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The Reality of the Poor in America

s some of my readers already know, I have been a minister and a college professor, but the bulk of my career I worked as an educational social worker. What some people might not realize is that I used the same set of skills in all three jobs because they were not really all that different. In my twenty years working with impoverished families I came to understand a great deal about the poor in America that those who grew up in the middle-class simply can't imagine. One of those things is who make up the poor in America.

Last year one of the leaders of the Republican caucus, Congressman Chaffetz from Utah, in defending the massive reduction subsidies in health care for the poor said "They need to learn to take responsibility for their own health care. Perhaps they can't buy that new iPhone."

This sadly was not a misstatement, but rather it reflected the primary view that he and many Republicans have of poor people in America. To them "the poor" are lazy and waiting for handouts and are generally unworthy of pity or help. His statement was the modern equivalent of "Let them eat cake."

The sad truth is that Congressman Chaffetz, is within arm's reach of the American poor every day but he never sees them.

The real American poor is that 55 year old woman making minimum wage at the McDonalds he buys his coffee.

  • The real American poor is the man who comes in to clean his office at night.

  • The real American poor picked the lettuce and tomatoes, and worked at the pork packing house for his BLT for lunch.

  • The real American poor is the clerk at Nordstrom's where he buys his ties.

  • The real American poor put the new roof on his million dollar home.

  • The real American poor works at the carwash where his new car gets spiffed up each week.

Yes, the real poor are all around him but he just doesn't see them. They work just as hard (likely harder) than does Congressman Chaffetz. Why are they poor? He was born into a home rich in language and opportunity, rather than one marked by deprivation and struggle. When he was playing football for BYU on a scholarship, the poor were already working long hours to support themselves and their families. When he finished college he had family connections to a former governor where he got his foot in the political door. The poor simply don't have such connections.

No one wakes up and decides to be poor. On any given day most poor Americans are situationally in poverty. Due to unemployment, illness, divorce and a host of other reasons, they have fallen out of the middle class for a year or two; but with even modest help. they will be back in the middle class in a few years. The balance of the American poor were raised in poverty, as were their parents and grandparents.

The children of poor mothers have few chances to get ahead. The mother from a poor family has virtually no chance to move forward while she has children at home. There simply are not enough familial resources to make that happen. It is easy for those born into the middle class to smugly look down on the poor. However, I can assure you from my experience as a social worker, that if they were put in the shoes of most impoverished mothers, few "successful" people could dig out of the pit of poverty either. The challenges are too great and the resources available are too small. By resources I don't primarily mean government assistance, but family, community, personal connections, skill set, and credentials. However, that is why government assistance is essential. Most people raised in the middle class who fall in poverty get back out in a relatively short period of time. But those raised in poverty who make it to the middle class but then fall back into poverty, have a much more difficulty in making the same rebound.

When I refer to poor Americans don't think inner-city, but suburbs and small towns. Yes poverty is more concentrated in a handful of big cities, but most of the poor in America do not live in urban ghettos. Think about your town. Neighborhoods of small 1950's vintage homes, apartment complexes and in my area rickety trailers; this is where most poor people live. Though the living conditions are not nice, the poor pay far more than you might think to rent these places to live. One of the things I learned as a social worker is that for many things the poor pay more for the same thing than everyone else, housing, food, transportation, credit, and even health care. Those of you who have never been uninsured may not even know that hospitals and doctors charge the uninsured as much as twice what they charge those with insurance.

So, Mr. Chaffetz and all those who think like him, I would suggest that your vision of poor Americans is distorted because you don't see the poor all around you. You don't see them because to you they are not "people" but animated "things", whose sole purpose for being is to make your life easier. But you are wrong. This country was founded on the core principle that all people have equal value and are equally deserving of respect and consideration. Open your eyes, and see the poor all around you, and give their need equal weight as those who "matter."

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