David Reynolds: Poverty-A moving target

Why does society’s well intended aim keeps missing the poverty mark? Because folks move in and out of poverty far more than we realize.

Yet, whenever we hear the word “poverty” we picture a permanent underclass, a group of victims with a crippling disease. So we crank up our personal quilt machine and donate time and money to help the poor to live better — while making us feel better.

Now there is a new campaign being cranked up. We call it the politics of envy. On November 7, we’ll know if it works. It infers that this nation is socially unjust, that we should be more like the Old World. Our New World’s grand experiment of social mobility has failed. Why not just redistribute more income and create a single middle class? Forget equal opportunity. Go directly for equal results.

Sorry, I don’t buy any of it. Keep Europe on its side of the pond. Pull the plug on Brussels. Allow the euro to die a natural death. It should have never been born. Give me the adventuresome Columbus, the faithful Pilgrims and those capitalists who landed here in Virginia on Jamestown Island.

War is not the answer. Even class warfare. To solve a problem you first must understand it. Not by channeling the emotions of those on the outside, but learning the facts of what’s inside those you wish to help. So, let’s go inside the numbers.

The 2010 Census tells us that there are 46 million Americans living in poverty. That’s almost 16% of our total population. It is spread fairly evenly among the four regions (from 13% in the Northeast to 17% in the South) and between urban (15%) and non-urban (17%).

However, we need to go to the IRS and Pew Research to find out more than just static numbers. Using income as one measure of poverty, we learn that between 1996-2005 almost half (45%) of those in the bottom quintile (20%) have moved out and up! Naturally, to make room for the poor to move up, others must move down. During this same short nine-year period, 39% at the top quintile, “the rich,” were no longer rich! Those who say “Poor one day, rich the next,” may have stumbled on to the truth.

Who have been the winners and losers in our mobile society? Over a much longer period (1970-2006), we find that those over 65, native-born hispanics and blacks come out as big winners. Surprised? Their incomes (adjusted for inflation) increased by a significant 15-19%. The losers? Those without a high school diploma (or less) and those who never risked marriage. Their income went down 15-16%. Maybe we should simply promote education and marriage. Rick Santorum thinks so.

While the government counts 16% of all Americans as being in poverty, only 6% agree! Yes, when asked, only 6% place themselves below lower-middle class. That translates into 27 million Americans who believe that they are better off than what their own government believes! No wonder the welfare train is so long. It picks up passengers who rather not get a free ride.

Here’s more. The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters love to display their ” 99%/1%” signs. Allow me (and the IRS) tell you about that 1%. From 1996 to 2005, 59.7% of them got kicked out.

Let us recognize poverty for what it is — very different individuals with different potentials moving in and out of a set of bad conditions. It is not a static faceless group. Throwing a common social blanket over poverty won’t cover the problem. Instead, learning why poverty is a moving target will. And it will help our aim . . . and those who truly need our help.

Column by David Reynolds


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