We gauge conditions of being financially uncomfortable by something called a poverty rate. The poverty rate is defined as the percentage of the population living below poverty level. Poverty level is defined as that level when a person or family’s income is so low that stress in being able to provide basic necessities (food, clothing, shelter) is felt; at times, acutely. As of 2015, 13.5 percent of Americans (43.1 million) live below poverty level—more children than women, more women than men. The statistics are staggering: blacks, 24.1 percent; Latinos, 24.1 percent; Asians, 11.9 percent; whites, 9.1 percent; and 33.6 percent of these numbers are children—living all around you. Academics Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, authors of the book $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, report that there are nearly 1.5 million American households with practically no cash income at all. New Orleans fits quite comfortably in these parameters.
I was raised in the projects in the 1940s and 50s by a single parent relying on public welfare, healthcare, and education; five kids, the whole nine yards. The projects’ tenants were the elite of the neighborhood: all around us, families were poorer. And surrounding us all were people not so poor. The economic checkerboard of neighborhoods was a constant reminder of who the “haves” were and who the “have-nots” weren’t, and if we were the have-nots, our neighbors were the have-nothings. We’re talking the literal definition of the word poverty. Like it or not, every society maintains a percentage of their population in poverty. Somebody’s got to perform cheap menial labor.
We were adequately schooled; any better education and we might have aspired to greater heights. Our heroes were sports and cinema stars, musicians, and criminals, who had made a name for themselves and whose lifestyles we could emulate but never attain. In our later teens, we were pushed from school to enter society. Our choices were: military (or prison) uniforms or to follow in our parents’ footsteps and enter the world of the “working stiffs,” whose sweat greases the wheels of this great society. These were our rites of passage into adulthood and the only options when and where I was growing up. Being poor meant staying poor and raising your children to perpetuate this system of poverty—the norm. The advantage my family had was that we were white.
When I came back to New Orleans in the late 90s, I found that little had changed from the 60s and 70s; there were still, at the close of the 20th century, moral, physical, and economic depression in the city. The Big Easy. Even today, 15 minutes from the mayor’s office, citizens are living in abject poverty. Let’s define that condition as I see it.
We’ll disregard, for the moment, the homeless, those in shelters, squatters, and tenants in our “new” projects; although these segments do round out the picture. State subsidized nursing homes, where tenants receive $38 a month to live on while having all of their other monies taken away, is another form of poverty, but not what I’m speaking of here. To define poverty, we’ll begin by pointing out what it is not. Being poor isn’t necessarily living in poverty. Having secure employment and worrying about your financial prospects, your kid’s school choices, your mortgage, credit card debt, the note on your car, seasonal clothing; or choosing a dentist, cleaning woman, or hairdresser are very real concerns. However, while those things might keep you broke, it is NOT poverty. Over 20 percent of New Orleans families of four living on a cash income of $10,000 a year or less is poverty (Pew Research).
Anxiety about whether you’ll be evicted for non-payment of rent because you chose to put food on the table; fear of having your utilities cut off; whether the person who brings home the household’s money can/will have and keep a job; struggling, hustling, and scraping just to get by IS poverty. Having to take advantage of every free service (social security insurance, food stamps, food banks, emergency rooms, supplemental housing assistance) and then some, you live in survival mode.
To be clear, as a mother, not being able to afford adequate healthcare—that you supposedly have access to—for your children, not being able to plan a healthy parenthood, or, even worse, the fear of putting the father’s name on your baby’s birth certificate is real poverty, not only financially but emotionally and psychologically. As a father, even if you live in poverty, when your name appears on a birth certificate, you’re held liable for support. And as a consequence of non-payment, you could have your driver’s license revoked, effectively compromising everyone’s earnings and takings—father loses mobility, mother and child lose public assistance. That’s the Catch-22 of living in an America where the “have-nothings” are treated as lepers and parasites.
Having to take jobs at minimum wage (because you lack formal education or training) and then be able to live on that money and support a family ($15,080 yearly); not being able to pay for fundamental living necessities (gas, electricity, water, food) … THAT’S POVERTY. Being poor and living in areas where the lack of necessities is the norm—areas where crime is commonplace, addiction is not regarded as an oddity, the strong oppress the weak, contention is encouraged, and where there is no way out … that’s poverty. Of all New Orleanians, 25 to 30 percent live in poverty; 44 percent of children under 5 live in poverty. For a single parent not to live in poverty, he or she has to take in over $46,000 a year (an hourly wage of $22). These numbers are verifiable.
When I came back, I was informed that the majority of the students that were pushed through our educational system were graduating high school with a fifth-grade reading skill level. They are today’s parents and the dishwashers, porters, trash collectors, maids, fast food workers, lawn tenders, and minimum wage earners. Our city (and state) leads the country in teen unwed pregnancy, crime, obesity, African American incarceration/unemployment, and child hunger. Going to school is an economic family sacrifice at best and rent increases are routine and arbitrary. Poorer families are pushed out when “revitalizers” move into a poor neighborhood.
Dwell on this: I get home from work at 6:30 p.m., turn on the lights, and go to bed by 11:00 p.m.; I’m up two hours in the morning before leaving for work … and my electric bill is around $100 a month. Add to that the water bill, car insurance and repair, laundry, cable, food, rent, clothing, phone, health and dental insurance, the occasional movie or night out … and if I had to do that on $290 a week before taxes, what would I do? Where would I make my cuts? Adopt out my children? Quit eating nourishing food, abandon coffee outings, shaving, and bathing, turn in my cell phone, relinquish my pets, sell my soul, take a second job, rob a bank, take out a loan, get credit cards and max them, curl into a fetal position and beg God for mercy? Forget about holidays, vacations or birthdays; where would that money come from? I’ve been painted into a corner, trapped; me and the other poor schmucks who are your neighbors. And what can be done about it? Poverty sucks. And ironically, poverty fluctuates with the stock market. When the market went into recession in 2008, the poverty rate—over the entire country—rose and kept on rising until 2010 when it fell (slowly) back to 2007 levels.
There is a bill in the state legislature to raise the minimum wage; opposition, naturally, is split along party lines. State government doesn’t support it because they would have to give their workers a raise. And with the last governor having screwed us, leaving a huge deficit, it would mean that raising minimum wage would put Louisiana even more in the hole. So, once again, the little guy takes it in the shorts and is kicked to the curb, while all the authors of the bill want is a mere $0.75-an-hour raise. It would raise the minimum wage to $320 a week before taxes and that’s still poverty in New Orleans.
We can accept or reject poverty in America. We can give our extra money to build hospitals and feed the starving in other countries; we look at the pictures of abandoned and mistreated puppies and ignore our neighbor’s plight. It would seem that greed is what is responsible for poverty. So we should do something about eliminating that, beginning with ourselves and not accepting it in others—especially in the people who we put into public office. We can take part in our own recovery and, to paraphrase the man, declare that: “War (and poverty) is over … if you want it.”