SYNDICATED COLUMN: 50%+ of Americans Have Been Poor, and Capitalism Thinks That’s Awesome

Odds are, you are poor. Or you’ve been poor.

Conventional wisdom — i.e., what the media says, not what most people think — repeatedly implies that poverty is a permanent state that chronically afflicts a relatively small number of Americans, while the rest of us thrive in a vast, if besieged, middle class. In fact, most Americans between age 25 and 75 have spent at least one year living under the poverty line.

“One of the biggest myths about poverty in the United States is that a relatively small segment of the population is poor, and that this represents a more or less permanent underclass,” Columbia University economist and social work professor Irwin Garfinkel tells Columbia magazine. “But poverty is quite dynamic. Lots of people move in and out of poverty over the course of their lives. And it doesn’t take much for people at the edge to lose their footing: a reduction in work hours, an inability to find affordable day care, a family breakup, or an illness — any of these can be disastrous.”

Even if you bounce back, the effects of these financial setbacks linger. For young adults, attending cheaper colleges or passing up higher education — or being unable to afford to take a low-paid internship — burdens them with opportunity costs that hobble them the remainder of their lives (which will likelier end sooner). Debts accrue with compound interest and must be repaid; damaged credit ratings block qualified buyers from purchasing homes. Diseases go undetected and untreated during periods without healthcare. Gaps on resumes are a red flag for employers.

Americans pay a price for the boom-and-bust cycle of capitalism. To find out exactly how high the cost is, Professor Garfinkel and his colleagues at Columbia have created the Poverty Tracker, dubbed “one of the most richly detailed studies of poverty ever undertaken in the United States.” The Poverty Tracker is “a meticulous long-term survey of 2,300 New York households across all income levels…for at least two years” that aims “to create a much more intimate and precise portrait of economic distress than has ever been conducted in any US city.”

Initial findings were distressing: “While the city’s official poverty rate is 21%, the Columbia researchers found that 37% of New Yorkers, or about 3 million people, went through an extended period in 2012 when money was so tight that they lost their home, had their utilities shut off, neglected to seek medical treatment for an illness, went hungry, or experienced another ‘severe material hardship,’ as the researchers define such extreme consequences.”

Wait, it’s even worse than that:

“Even the 37% figure understates the number of New Yorkers who endured tough times in 2012. The researchers estimate that two million more endured what they call ‘moderate material hardship,’ which, as opposed to, say, losing one’s home or having the lights shut off, might involve merely falling behind on the rent or utility bills for a couple of months. Many others were in poor health. Indeed, the researchers found that if you add together all of those who were in poverty, suffered severe material hardship, or had a serious health problem, this represented more than half of all New Yorkers [emphasis is mine].”

The researchers hope that “they will have enough data to begin helping public authorities, legislators, foundations, nonprofits, philanthropists, and private charities address the underlying problems that affect the city’s poor” by the end of 2014.

Nationally, more than 35% of all Americans are currently ducking calls from collection agencies over unpaid debts.

What can be done?

Under this system? Not much. Democrats, who haven’t even proposed a major anti-poverty program since the 1960s, aren’t meaningfully better on poverty than Republicans.

As things stand, the best we can hope for from the political classes are crumbs: a few teeny-weeny proposals for wee reforms.

Like expanding day-care programs. More school lunches. Housing subsidies. “Additional investments in food programs.”

A drop in the bucket in an ocean of misery.

The Poverty Tracker shows that poverty is a huge problem in the United States. Unfortunately its authors, who draw their salaries from an institution intimately intertwined with monied elites, dare not openly suggest what they know to be true, that the key to eliminating poverty is to get rid of its root cause: capitalism.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan,” out Sept. 2. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)



22 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: 50%+ of Americans Have Been Poor, and Capitalism Thinks That’s Awesome

  1. Capitalism is awesome for responsible small business & disaster when big business can buy politicians.
    Before the Pennsylvania Railroad states only granted charters of limited duration and scope to corporations, the founders did not trust concentrated power in government or in business.
    The wealth of railroads changed everything and bigger was more efficient but workers suffered to build the tracks and tend the cars and the railroads price gouged when every they where the only line in town, politicians got their cut to grease the way.

    Socialism is often death by inefficacy, the Soviet Union could make tanks but often lacked food people wanted and decent shoes.

