NEW YORK – U.S. Republican and Democratic politicians have one thing in common: They hardly mention the poor. For all practical purposes, they are a neglected minority.
President Barack Obama speaks about his push to secure “a better bargain for the middle class,” and House Speaker John Boehner states, “We cannot grow the middle class and foster job creation by growing government and raising taxes.” The poor have become a “dirty word” in American politics.
Poverty in America shows no preference for race — anybody can be affected. Although racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty, race disparities among the poor have narrowed significantly since the 1970s. Still, by race, nonwhites have a higher risk, estimated at 90 percent, of being economically insecure.
Although the gap between the rich and the poor narrowed after World War II, as public policies helped the poor and the middle class, that gap between the richest 1 percent and the rest of the country is now the widest since the Roaring 1920s. In 2012, the top 10 percent captured 48.2 percent of total earnings.
In 2009, 47 million Americans depended on food banks, an increase of 30 percent above 2007 levels. Children living in households headed by single mothers are most likely to be affected.
The District of Columbia, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico and Florida were the worst affected, while the least affected were North Dakota, New Hampshire, Virginia, Minnesota and Massachusetts.
A 2012 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) revealed alarming child poverty rates in the U.S., particularly when compared to other nations. For example, the U.S. ranks second-highest among all measured countries with 23.1 percent of children living in poverty, slightly better than Romania, with 25.6 percent.
Despite their high numbers they are sometimes called “the invisible poor” since they tend to live in small rural towns in America’s heartland, far away from politicians and government officials to see, or “feel their pain.”
Today, four out of five adults in the U.S. struggle to find jobs, are near poverty or rely on welfare for at least part of their lives, and the situation is likely to get worse, at least for those in the lower echelons of the economic scale.
America’s poor remains at a record number of 46.2 million, or approximately 15 percent of the population, due in part to still high unemployment levels.
According to the Agricultural and Development Economics Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) “food security” refers to the availability of food and a person’s access to it. A household is considered food-secure when its occupants do not live in hunger or fear of starvation.
Based on this criterion, 50.1 million Americans lived in food-insecure households (33.5 million adults and 16.7 million children.) In 2011, 4.8 million seniors (over age 60) were food insecure.
“Economic insecurity” has been defined as a year or more of periodic lack of jobs, reliance on government assistance such as food stamps, or income below 150 percent below the poverty line.
If current trends continue, by 2030 close to 85 percent of all working-class adults in the U.S. will experience bouts of economic insecurity, according to Mark Rank, a Professor of Social Welfare at Washington University in St. Louis.
Poverty affects individuals’ access to quality education and quality health care. Low income communities cannot afford the same quality of education as high income communities. Females in poverty are more likely to become pregnant at younger ages, and have fewer resources to care for their children. Many among them end up dropping out of school.
The significant proportion of children living in poor and food insecure households makes them more prone to nutritional and other health problems.
Poor children have higher infant mortality rates, more frequent and severe chronic diseases such as respiratory infections, less access to quality health care, lower immunization rates and increased obesity and its complications. Is this the panorama we expect from the richest country in the world?
Perhaps now is the time for our politicians to incorporate the word “poor” into their vocabulary.
Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is an international public health consultant and a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award.