The Responsibility of Poverty
Child and Family Advocacy
November 5, 2014
Poverty expands the globe and stretches over time through economic changes and historical eras. There has always been poverty, and we can assume that there always will be poverty. Attempts to cure poverty that are documented in our legislation seem to only prolong it with a bit of reluctant temporary relief for some of the needy. The United States’ social programs provide career spaces for intervention. Media taboo at covering the truth of poverty’s effects on families serves to keep the majority ignorant and distracted while covering for behind the scenes pocket-lining. As a result, our societal support for public policy that aids poor is met by loathing of the so-called sloths.
The exploration of what it is like to be poor tends to bring pity, but the action to solve poverty has a different character. The dominant decide the fate of the dominated without fully understanding the affected poor person’s struggle. The foundation for public attitude towards poverty begins with the government policy, with media that is created by the political and economically elite, and then it goes into the minds of the average person. Those living in poverty are the bottom class status, with a narrowed version of quality of life and limited capability—the hopeless who survive but not thrive. Poverty creates the desperate gleaners of society: ultimately they get what is left over, if even.
Following the War of 1812, America began to grow due to immigration and trade. In New York this marked the beginning of the tenement housing. This lifestyle is documented in the Jacob Riis classic, How the Other Half Lives. The first tenement house was called the “rear house” and was a home that used to belong to the wealthy aristocratic Manhattan family, the Knickerbockers (Riis, 2010). All of the homes along the river were once inhabited by the wealthier crowd, but were now rented out to the poor as tenement-housing. Tenement houses were once a blessing for a hard-working poor family to have a home, and that was the case until the corruption of the landlord losing sight of healthy living conditions and tolerance of misbehavior of the tenants (Riis, 2010). Around 1857 (when the Republican Party began) these homes were remodeled by their real-estate and boarding-house agents, to accommodate for more families per home. This required drastic partitioning of rooms into smaller rooms (sometimes window-less). The wealthier were taking an opportunity to make the most money on the poor. The conditions of these homes were dilapidated and the landlords blamed the conditions on the tenants’ destructive behavior which went without accountability (Riis, 2010). The landlords were only after the rent and overlooked the needs of the people. Poverty creates a vulnerable group of people based on the desperate fashion of survival and their lowered expectations of their own treatment.
At the end of the 1800’s, the Settlement House movement began. “Inspired by the efforts of Canon Samuel Barnett’s Toynbee Hall in London to bring the privileged and underprivileged together to overcome the effects of spiritual and social disintegration, Stanton Coit and Charles B Stover founded the Neighborhood Guild of New York City in 1887” (Stern & Axinn, 2012, p. 107). The plan was to help integrate the immigrants by living with them in a settlement house. These educated people felt that society would benefit from their efforts. Then in 1889, came Jane Addams with her Chicagoan-established Hull House (Stern & Axinn, 2012). The success of Jane Addams was not just the historical initiation of social work as a profession. She also balanced her protection of them by ensuring their autonomy and dignity. In her book, Twenty Years at Hull House, Addams writes about how “heart-breaking” unemployment was for the neighborhood that she worked with. Addams (1910) describes how these people were taken advantage of and became victims of the “padrone who fleeced them unmercifully” (p. 221), or how they became the “mere sport of unscrupulous employment agencies” (Addams, 1910).
Hull-House made an investigation both of the padrone and of the agencies in our immediate vicinity, and the outcome confirming what we already suspected, we eagerly threw ourselves into a movement to procure free employment bureaus under State control until a law authorizing such bureaus and giving the officials intrusted with their management power to regulate private employment agencies, passed the Illinois Legislature in 1899. (Addams, 1910)
Addams (1910) references Tolstoy’s story “What to Do,” which describes his efforts to “relieve the unspeakable distress in the Moscow winter of 1881” (p. 260). His conviction was that “only he who literally shares his own shelter and food with the needy, can claim to have served them” (Addams, 1910). Addams (1910) discusses her point of view that the resident “social workers” at the Settlement House were impatient with the cooperation and methods of society for dealing with the problems of poverty, but through the twenty years, they saw the “charitable people, through their very knowledge of the poor, constantly approach nearer to those methods formerly designated as radical” (p. 306). This real solution for poverty has the benefits of accountability of the poor, guidance, and exact resource links alleviating the guesswork. Addams approached legislation without hesitation because she knew exactly what is genuinely needed to happen for those without a voice.
