I can’t post it; because it’s behind the Time paywall, but go pick up a copy of the magazine, or at least read it in your library. Ms. Kiviat’s piece is excellent, and there’s a very good photo essay on the web site that accompanies it.
I will note two important myths about modern poverty that Ms. Kiviat addresses. One is that poverty really isn’t all that bad; because look at all those people who own things, like Xboxes for their kids? The undercurrent here – that if you spent money on food and not Xboxes, you’d be fine, ties into the second myth – that being poor is your own damned fault. Both of these arguments are advanced by people whose agenda is lower social spending, not doing anything about poverty.
1. POVERTY IS SIMPLY ABOUT NOT HAVING ENOUGH INCOME
Jessica Jakubac, an Edgewood parent, lost her last job because her son woke up one morning with an inflamed leg. Jakubac rushed him to a clinic and would have called her office to say she’d be late, except that she doesn’t have a home phone (too expensive) and her cell-phone service had recently been cut off because she couldn’t pay the bill. By the time she called from the doctor’s office later that day, she’d been logged as a no-show, which compounded the numerous late arrivals already on her record because of chronic trouble with her car: it needed a new battery, but she couldn’t afford one, so she often had to find a jump start first thing in the morning.
Living with a small financial margin isn’t just about not being able to afford things; it’s also about not being able to get things done. A few times a year, the United Way of Central Maryland runs a poverty simulator in which middle-class participants are given a set of tasks, along with situational constraints like relying on family for child care, taking the bus and depending on the money from a teenager’s after-school job. Some people grow so frustrated that they quit before the exercise is over.
Volatility also plays a major role in what might be called the chaos of poverty. Over the course of a year, 20% of families in the poorest fifth will see their incomes drop by at least half from one four-month period to the next, according to Urban Institute research. Poverty often goes hand in hand with shifting work schedules, child-care arrangements and transportation and living situations–all of which are taxing to manage and have a negative effect on children.
2. FOCUSING ON INDIVIDUALS IS THE KEY TO POVERTY ALLEVIATION
It’s easy to frame poverty as an individual problem, but some of the highest-poverty pockets of the country are places that have been hit hardest by the collapse of decent-paying manufacturing jobs. To discount macroeconomic forces is to miss a big part of what drives U.S. poverty.
Since 1980, worker productivity has risen by 78% but full-time-worker pay, including fringe benefits, has grown by just half that. Less educated workers–those most prone to poverty–have fared the worst, according to MIT economist Frank Levy. Furthermore, while college-completion rates have grown substantially over the past generation, those gains are concentrated among richer families, as research by the University of Michigan’s Patrick Wightman and Sheldon Danziger illustrates. The increasing price of college is a factor, as is the fact that, for the poor, taking time off work to be a student is often not an option. But the education gap between kids from rich and poor families has not only been growing but starts even before kindergarten. A good school in every neighborhood is surely one of the most powerful antipoverty programs imaginable, but enriching preschool may need to be part of the equation too.
Go read the whole thing.