By David K. Shipler
Way back in the Dark Ages of 2008, when the stock market tumbled into freefall and the financial system congealed like a solidly frozen daiquiri, I had a theory. It turned out to be completely wrong—well, not completely, but correct only in a way I didn’t imagine.
I figured that the hardships of poverty, now spilling up into the middle class, would inspire the collective American passion for solving problems.
I thought that the politically-engaged keepers of the American Dream, experiencing for themselves the ravages of joblessness, homelessness, and helplessness that had long paralyzed the poor, would mobilize their country’s engines of repair. I guessed that as the poor began to look more like the rest of us—or we like them—the old habit of blaming the victims would yield to a new recognition that the ingredients of suffering were a bit more complicated.
The eligibility requirements for becoming poor were never quite what they seemed. You didn’t have to drop out of school, do drugs, or have a baby out of wedlock. You didn’t have to be black or Hispanic. All those ingredients increased your risks, but they weren’t prerequisites.
In fact, looking below the poverty line, you see a pretty diverse population. Non-Hispanic whites are the largest group, although their poverty rate of 7 percent is considerably lower than the 24 percent for both blacks and Hispanics. In the ranks of the poor there are almost as many high school graduates as dropouts—nearly 10 million compared with nearly 11 million—and almost 7 million who’ve been to college but lack a degree. If your family is poor and you have children out of wedlock, you’ve got a ticket into continuing poverty, but you’re not alone: Just over 50 percent of poor households are headed by single women, but most of the rest are married couples, whose poverty rate rises as the economy declines.
So the stereotypes should have peeled away as the Great Recession caught the middle class in some of the same dynamics that impoverished families have long endured. People who were once comfortable (and who vote at much higher rates than the poor) might have come to identify with those occupying the margins and the depths. No matter whether they’re chronically poor or newly poor, households with no cushion are vulnerable to the syndrome of interlocking ills, where one problem triggers and magnifies another and another like an ecological system gone awry.
Housing is a key link in this chain reaction. Its harmful conditions contribute demonstrably to health problems, psychological stress, and even child malnutrition. The savviest doctors know this and try to influence patients’ living environments, but after years of futile efforts in treating children with asthma, for example, the pediatric department at the Boston Medical Center enlisted lawyers to help doctors. Mold, dust mites, roaches, and other antigens at home exacerbate the disease, which can jeopardize a struggling family. Repeated asthma attacks mean that a child loses days at school, and a parent may lose a job for missing days at work. Emergency-room visits cost the medical system dearly. Pediatricians and nurses who take the trouble to contact a landlord are usually frustrated, and have marveled at how swiftly problems are solved when the call comes from an attorney.
Therefore, the idea of bringing lawyers into medical care has caught on, spreading across the country through the Medical-Legal Partnership Network, now counting some 235 clinics and hospitals that use attorneys either on staff or pro bono, for a range of tasks—not only to improve housing but also to get eligible people food stamps, child care, and other benefits wrongly denied.
There is no mystery about the interacting problems. We know that food shortages in impoverished households are worsened when no housing subsidies are available. We know that working poor families paying market rents in many parts of the country may have to spend 50 to 70 percent of their incomes on their apartments if they’re not in public housing or other government programs. Writing the rent check every month is not optional. You have no choice. You have to pay the bills for rent, electricity, water, gas, phone. The squeezable budget item is the part for food. Consequently, among low-income families, a high correlation has been observed between a lack of housing subsidies and underweight children.
This handicaps the country’s future, for malnutrition during a child’s early years, when brain development is at its most critical phase, can leave lifelong cognitive impairment. Learning capacity is diminished, school performance suffers, and therefore life opportunities are constricted. We know this, but do members of Congress?
Housing is relatively easy to improve; it just costs money. But it’s money we’re not willing to spend, and the Great Recession didn’t wake us up. Thanks to Republicans’ unwillingness to harness the nation’s financial power where it would count, and thanks to Democrats’ lack of spine in standing firm on sensible priorities, government housing programs “will be contained, controlled, and cut back,” according to a budget analysis by the Citizens Housing & Planning Council in New York. Funds for housing in the stimulus act will end, community development block grants are on the chopping block, and public housing operating and capital grants will be reduced just when significant increases are needed.
Cuts in other programs as well, including nutrition, job training, and education, are likely to weaken the American economy in the long run. It’s an odd policy for a country that touts its economic prowess. It’s as if nobody had come up for air and looked around at the acute competition in a ruthless global economy—not a welcoming place for an underskilled workforce.
And that’s what the United States has: an underskilled workforce. We can see this in the chilling data from our own studies, notably the Department of Education’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which tests a large sample every decade, most recently in 2003. Then, about 55 percent of adults could not total the cost of office supplies ordered from a catalogue, or read a prescription label and understand when to take the medicine in relation to meals. Some 43 percent couldn’t read a want ad and summarize the experience required for the job, 34 percent couldn’t follow directions on a map, and 22 percent couldn’t take an hourly wage and figure weekly earnings.
So I was wrong. I thought as the hardships trickled up from the poor into the middle class, so would the will to address them. I figured that if altruism weren’t enough, self-interest would spark a spirit of shared sacrifice motivating Americans to focus their government’s power to fill gaps in the private economy. Instead, the only people who gained from the trickle-up theory were the recipients of government bailouts at the very top of the financial hierarchy, which housed those who got us into the mess in the first place.