In the worst of environments today the poor suffer poverty-stricken conditions in a nation of a wealth of resources. In a long-term study by author Jonathan Kozol, A Fire in the Ashes, he describes people living in appalling poverty. This was a twenty-five year study of tenement housing in New York by documenting the lives and struggles of the tenants and their children. Many of the tenants were displaced by broken marriages, due to death, divorce, abuse or other causes. The story of Alice Washington, for example, a 42 year old woman with positive outlook even in her hopeless condition, offers a sense of stability to those around her. She ended up in the deplorable tenement houses due to an abusive husband and was somewhat of a mother figure for many of the young mothers in the same living conditions of filth and poverty. Her healthcare was limited and available only when she was near death, which occurred several times over the years. She suffered from many ailments, but in the end died from a combination of cancer and HIV/AIDS (Kozol, 2012). There were problems in these tenement houses that were mainly a result of the lack of aid. There was no one responsible or accountable for these people’s existence. Drug-use and crime went without consequence. Health care and health maintaining resources were not offered. There was nothing but the use of raw survival skills among these people. Some of the children, like Silvio, another character in Fire in the Ashes, didn’t fare so well in the tenement houses due to the pressures of gangs, street-life, inequality of opportunity, lack of resources, and other issues related to poverty that caused him to have a violent death at a young age (Kozol, 2010). The experiences show are so traumatic in cases of extreme poverty that the people involved seem to lose hope in the system.
Within these two books, Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, and Jonathan Kozol’s Fire in the Ashes, there are several similarities, yet one documentation is in the 1800’s and the other is in modern-day times. The similarities are the decrepit housing conditions, the unavailable aid and links to valuable, operational resources, and most important, someone responsible overseeing the entire program. Jane Addam’s Hull-House, however, is a success. The hopelessness of eradicating poverty is a reality, deterring people from becoming radical about the issue because of the common sense that wealth is not evenly distributed, so why bother? There will always be poverty.
The stereotypes of families living in poverty are substance abuse, domestic violence, child neglect, lack of goals, and, the eugenicist’s favorite, lesser intelligence of those who are raised in poor areas. “Strong families have troubled lives also. To be a strong family is not to be without troubles, it is much more: it is the presence in the family of important guidelines for living and the ability as a family to surmount life’s inevitable challenges when they arise” (Stinnett & DeFrain, 1985). America has some people who feel that they are more deserving and have a need to have their own people separated from the poor. The Bell Curve is based on a Social Darwinist type of eugenicist view. The main point of the book is to promote the idea that “the isolation of the cognitive elite is compounded by its choices of where to live, shop, play, worship, and send its children to school” (Herrnstein & Murray).
The Census determines who is considered to be poor by the material possessions that a family has, such as an X-box, a microwave, or cable TV (Smiley & West, 2012). What this implies is that possessing material items, even if those things are used or dug from the garbage of another’s house, constitutes a level of wealth. The rich are not going to be willing to give up the fight against paying taxes to help the poor when the Census suggests that being poor is what one makes of it. Compare America’s poverty situation with Brazil’s. At the turn of the century when all of the immigrants were flooding into the Americas, European immigrants were encouraged to settle to increase the white vote over the black natives, and slowly the black natives were pushed to the Northeast of Brazil where it was already economically declining anyway (Penn, 2005). Today, Brazil is home to some of the world’s poorest children, even though their country is in the upper third percent of the world’s per capita income (Penn, 2005). This shameful inequality among the people in Brazil is due to the same factors as the United States and every other country have—the social and political elite, who only care about their own. The conclusion then would be that there will always be people living in poverty.
There need to be relief efforts set into place that are significantly stronger than past attempts. Past failures need to be examined to prioritize how modern concepts are formulated. United States must strive to make its safety nets for families better than those of other nations. A study in the American Journal of Public Health determined that any inequality in income distribution of a country causes the life expectancy to be lowered. The rich do not want to put any tax money into valued community efforts for public services like hospitals and schools (In Ore, 2011). This does not hurt them, but it hurts the rest of the country. There is lack of funds to attribute to what the majority of the country needs to maintain health, but the inequality of income distribution creates lower life expectancy for the entire country.