    Answer worker owned cooperatives to let workers share in profits from top to bottom. In a cooperative workers can vote to be more green, vote to expanded or call for a change in upper management. Workers are smart enough to known their company must well run to keep to keep the profits coming. Worker votes would also over see heath care and retirement. Inventors and innovators would get bonuses by the vote of the workers. The top positions could get paid three or four times the line workers and the new trainees would have year with only a half sized bonus payable when they completed their first year.
    Companies would become working families that would respect good workers and only reduce staff in dire straits. During good times only workers that constantly let the team down need fear a pink slip.

    The Banks, Wall Street would howl if most larger corporations where broken up in to locally run cooperatives it would take a nation ready scare the rich to core of their soul to make it happen. Cooperatives are not socialism but I bet the big boys would try and stick that label on them because they know the United states is programed to kick that word out the door.

    There is no national vision of a bright future anymore but if you have a good idea and little capital and some like minded friends think about starting your own productive cooperatives, brighten your tinny part of the world. Use crowd funding, make a team that works and plays fair with their customers and each other.

    • Harleys were known to be shit in the 80’s. Even the old guard wouldn’t touch ’em. Then the company was bought out by the workers and quality soared, Harley earned their reputation back.

    • oldvet said
      >Cooperatives are not socialism but I bet the big boys would try and stick that label on them because they know the United states is programmed to kick that word out the door.

      They’ll do more than label.

  2. Ted,

    In a recent posting, you mentioned that the progressives are (I paraphrase) hopeless because they can’t organize and lack the ability to understand what words mean.

    “The Poverty Tracker shows that poverty is a huge problem in the United States.”

    WRONG! Poverty is not a problem. Poverty is a symptom. As I said in a post a few weeks back, I don’t believe in blaming the victim, but I do believe that there are times where the victim has to be told that he or she was a frickin’ idiot for getting in the position he or she ended up in. How did you get mugged? Oh, you were cutting through an alley at 2 in the morning with your earbuds in while counting the money you withdrew from the ATM? Your mugging wasn’t the problem. You’re detachment from any comprehension of how to keep yourself safe, your absolute lack of awareness is the problem.

    So. What’s the problem that poverty is the symptom of? The answer is left as an exercise for the student.

    • There are some points in your argument worthy of consideration, but the premise that poverty is a symptom rather than a problem is, in my opinion, not a valid one. A disease remains a disease and not just a symptom. To the best of my knowledge, no one made decisions comparable to what you have described, that resulted in their poverty. Most often, it was the result of having chosen to be born into the wrong environment, if you get my drift.

      • Der,

        Your point is taken. I wasn’t clear enough in my OP. I give the example of the person walking through the alley as an example of someone who is both victim AND worthy of being blamed. But (this was only alluded to, not spelled out), there are many victims who are NOT worthy of being blamed.

        Coming home, going inside and discovering someone has broken in by picking the lock and now has a gun pointed at you, makes you a victim. But it isn’t your fault. You’ve expended the reasonable level of care.

        But poverty is a symptom of a larger disease. I’m sure of it. Here’s a link. It takes about 5 minutes to watch the video, there’s nothing graphic or violent.

        I don’t want to give away the ending, but what the presentation says about factory farming applies as well to poverty. Not exactly, but it points in the same general direction.

        Pick a reason why people are poor. Several prominent ones are lack of jobs, medical disasters, bad investments in the stock market, and uncontrollable spending habits.

        Why does having a heart attack mean that you go broke? Well, because, in the United States, providing healthcare to people is a for profit industry.

        What? That makes no sense? So why does the U.S. not have national health? Marketing can answer that for you.

      • @ alex_the_tired –
        It was an interesting presentation, but I truly cannot see the connection with poverty.
        Were I to grant that poverty is a symptom, then the extension of that premise is to identify the disease to and search for a cure. What do you suggest?

      • Typo….
        It should read “… to identify the disease and to search for a cure.”

      • Poverty is a symptom of a disease. The disease? I’ll call it “capitalist psychopathic narcissism.” It’s this:

        I can keep Fred at work, paying him, and the company won’t lose a penny. We’re sitting on billions of dollars of cushion. We could pay Fred and 50,000 others just off the interest we’re earning and never even touch the principal.

