The class warfare to fear is that stirred by poverty

Posted: September 25, 2011

Growing up poor isn't so bad. Most poor kids don't even notice it, since it's unlikely that their friends and neighbors are doing any better. But being accustomed to poverty doesn't excuse its existence.

As a child, it never struck me as anything other than normal that my brothers and I wore patched jeans.

I didn't care, but in retrospect I know my mother did. She took the time to sew the patches on the inside of our pants and used a darning technique to make the patchwork less visible.

It never bothered me that I always took a sack lunch to school. Mama's sandwiches were always superior to any cafeteria fare.

And if I wanted ice cream, I could earn 10 cents by selling a slice of my mother's cake that she always put inside our lunch bags.

I was a teenager before I even thought about my family's financial situation. My father had died, and the ladies of our church had chosen us as the poor family in the housing projects to take a Thanksgiving basket. I thought it was odd.

I'm not sure what my mother thought. She was a proud woman, so much so that she refused to go on welfare after my dad's death. She said social workers asked too many questions.

We lived on the Social Security benefits that my father had earned until Mama supplemented that income by doing domestic work.

Bringing these memories to mind is the latest Census Bureau report showing poverty in this country has increased 3 percent over the last decade. More than 46 million Americans are living in poverty, the highest level on record in 52 years.

The poverty rate rose from 14.3 percent in 2009 to 15.1 percent in 2010. The poverty rate for children rose to 22 percent from 20.7 percent. That's 16.4 million children living in poverty.

Republican leaders accuse President Obama of inciting class warfare by asking for higher taxes on the rich. But with one in five children and one in three women heading households now living in poverty, they should be more afraid that the wealth disparity in the country will spark a revolution.

And not all the turmoil will be in America's cities. Poverty in the suburbs has reached its highest level since 1967. Nearly 12 percent of suburbanites are classified as poor, up from 8 percent in 2001. The urban poverty rate is 19 percent.

With 20 percent of all American children now living in poverty, a new organization called Fight Crime: Invest in Kids is warning that the consequences might include an increase in crime down the road.

The group representing more than 5,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, and prosecutors is urging more investment in high-quality early care and education programs to offset the impact of poverty on children. Of course, that requires more of the government spending that tea party types decry.

In fact, the conservative Heritage Foundation's response to the new poverty figures was to ask, So what?

Robert Rector, a senior research fellow, said many among the poor aren't really poor because the Census Bureau doesn't include the welfare assistance they receive in calculating their incomes.

As he sees it, if a family has food, clothing, and reasonable shelter, it isn't really poor. Rector said 83 percent of poor families report they have enough to eat and 96 percent have never been homeless, so he doesn't consider them to be poor.

"Gross exaggeration of the extent and severity of hardship in America will not benefit society, the taxpayers, or the poor," Rector said.

I guess his point is that poverty is relative, and I can agree with that. In the Dominican Republic, I saw poor people who seemed affluent compared with the Haitians who crossed the border between the two countries that share an island to beg, unless they found work.

In Ethiopia, I saw old women struggling under the weight of the bound sticks they carried on their backs to sell as firewood. They didn't seem unhappy, or concerned that the tourists taking photos were better clothed and fed than they could ever hope to be.

Like my brothers and me as children, they weren't spending a lot of time thinking about how other people live. But in America, we should do better. Here, the poor shouldn't have to acknowledge their poverty and start begging, or worse, for more attention before the rest of us do something to help.

The most prosperous country in the world cannot be satisfied that any percentage of its children lives in poverty. It may be unrealistic to believe all signs of poverty can be eliminated, but additional measures should be taken to keep the number as low as possible.

That's no easy feat coming out of a recession's grip. But the task is made more difficult by irresponsible politicians and their dupes who continue to defend the rich in what has proved to be a vain effort to get corporations to spend more of the cash they're sitting on to create jobs.

Over the years, I have learned that the poor can be rich, and the rich poor. For example, a rich man once complained to me that it had become too expensive to take his extended family of about 25 on their annual ski vacations. I nodded in sympathy, trying to see things from his perspective.

It's time to put more focus on the perspective of America's poor. They may not be as deprived as poor Ethiopians, or Dominicans, but by American standards, they need help. The class warfare predicted by Republicans may be far-fetched, but it's not unrealistic to expect the continued growth of this country's wealth gap to produce some type of strife.


E-mail Harold Jackson at hjackson@phillynews.com or follow him on Twitter @harjerjac.

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