Throughout the 1800’s power and control of America’s wealthiest over the poor created problems in the society of poverty. Solutions to social issues were experimental. The Orphan Train, founded by Charles Loring Brace, was a back-up plan to place children when their parents were financially ruined. This was done instead of just ensuring family unity with financial aid. Jane Addams brought harmony to the immigrant poor population by establishing the Hull House in Chicago, as well as legislation initiatives for those poor. The Charity Organization Society made their best attempts at setting fine examples of moral behavior as they visited the poor. In the 1800’s, the rich were getting richer with industry and paid their workers the poor wages (Smitha, 2014). Their rationalization was that the workers could work hard enough if they wanted to change the way that they lived (Smitha, 2014). The bottom line of the relationship between the rich and poor in the 1800’s was that there was no responsibility to aid made into law, so that was it. The rich were not made to do it, so they did not.
The wealthy have maintained those same basic characteristics in attitude towards the poor over the generations; however, there has been great progress in awareness of poverty’s needs too. In A New Framework for the Study of Power, Lowi describes the antecedents of progress, such as the Sixteenth Amendment that authorized income tax in 1913 when World War I began. Then in 1933, Franklin D Roosevelt introduced the New Deal to raise individual taxes and formed several programs to initiate some wealth redistribution (Lowi, 1970). “The poverty line was first set by the government in 1964, when it was determined that an income of $3,000 for the year was considered adequate to meet the needs of an urban family of four” and that salary was divided up into expected expenditures, accounting for a third of it to go towards food (Burton, 1992). Taxes were a way of accommodating the deficiencies in the lives of the poor. In 1986 however the Tax Reform Act enabled the rich to achieve loopholes (Lowi, 1970). By the time Clinton was put into office in the early 1990’s, the technology boom produced an economic spirit. In 1994, when the Republicans captured congress with their anti-Clinton initiative, the White House became conservative and measures like the 1996 Welfare Reform were passed. Meanwhile, back on Wall Street, the rich were collecting all of the money (Phillips, 2002). By the end of the twentieth century, the gap was established between the rich and the poor as the infamous 1% began. At every milestone of the poor people in need, the wealthy population was using their position in society to make the decisions about the poor’s survival. In an interview with Frank Norris, the author of Octopus, he says:
When a new road penetrates a new country or a new locality it is necessarily in itself a trust. That community through which the solitary road runs takes on new life. But in time, if another road does not penetrate the same locality, the original road, the trust, will get the better of the shippers in that community. If a second road enters the locality, however, and competes with the first road then there is a war and the farmer benefits thereby. As soon as the farmer begins to get prosperous at the expense of the competing roads the latter combine and the farmer or shipper gets the worst. (Norris, 1901)
In other words, the poor have the power to accept or reject the power of the wealthy, but instead they trust them because those wealthy bring opportunity due to the potential inherent in their resources. The problem, or the resulting maltreatment of the poor, is that the power that the wealthy accumulate attracts conflict for them from competitors who want the same power. The end result is the poor get railroaded, literally. The wealthy find ways of keeping their seat safe from the competition. This can be done by promoting the needs of other wealthy to create their own safety net. Then the wealthy are one moving system running over the needs of the poor who originally gave the wealthy their power in trust and in hope. Power and control over another human inevitably leads to abuse, unless someone accepts responsibility for the needs of the powerless.
