A life of poverty is not a gift

by on September 28, 2011 · 0 comments

in Economy, San Diego

By  Lucas O’Connor / Two Cathedrals / September 27, 2011

More than one third of San Diego County faced economic insecurity last year topping 1 million residents, and nearly one-in-five children lived in poverty according to a new report from the Center on Policy Initiatives released last week. It’s a boost in the overall poverty rate and children living in poverty, set against widening income inequality and poverty that impacts people of color at twice the rate of whites.

These stats are deeply troubling, but this isn’t just a San Diego issue. Our struggle with economic hardship is reaching existential proportions against a national backdrop that’s demonizing the safety net when we need it more than ever. 50 million Americans annually face not knowing where their next meal will come from, and an all-time record 46 million Americans are eligible for food stamps. Half of all children will receive food support by the time they reach adulthood, including 90% of black children and 90% of single-parent children before age 20. The Cycle of Poverty is passed down generation to generation without sufficient outside help, and these are just a few ways to see the cycle expanding to more and more Americans.

But this isn’t just an excuse to throw around numbers, stunning as they are. And it isn’t just an exercise in considering the civic morality of a community that not only allows but often exacerbates this economic arrangement, even though this systemic extraction of wealth to benefit a narrow elite amounts to little more than post-modern colonialism. It’s by way of illustrating the importance of not just creating any jobs or a nominal recovery, but actually rising to the challenge of creating a San Diego that allows people to both work and live. Because if San Diego isn’t a place that allows people an opportunity to earn a living, then what is it and why?

There’s a fundamental human dignity at issue here — not that it’s our responsibility to provide for everyone, but that it’s our responsibility to give everyone a chance, make of it what they may. CPI’s report finds that simply having a job doesn’t cut it — more than 100,000 San Diegans are employed and still living in poverty (not to mention the households that rely on their income). The economic reality in San Diego suggests that we’re not just failing to provide our neighbors the most basic elements of living, we aren’t providing them the opportunity. And anyone who thinks they aren’t a part of it, look back at that one-in-three statistic.

A lot of ingredients go into poverty, and just as many elements have to go into combating poverty. Even leaving aside the questions of basic dignity, there’s an economic argument that’s also important. The things that are broken in this economy won’t be fixed with half-measures and nominal solutions. Simply arguing for the creation of jobs, any jobs, doesn’t cut it if those jobs can’t provide a life. If we want an economy that works, it takes sustainable jobs that allow people to function in their community. Our safety net picks up the slack one way or another, no matter how successfully government is eroded by ascending near-anarchist right. If we don’t cover the gaps with food stamps, we’ll cover the gaps in the emergency rooms. If not in the emergency rooms, then in the public health implications of spiraling hunger and homelessness.

There are no remotely realistic solutions being put forth from conservatives on this problem. Despite their best efforts, regulations and uncertainty are not holding businesses back. But if uncertainty is such a big deal, then probably pension reform that disqualifies city employees from Social Security and de-stabilizes their retirement is exactly not the way to provide stability or certainty to anyone. Trying to legislate against the ability of employees to earn enough to live on would be exactly the wrong policy. Trying to pit the poor vs the even more poor just compounds the situation. And in the process, instead of real solutions, we kick the can down the road for the lack of vision, courage, or competence to take on the real issues. That, or more poverty and a wider income disparity is a feature, not a bug — compounding the Two Santa Claus problem.

Despite the best (or worst) efforts of many of San Diego’s institutional insiders, the city doesn’t work best when run by rich people, private corporations, and the elected officials who empower them for personal advancement. It’s not economic generosity that provides people the means to live in poverty-but-not-abject-poverty. It isn’t a triumph for people to occasionally have enough to eat instead of never. The foundation of recovery won’t be on evening out the number of necessities people have to learn to live without.

More evenly dividing less among more is not equity. It would be generous to even call it a new feudalism. But as long as we imagine less to be more, that’s all we’ll get.

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