When the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, who will be left to buy houses, go on vacations and spend the money needed to stimulate the local and national economies? The short answer is that it won’t be the poor, whose ranks are swelling; they will be left to live on government and philanthropic aid. By 2016, the richest 1 percent of the world’s population will have as much wealth as the remaining 99 percent.
We are learning more about the link between poverty and problem behaviors such as child abuse and neglect, low school graduation rates, chemical dependency, chronic unemployment and underemployment, and crime. It is an established fact that jails and prisons are filled disproportionately with the poor and uneducated.
The United States is a leader in aerospace, science, technology and business, but unfortunately, our country leads in another area and that is poverty. One in three children lives in poverty in our country. Other first world countries that exceed our poverty rate are Greece, Latvia and Spain. Peer countries that fare better than the U.S. include: Canada and France, both with 25 percent, Germany, with 17 percent, and Norway, with only seven percent of children living in poverty.
Why is it that the U.S. poverty rate exceeds our peer nations? Is it that our poor are simply lazy, uneducated and unmotivated, or is it the way we have deployed our resources? And, is poverty really a contributor to problem behavior or is it just an excuse? After all, many of us grew up poor and had successful careers.
The disparity between the rich and poor hasn’t been greater in the U.S. since 1929. Today, the assets of 400 of the wealthiest Americans equal those of 154 million other Americans, making U.S. wealth distribution one of the most unequal on earth. Grossly unequal wealth affects children and families in Olympia and throughout Washington, in part because of the high cost of housing relative to stagnant wages.
As middle class homes were foreclosed on during the Great Recession, more people moved to the rental market. This placed the new poor into a classic supply-and-demand vise that resulted in escalating rental costs while wages remained low. In Olympia, and throughout the country, governments were compelled to invest in low income housing. To do otherwise, would mean more people living in the woods, on our city streets or in unsafe housing.
A recent study revealed that it takes 1.5 minimum wage jobs to support the average two-bedroom apartment. The high price of housing is another factor that plays into the need for more emergency shelters, such as those provided by the Salvation Army, Interfaith Works Emergency Shelter, and Community Youth Services’ Young Adult Shelter. The alternative to offering new shelter beds is more deaths and crime among the marginalized.
Incarceration is another area in which the U.S. leads the world, placing a close second to Russia. Our peer nations incarcerate at half the rate of the U.S. Ask Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza what percentage of his jail population is poor and he will tell you over 80 percent are poor, and 60 percent are school dropouts and have mental health problems.
This is my starter prescription for reducing the overall net cost of poverty while providing relief to the taxpayer:
Reform our regressive tax system which requires the poor to pay a higher percentage of their income to taxes than the wealthy. Move to a balanced and fair tax system that includes sales, income and property taxes. Since 1980 our tax system has taken more from the middle class and given the wealthy unprecedented handouts.
Decriminalize poverty and reduce the jail and prison population. Instead, we must provide mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Reinvest in our nation’s K-12 schools, and colleges and universities. Budget cuts have stripped funding from our education system and dramatically increased college tuition. College graduates now average $33,000 in debt. Medical school graduates often accumulate $200,000 in debt.
Economic development is a necessity as globalization has destroyed our manufacturing sector, leaving low paying service jobs in its wake. Reward people who work with the ability to live above the poverty line by increasing the minimum wage to $12 an hour with a $9 training wage for youth.
Our nation and state sit at a crossroads as we have permitted the special interests to dodge taxes, park massive amounts of money offshore and direct spending to unproductive sectors, while our poor get blamed for being victims of governance by the special interests.
Charles Shelan is the chief executive officer of Community Youth Services and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org