Saturday, October 17, 2015

Poverty and Homelessness in the Land of Plenty

I recently moved to Philadelphia and am living in what is called “center city.”  It is, for the most part, a lovely area of quaint, historic row homes, lots of character, plus a few parks and of course commercial streets.  But …

Philadelphia is the 5th largest city in the U.S. with a population of over 1.5 million.  Yet in many ways, it feels like living in a 3rd world capital.  Why?  The poverty and its impact on all parts of the city is overwhelming.

Of the top six US cities, Philadelphia has the lowest median income, the highest official poverty rate, and by far the highest percentage of black residents.

                                 Median Income     Poverty Rate   Demographics
                 Blk Hisp

NYC 50,711 21.2 26  26
Los Angeles 55,988 22 10 47
Chicago               38,625 23 32  28
Houston               42,877 22.9 24 44
Philadelphia 34,207 28 42  12
Phoenix               43,960 22.8   7  41

As the data show, Philadelphia may be the worst, but it’s just a matter of degree.  All these cities have serious problems with poverty and homelessness.  The difference is that I lived in Chicago for almost 30 years, and have spent a good bit of time over the years in New York, and I have to say that I have never seen (as in, “in your face”) so many homeless people, such poverty, and so many angry young boys.

How can a nation as rich, in every sense of the word, as the United States and the leading democracy in the world accept a poverty rate that is this high?  Compared to the other 31 OECD (developed world) countries, the US has the 3rd highest poverty rate … and that is with “poverty” being defined the same way for all countries.  Using their definition, the US has a poverty rate of 18%.  The median poverty rate for all these countries is around 10%.

How can we accept the problem of homelessness?  How can we not respond to the suffering of the homeless?   How can we accept that almost 1 in every 5 people, 1 in every 4 children, live in poverty in the US?  Those numbers are huge! Yes, the poor have access to consumer goods and other elements of modern life … as some point out who would argue that poverty in the US is not really that bad … but the poverty they face is soul-crushing nevertheless.

In one sense, every city should be like Philadelphia because the problems are impossible to ignore.  And if they were, I can’t believe that attention wouldn’t be paid to remediating these problems (poverty can’t eliminated).  But for the wrong reasons, unfortunately, and so the “solutions” would be wrong as well.  Attention would be paid because the homeless are discomforting, an inconvenience.  It’s an affront to our national pride.  And so the effort would be to get them off the streets, not to solve the problem of homelessness.

Where is our humanity?  The answer is that we have lost almost all of our humanity in our culture’s obsession with the “I.”  We seem to have no concern for how others are doing; our only concern is for ourselves and our immediate family.

The answer is not to build more shelters or increase welfare payments.  These efforts all rob people of any sense of self-respect and independence, which is why they fail.

This post is not about the government providing … whether it’s housing or money.  It’s about the government assisting people to fend for themselves, and to gain self-respect, through a combination of targeted education and jobs programs.  One  more change that’s needed in our approach to our fellow man and to government.  One more change that won’t happen until the power center shifts in Washington from corporations to the people. 

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