks: We’re halfway through an election year in which the middle class is feeling squeezed by many of the same pressures that plague the poor. Health care, education, housing, jobs, and Social Security are hugely important to a growing bloc of voters.

Post-John Edwards, the candidates may not be calling it poverty–the issues “get relabeled as problems of the middle class,” Shipler says–but they are putting it on the agenda, which is already more progress than we’ve seen in nearly a decade.

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