        Or. Or. Now, just bear with me on this. We could simply end Fred’s job. No reason. He didn’t do anything wrong. But we can just tell him his job’s gone and give him a little bit of money — wait, we’ll make him sign a non-disparagement agreement to keep him quiet before we give him that money — and then we can make a trivially small additional amount.

        There USED to be a time — perhaps just in a fictional golden era — where such a callous, calculated move would be called sick. “We can’t fire Fred. He’s been here for 30 years. He’s 55 years old for Christ’s sake. He’ll never find a job at his age.”

        Now? It’s standard procedure. It’s good business sense. It’s how you keep the shareholders happy.

        That’s the disease. The unnecessary infliction of life-ruining hardship on someone (millions of someones) who did nothing wrong, and then not even having the decency to be disgusted with yourself. And then. Doing it again a couple months later.

        Here’s a box with a button on it. Push it, and you get a million dollars and 1,000 Chinese peasants die.

        Here’s the same box. Push it, and you’ll get 30 cents, oh, and 20,000 peasants die.

        There are some people who’ll push neither box. Some will push the first box but not the second.

        The people running the country and the economy? They’d push both boxes and then ask if there was a third that would give them a nickel and who cares how many peasants die?

        And do you think any of the buttonpushers spend even a second thinking about what their choices do to so many lives?

      • @ alex_the_tired –
        *Poverty is a symptom of a disease. The disease? I’ll call it “capitalist psychopathic narcissism.”*
        Your post examines one segment of society and limits the definition of “poverty” without regard to the fact that there is another segment who were born into poverty and never had an opportunity to escape. That has been my point all along.

      • derlehrer,

        Reconsider. I think that my example covers the condition of cyclical unbreakable poverty as well. The people in the economic hellholes of America are there because those in charge like it that way. Not because it’s an unsolvable problem. Schools have been crap in this country for how many decades now? And I’m seriously to believe that the newest “innovation” is to hand out iPads? That’s the best and brightest new idea? IPads to illiterates? It can’t be accidental. It has to be intentional malfeasance by the “educators.”

      • @ alex_the_tired –

        Have I misunderstood, or are you suggesting that professional educators are a part of the ““capitalist psychopathic narcissism” and thus party to a conspiracy to perpetuate poverty in the United States?
        As a former educator (retired), I must reject such a hypothesis and support Ted’s premise “… that poverty is a huge problem in the United States,” which is the key phrase in his article.
        The greed of capitalistic conglomerates (and others) is indeed a factor, but the notion that educators are encouraging that endeavor is beyond my imagination and comprehension.

      • Dang it, Der! I keep not saying things correctly.

        When I say “educators” in quotes like that, I’m talking about the careerists. The administrative types who. … hang on, let me go to the archives:

        In both cases, these “educators” rose way, way up in their particular food chains. And there is no way either of them got to where they did without a dysfunctional systemic culture working in their favor. Think of all the people who HAD to know something was up and who kept quiet, either from fear, disgust, or whatever.

        Did either Hall or Sills actually work with students regularly? I suspect not. They’d gotten to that level where they isolated themselves — Hall, IIRC, had an office that could only be reached by going through two locked doors. Sills frequently never even showed up to work.

        Both were making OBSCENE amounts of money. Look at Sills. She was running a school where the students had no supplies. She drove a luxury car and had a fur coat.

        You say you were in education. Tell me, how, exactly, a principal can be considered to be doing her job under such circumstances. We aren’t talking about a one-day thing here. This was going on for years. Where were the teachers in all this? Apparently one of them finally did reach a breaking point because the Post clearly had an inside source. But, again, how many people went along because the system wasn’t interested in hearing criticism of itself?

        Sills ran her little fiefdom for years. Hall? She was cooking the books for years.

        And the same sort of thing goes on in a lot of other professions: the ones who really care, who really are there to make a difference, the ones who play by the book, are identified and then chased out by the inferior ones. The “educators” do the chasing away, and the willing and grudging accomplices assist.

        I have great respect for teachers. Just like I have great respect for journalists and district attorneys. But what we see most of the time, the systems that we see, are not run by teachers, journalists or district attorneys. They are run by people who claim to be teachers, journalists or DAs but who don’t represent the most important aspects of those professions.

