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Poverty's Evil Twin

In this deeply polarized nation, I have found something that unites Republicans and Democrats: neither party talks about poverty, despite our current epidemic of child poverty and its consequences for the life chances of millions of children. From what this political junkie has seen and heard, both parties have studiously avoided talking about it at their respective conventions. Democrats in Charlotte talked incessantly about 'the middle class,' while in Tampa the Republicans gave off a distinctive vibe: "If you are successful, you did it yourself. If you are poor, you messed up. Not our problem."

Poverty is on my mind; however, as readers of this blog know, in an otherwise inspirational profile of a forward-looking summer program in Providence, RI, we inadvertently conflated race and poverty in the opening 45 seconds. The opening visuals conveyed the message that poor people were black and that well-off people were white. That inaccuracy -- the number of whites in poverty is actually larger than the number of Blacks and Hispanics -- has been edited to present an accurate picture, but I haven't gotten over how easily I made that mistake. It was a teachable moment for me, a chance to grow.

I have been reading a lot about poverty and have come to believe that the problem of poverty has an evil twin, greed. We cannot solve one in isolation.

Poverty, as one reader pointed out, is complex, because it is distributed unevenly. Although poverty is not Black or Hispanic or any other color, proportionally many more Black and Hispanic children live in poverty than do white kids.
Black, American Indian, and Hispanic children under 18 represent 38% of all children but more than half -- 54% -- of low income children. They are more than twice as likely to live in a low-income household compared to white and Asian children.

Consider these numbers, from the National Center for Children in Poverty:

31 percent of white children - 12.1 million - live in low-income families.
64 percent of black children - 6.5 million - live in low-income families.
31 percent of Asian children - 1.0 million - live in low-income families.
63 percent of American Indian children - 0.4 million - live in low-income families.
43 percent of children of some other race - 1.3 million - live in low-income families.
63 percent of Hispanic children - 10.7 million - live in low-income families.

Perhaps you are now doing what I did when I read those numbers -- adding them up. It comes to 30 million children of all colors.

That's the national disgrace, millions of children growing up in poverty. It's an epidemic, and professional politicians ought to be embarrassed by their failure to address the issue at their conventions.

It turns out there is poverty, and then there is 'deep poverty.' In a brilliant article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine a few weeks ago, Paul Tough examined President Obama's record on this issue through the lens of Roseland, a high-poverty area in his hometown of Chicago. Mr. Tough draws a sharp distinction between 'deep poverty' and normal (shallow?) poverty and shows just how difficult it has proven to be to ameliorate the former. Children in 'deep poverty' -- their family income is 50% below the poverty line -- tend to go to what William Julius Wilson calls 'truly disadvantaged schools,' further tipping the scales against them.

And in 2010 one in ten American children was living in deep poverty. That's about 7,000,000 kids who don't get to go to preschool, who are likely to be developmentally disabled and who will go to school hungry. To quote from Mr. Tough's piece:

"Neuroscientists and developmental psychologists can now explain how early stress and trauma disrupt the healthy growth of the prefrontal cortex; how the absence of strong and supportive relationships with stable adults inhibits a child's development of a crucial set of cognitive skills called executive functions. In fact, though, you don't need a neuroscientist to explain the effects of a childhood spent in deep poverty. Your average kindergarten teacher in a high-poverty neighborhood can tell you: children who grow up in especially difficult circumstances are much more likely to have trouble controlling their impulses in school, getting along with classmates and following instructions."

Mr. Tough doesn't propose solutions, although he does quote Valerie Jarrett, perhaps the President's closest advisor, Ms. Jarrett said that the President was proposing inclusive approaches that benefited all citizens economically, not just one specific group (the poor).

"I think our chances for successfully helping people move from poverty to the middle class is greater if everyone understands why it is in their best interest that these paths of opportunity are available for everyone," she told him. "We try to talk about this in a way where everyone understands why it is in their self-interest."

That approach, "A rising tide lifts all boats," strikes me as doomed to fail as long as greed rules. And, make no mistake, greed is in the saddle. Over the last 30 years, the salary of the typical CEO has increased 127 times faster than workers' salaries.

To put this in perspective, the average Fortune 500 chief executive is paid 380 times more than the average worker. In 1982, the ratio stood at 42:1.

Most Boards apparently set their CEO's salary based on comparisons with those of other CEO's, not with the company's own workers. And that means that scant consideration is given to the effect of that inflated salary on employee morale, loyalty, effectiveness and turnover.

It's not just CEOs. A shrinking percentage of our population controls a growing percentage of our national wealth. In fact, the gap is as great today as it was just prior to the Great Depression. Today the wealthiest 1% control about 40% of our wealth. Those in the bottom 80% control less than 7% of the nation's wealth. Those in poverty aren't even on the chart.

The starting point for the CEO-worker comparison was 30 years ago, just after the Presidencies of Nixon, Ford and Carter. We weren't Socialists then (and never have been). Thirty years ago was when the worldview of our newly-inaugurated President, Ronald Reagan, began to dominate Washington and the country. It was later summed up, without much exaggeration, by Gordon Gecko in a popular movie: "Greed is good."

One of Reagan's predecessors saw the world differently. "We have always known that heedless self interest was bad morals, we now know that it is bad economics," said Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

I have no quarrel with a CEO earning a lot more than the average worker, but 380 times more! How much money does one person need? How much is one person worth?

Why not return to sensible capitalism and recognize the value of the team? It doesn't have to be 42:1. Go ahead and pay the CEO 100 times what Mr. or Ms. Average Worker makes. The boss gets $5,000,000 if the average Joe or Joan earns $50,000. Want to pay the boss $6,000,000? Then boost the average salary to $60,000.

That would be a genuine rising tide, one with widespread benefits, because we know that, while rich people tend to squirrel away money, middle class people spend it.

And if we backed away from greed, we would be more open to recognizing the scourge of poverty and the long term threat it poses to our nation. If we were genuinely disgusted by greed and not merely embarrassed by it, our hearts would not be so hard, and our intuitive generosity would rise to the surface.

We cannot solve the problems of poverty, whatever its colors, without tackling its evil twin, greed.

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