Dr. Marc J. Yacht: Our country’s shameful legacy of poverty

Poverty’s narrow definition relates to income and consumption but a much broader meaning is necessary to understand America’s poor. Federal guidelines qualify individuals and families by addressing income, but don’t provide an accurate depiction of needy families and their living conditions.

The better understanding of the poor must look beyond income and at the larger community: the quality of education, water, electricity, pollution, sewage systems, and residential living conditions. Do after school activities exist for children? Are there parks, community centers, local libraries, street gangs, drug abuse, and violence both domestic and crime-related? Poor neighborhoods are at greater risk for substandard living conditions and all play a role in defining the broader conception of poverty.

There is a need to look the behavioral and health aspects along with literacy rates, sociopathic behavior, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and a host of psychiatric disorders. The overall health and nutritional well-being are affected by inadequate health care and neglected resources to poor families. Are basic living requirements met? The ability of the disenfranchised to do things of intrinsic worth, their isolation, joblessness, homelessness, and concerns for safety expand the narrow definition of poverty.

Collective anger expressed by the poor affects the affluent. Riots and dissatisfaction are triggered by any number of events most likely occurring in poor neighborhoods but can relate to crime and violence in any neighborhood.  Poverty is not just about money but the overall quality of life that poor people experience. Vented anger and destructive behavior are too often expressed by the communities’ poor, often by young people who have little difficulty expressing frustration. Their crimes relate directly to gross neglect.

Protests had been relatively dormant since the 1960s, but within the past decade protests and urban revolts have been making a comeback. According to a research brief, between 1958 and 1968, 329 urban rebellions took place in 257 U.S. cities, resulting in nearly 300 deaths, 60,000 arrests, and hundreds of millions of dollars in property loss. The importance of understanding the reason for such destructive behavior is critical to quelling unrest. Law enforcement is not enough. The perpetrators of violence argue such behavior necessary for attention to the issues of unemployment, needed equity, economic distress and the myriad of problems associated with poverty.

In 2013, 45.3 million American families lived in poverty. This is up from 37.3 million in 2007. With the current approach to meeting the needs of poor populations the numbers are growing. A different paradigm is needed to find solutions for America’s under-served and shrinking middle class. Poverty and violence are intertwined. Addressing the former will reduce the danger associated with brutal unrest.

Answers are complex and require looking at basic household necessities and safety nets to assure them. There are regional differences. A Canadian study suggests the list includes food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, personal care, essential furnishings, transportation, communication, laundry, home insurance and miscellaneous needs. Adequate social services to single parent families, domestic violence issues, and adequate day care are critical. Living wages, self sufficiency, jobs, dental and mental health services add to the mix of needs that must be available to depressed communities.

Many conservatives and liberals alike are suggesting a straight cash subsidy guaranteed to everyone. Because of improving technology, there may not be enough work to assure adequate employment for everyone. That issue touches all income levels. A $15,000 subsidy for every household would provide a financial floor to assure basic needs. This would prove more cost efficient than the myriad of programs to address the nation’s poor. Switzerland, for instance,  is considering a stipend of $2,600 a month to every Swiss resident.

The United States is a wealthy nation whose political gridlock continues to block critical solutions relating to infrastructure, education, healthcare, violence, mental health and poverty. Those issues are interrelated and require political maturity for resolution.

Dr. Marc J. Yacht is a retired physician living in Hudson, Fla.  This column is courtesy of Context Florida.  

Marc Yacht


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