        Walter Cronkite was a journalist. What’s on television now? Mostly, none of them are even close to being journalists.

        Look at the New York Times. Really read it. Most of the bylines are embarrassments. The stories? Fresh off a booster sheet.

        Here’s an example. Look up Adrian Schoolcraft in the New York Times.

        The big thing to notice? The NYTimes never ran a blockbuster, pull-out-all-the-stops series of articles on what happened to Schoolcraft. Nor did the Times tie together a whole batch of similar stories involving police shenanigans.

        So where’s the outrage by their reporters that the bad cops aren’t being exposed? Why it’s right there, next to the good teachers who kept quiet while Principal Sills had her little bride-and-groom formals at Russo’s. And the good cops are there too, keeping quiet because it’s been explained to them about the Thin Blue Line.

    • >So. What’s the problem that poverty is the symptom of? The answer is left as an exercise for the student.

      Wake up sheeple? Is that the answer? Or was this a slick way to indicate the role of student debt and bad education in the persistence of poverty? A professor of mine one tried to explain everything in terms of governance “free-ridership”.

      Hate Obama’s leadership? Stop free-riding on his governance.

      Okay, so the idea has it’s limits, but in my experience, people are uncomfortable with all that self-governance entails, so they rely on the governance provided by others. So we just need to embrace methods of small scale democratic procedure, and create the systems we wish to live in. This way of formulating the problem offers an interesting way to take the great American pastime of victim-blaming and deploy it in articulating something like a syndicalist agenda.

      But this only gets you so far, since networks of worker-owned enterprises, cooperatives and other democratic structures don’t in an of themselves cut the dead-ender welfare queens off of the public teet. This class of perpetual dependents, as Romney famously pointed out (although about the wrong group) have no plans of letting anyone off the hook. They do not free-ride. They make large and ever-growing investments in governance, and they get a measurable ROI, as the careful work by Larry Bartels, Tom Furguson, and others have found shown.

      So we can’t be content to just be good little libertarians with our nose to the grindstone. We have to become full-on Tea Party-ers, seeking to cut off these sub-human leaches from public assistance and our wallets.

      • Olegna,

        To put the problem more succinctly, let me try this. Currently, what we have is an all-you-can-eat buffet. There’s a charge per customer which factors in costs (food, heat, staff, utensils, maintenance, etc.) and also throws in a reasonable profit margin.

        There is enough food for everyone. There are exactly 100 people in the room.

        Three of those people walk up to the front of the line. They proceed to take almost everything. Because they want to. They argue that “It’s ‘all-you-can-eat’ and I may eat all this one day, so I’m in my rights.”


        Ninety of the remaining people simply stand there and grumble quietly. “Oh, how rude. Well, I’d never behave like that.” and so forth. Two people start forward to throw the three people out. (So this means 95 people already have their roles, okay?)

        The remaining five? They’ve been promised a share of the food by the three people. All the five have to do is beat the living daylights out of anyone who raises a fuss.

        2 is the people who are aware of what’s going on and trying to wake up the masses.
        3 is the corporate masters.
        5 is the police/military.
        90 is everyone else.

        The problem that poverty is the symptom of is that the three people are not isolated immediately, placed in mental institutions, and stripped of virtually all their autonomy. They are, genuinely, the most dangerous people around.

      • Alex,
        That was helpful. I propose we use these proportional codes you developed in future discussion on the matter. I also might propose the following: The 2 are making the classic blunder of mistaking goals for strategy. Deposing the 3 is a goal, but it is not the very next step in a strategy that gets the 2 to that goal. Achieving that goal requires the alignment of many preexisting strategies, and the development of new ones. These strategies need to come down to very concrete first steps and minutiae. (perhaps you meant to imply such a process would clearly be undertaken by the 2 when you said they took action.)

        That strategy should probably encompass a comprehensive plan for the economy and every sector of society, including the 5, similar to the “Ladrillo” used by the Chilean Junta. It might also encompass a Luntz-grade communication strategy.

        As Milton Friedman said, “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

        To bring my earlier comments into the code you introduced, some of the 90 do get riled up enough to do something as long as they are acting against a perceived freeloader, leach, subhuman or dependent class. That is to say, with the aforementioned Luntz-grade communication strategy, the 2 can cleave off some of the 90, and with labor strategy, they can cleave off most of the 5. There are of course other institutions and currents in the 90 which are under-appreciated natural allies.