The media has shown bias in the favor of the wealthy, white, Republican men and their opinions (Peck, 2012). The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was pushed through Congress from the lobbyists represented by the wealthy station owners. Those wealthy owners increased their control. As the local programmers lost control, broadcast came under control of the wealthy (Missmollyana, 2011). What used to be fifty corporations dominating the media are now only six corporations who control what America is exposed to in the media (Snyder, 2010). One of those corporations is owned by Mr. Rupert Murdoch, an immigrant from Australia. Murdoch’s media empire includes Fox Television, the Dow Jones (Parent Corporation of The Wall Street Journal), The Boston Herald, The London Times, The New York Post, and more. “Mr. Murdoch may be best known in this country as the man who created Fox News as a counterweight to what he saw as a liberal bias in the news media” (Becker, 2007). Murdoch pays out eleven-million dollars to his army of lobbyists (Becker, 2007). An article written in a business magazine captures the drama surrounding the results of the Nielsen Media Research showing sharp drops in ratings by minority viewers for Fox Television programs. Murdoch did not want to hear that, so he launched a smear campaign on the Nielsen Research and their CEO, Susan Whiting. In the end, Nielsen’s research only concluded that the drop in ratings for Fox channels was due to the fact that the minorities chose to watch local channels instead (Bianco & Grover, 2004). Murdoch gets his own way by force, almost bullying, his way through corporate America. His anti-liberal media goals reek of power. Among the biggest fans of Fox Television are the Tea Baggers, a group that identify themselves as Conservative Republicans. “In this iteration of conservative mobilization, Republican elites [and Tea Baggers] have been able to rely on powerful conservative media sources, led by Fox News” (Williamson, Skucpol, Coggin, 2001). According to the article The Tea Party and the remaking of Republican Conservatism, the Tea Baggers rely on Fox News for support and for connection to their conservative topics. The majority of the group is white, high-income men with a primary concern in America of government spending on social welfare (except for their own Social Security, the highest amount of expenditure dispersed in social welfare). “Opposition is concentrated on resentment of perceived federal government ‘handouts’ to ‘undeserving’ groups, the deﬁnition of which seems heavily inﬂuenced by racial and ethnic stereotypes . . . particularly ‘welfare’ mothers” (Williamson, Skucpol, Coggin, 2001). The entire topic becomes ironic when the total amount of government subsidies that News Corp, owned by Murdoch, accumulated since 2005, was found to reach $33,090,399 (Good Jobs First, 2014). An Alternet article describes how Mr. Murdoch successfully found loopholes to escape 2 out of 4 years of taxes with the other two years being incomplete payments, with domestic pretax profits topping $9.4 billion. The article also makes the point that Murdoch’s empire advertises for corporations like General Motors that have had government bail-outs with tax-payer money (Howard, 2011). In America those that are against assisting the poor in surviving, apparently are not ashamed to admit it—even on television and media, which they actually use as a tool to emphasize that perspective.
Throughout the history of the United States there have been both the greed of the rich and oppression of the poor. Iniquities come with rewards of power, and someone has to lose.
The greed and power of wealth have found ways of keeping their seat in society over time using the oppression of the poor. The resolution in this conflict is obvious if historical failures and successes are explored. Finding loopholes and weaving socioeconomic webs produce individual power, but harm the overall economy for the majority.
I recommend that legislation to end loopholes be held accountable by a dedicated task force. During the 1990’s the government passed several reform acts affecting population segments (in particular 1996) allowing the wealthy to excel. It also caused those who value equality to be distracted by the detail of the many reforms for socioeconomic and social welfare which allowed for backdoor economic corruption.
I recommend responsibility for poverty at the legislative level in form of special, unnegotiable taxes for those individuals who have used their financial wizardry to accumulate most of our country’s money. This responsibility holds the population accountable as a whole system and eliminates the abusive powers associated with economic monopoly.
I recommend tenement housing for those who live in poverty. Past failures must be examined to avoid deplorable conditions. The success of Jane Addams can be taken as an example. Tenement housing with guidelines could benefit a family better than the current TANF system of welfare. The barriers associated with tenement housing are only in circumstances of neglect and irresponsibility. The National Social Worker Association should be given control of this rather than the direct control of government agencies working alone because they obviously are acting on behalf of another population.
Providing protection with tenement housing offers a person direction for their independence if done correctly. A program formed that categorized a person’s position using formulas would then place them in a track to achievement while providing guidance and accountability. Categories can be accessed by using a formula that included racial disparities, education level, sex, dependent children, legal barriers and other types of barriers to create a plan for individual potential to be maximized. House laundry, childcare, classes, training and planning exercises could be programmed with parent-like guidance over planned time-lines. The working would have to save their money and turn in weekly bank statements proving they are not spending their money (unless authorized to do so). At the end of the time-line of the program, the saved money is used for the next step to independence. A person is not released from the program until all barriers are relinquished such as educational and training so that a stable future is possible. Social workers will live on site and oversee all activity, including curfews, drug free zones, daily room checks, and weekly paperwork turned in from the tenants. A weekly grocery trip with their social worker present will assure nutrition to each member and accountability to the funding for food subsidy.
Inequality is a part of the cons of having freedom, but there is at least an expectation of the dignity and worth of everyone. If equality is not available, demonstrate what has been learned by history and create legislation requiring the top percentage of wealthy to give back to the poor. As the wealthy have fully displayed their skill at acquiring the wealth of our country, they need to expect to be required to support those people that have been subjects of their financial and social brilliance.
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