Poverty and inequality are often treated as separate problems, requiring different solutions.*
To his credit, Peter Edelman understands the connections between poverty and inequality. Why, he asks, have we not achieved more as a result of the war on poverty?
Four reasons: An astonishing number of people work at low-wage jobs. Plus, many more households are headed now by a single parent, making it difficult for them to earn a living income from the jobs that are typically available. The near disappearance of cash assistance for low-income mothers and children — i.e., welfare — in much of the country plays a contributing role, too. And persistent issues of race and gender mean higher poverty among minorities and families headed by single mothers.
And so poverty continues to grow: in 2010, 16 percent of the U.S. population, or 49.1 million people, fell below the poverty line.**
We even know what to do:
make the rich pay their fair share of running the country, raise the minimum wage, provide health care and a decent safety net, and the like.
The fact is, growing inequality in the United States over the course of the past three decades has created a relative surplus population that just barely gets by on low wages (if working) and meager welfare benefits (for those who can’t work or can’t find a job). And the growing ranks of the poor have, in turn, served to keep wages low for everyone else, and to create more surplus for those at the very top.
In other words, poverty and inequality are connected because of class—the particular class ways the economic and social structures of the United States are organized. A tiny group at the top is allowed to appropriate and then decide how to spend the enormous surplus produced by the rest of the population. And the decisions they’ve made—in the economy and in the political realm—have meant more people falling below the poverty line (even when they work) and more inequality in the distribution of income and wealth (no matter how hard people at the bottom work).
I’m all in favor of what Edelman calls a “politics of honesty.” But that honesty has to start with understanding the class connections between poverty and inequality. That’s the only way we’re going to create an effective “politics of change.”
*Except, of course, in mainstream economics, where poverty and inequality are barely even identified as problems. This is even true today, in the midst of the Second Great Depression, when mainstream economists are obsessed with the issues of inflation and growth and rarely even mention growing poverty and inequality in the United States, much less the connection between them.
**That’s according to the new Supplemental Poverty Measure. The official numbers are 15.2 percent and 46.6 million, respectively.