        But so far, this kind of talk just causes romantic revolutionary types’ eyes to glaze over.

      • Good analogy Alex, I’d add one for the media mouthpiece mouthing, “get your own, you freeloaders!”

      • @ alex_the_tired –
        You might be wondering why you haven’t heard from me in almost a week. The short answer is: I haven’t received email notification that the discussion continued! The last was five days ago. [*Webmaster,* are you reading this? There was a break-down in the notification process!]
        Today I was notified of your response to *olegna78* and I’ve been able to catch up.
        I learned in Sunday School a long time ago that parables (analogies) always have a weak spot, if not a breaking point. This I found in your parable about the 100-person “all-you-can-eat” buffet. The assumption is that everyone there has paid for a place at the table. With the current probem of poverty in the United States, some folks don’t even get through the door.
        The disease that you seem intent upon illustrating eminates from the three people who force their way to the front of the line, while 90% “simply stand there and grumble quietly.” Is this REALLY how you see the situation? If so, then count me as one of the two people who would move to throw them out. [But I ain’t buying it.]
        Now, the five who are promised a share of that which is confiscated by the three? They are the military/police who will protect the three? [Again, I ain’t buying it.]
        I like the point made by *CrazyH* – Where do the media and their propaganda fit in?
        Final Note – I’m still looking for the cure to this disease that has resulted in the symptom of poverty.

      • Derlehrer et al,

        (I’m racing the battery on my laptop on this one, but …)

        Yes, parables, analogies, etc. are always going to have a weak spot. My buffet analogy clearly has flaws, but the basic premise is that the vast majority of people will simply allow themselves to be mistreated.

        I have seen nothing that contradicts that assertion.

        Look at Sandy Hook. Crazy bastard with some guns killed, how many, was it eight? I can no longer keep the numbers straight. And, just like Columbine, a bunch of people fooled themselves into thinking that there was a “dialogue.”

        Watch the news after the next one of these slaughters. You will see, over and over, parent after parent, talking in an oddly upbeat way. They will eschew violence. They will talk about “working together to find a solution.” They will talk about “honoring the memory” of the dead person.

        The politicians’ hearts will go out to the victims’ survivors. (Does anyone ever follow up that statement with the question: “Your heart will go out to them? Will that be delivered by FedEx or USPS, sir?”) The politicians’ (and their families’) “thoughts and prayers” will go out to the “innocent” victims. (Innocence is a big buzz word. Really polls well in the flyover shitstain states.)

        And then they have a foundation set up and plant a garden and everyone forgets about it. And then it happens again.

        That’s what I mean by the 90 people in the room. Go in, shoot up their children, and what happens to the guns? Nothing. They’re still out there. Why? Because the 90 people are sheep. The five people in the room (police, politicians, media, etc.) that are owned and paid by the three people in the room, have their procedures in place for when two people act up. They no longer need to look to Master to know what to do. They know what to do. They’ve been very thoroughly trained.

        Olegna’s post comes very close to what I’m thinking. The 100 person room has to change its dynamic. It will not do this until things deteriorate a little more. The most likely hope — God help us all — is that portion of the five that work in mass media. If the “legit” media starts coming out of its coma and starts reporting on real unemployment, real police criminality, and so forth, enough of the 90 might wake up to form an effective group large enough to overwhelm the remainder of the five.

        But don’t count on it.

  3. The ACA was supposed to end the problem of people not having enough money for basic healthcare. For a variety of reasons, which, according to the Obamabots, were not problems with the ACA but with Tea Party imposed limitation, some people still do not have coverage for basic healthcare.

    My own singular data point was a friend with bladder cancer who died six months after diagnosis. All his healthcare was under the ACA since, while he was 67, he had not worked in the US for the requisite number of quarters. About 80% of those diagnosed with bladder cancer live for at least a year after diagnosis. So not statistically significant with p = 0.20. But did he receive the best treatment, or did he only get treatment that allowed the insurance company to pay out less than the total of his premiums?

    Mr Rall started a series complaining about the terrible information system built to support the ACA, then stopped. Apparently, Mr Rall and his family are now covered under the ACA. But how good is it? Does he have full access to the best American healthcare for a premium he can afford? He never answered those questions.

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