Deep Poverty, Deep Deception: Facts That Matter Beneath The Imperial Helicopters
by Paul Street
June 18, 2003
An abbreviated version of these comments was presented at the Illinois Welfare Symposium
I want to open with five quotations, all from Texas Republicans, three from the president of the United States, that speak to the dark and dubious times in which we live. The first is from US Senator Fay Bailey Hutchinson, making her case for authorizing George W. Bush to attack Iraq last fall. At the end of a 5-minute oration that repeated many of the standard false reasons for assaulting that impoverished and defenseless nation, Hutchinson came to an interesting and grammatically challenged conclusion. "Mr. President," she said, "we are going to meet this test of our generation. We are going to protect the freedom and the way of life that the beacon to the world of the way life should be. We can do no less." (1)
The second quote belongs to George W. Bush and was made six days ago at the Chicago Hilton, where the president promoted changes in Medicare to move more seniors into the private, for-profit health insurance system. Making reference to his last visit to Chicago, when he came here to sell his latest regressive tax cut, Bush claimed that, "since I was here, thanks to the bravery of our military, the regime of Saddam Hussein is no more," and "the world is peaceful and free." "There are still terrorists networks which hate America," Bush claimed, "because of what we love. They hate us because we love our freedoms." (2)
The third quote also comes from Bush Junior and was made during his previous Chicago visit in January. Thanks to the efforts of its "business leaders and entrepreneurs," Bush told his audience then, "Chicago" is "a prosperous and energetic city." "We cannot be satisfied," he added, "until every part of our economy is healthy and vigorous." (3)
The fourth quote likewise comes from the lips of Bush the Lesser. It was uttered on the occasion of the national holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Junior, one week after Bush made public his decision to intervene against affirmative action for African-Americans at the University of Michigan. "Even though progress has been made," Bush told a black church last January, "there's more to do. There are still people in our society who hurt. There's still prejudice holding people back...There's still a need for us to hear the words of Martin Luther King to make sure the hope of America extends its reach into every neighborhood across this land." (4)
The fifth quote has recently been usefully rescued from the dustbin of history by the Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy. It comes from Bush pere, and provides some parental context for the sharp disconnects between some of these quotations and some of the facts and arguments I am about to present. It comes from 1988, when Bush the First was campaigning for the presidency and was asked to comment on the notorious Persian Gulf incident in which a US missile cruiser accidentally murdered 290 civil passengers on an Iranian Airbus. "I don't care what the facts are," the older Bush said, "I will never apologize for the United States." (5)
I'm not here primarily to debate foreign policy or the reasons that foreign terrorists do or do not hate us, but I do want to raise some questions about the extent to which America is a "beacon to the world" of the "way life should be." I want to present some facts from Chicago that suggest both the limits of Chicago's "prosperity" and the considerable extent to which American freedom is translating into the liberty to be desperately poor for a considerably and very disproportionately black share of our city's children. And I'd like to say an unpleasant thing or two about the extent to which the Bush administration is concerned with helping the "people in our society who hurt" or with and bringing health, vigor, and hope to "every neighborhood across this land."
The United States, the nation that shows the rest of the planet "the way life should be," is the industrialized world's most unequal state by far. The richest 10 percent of the population own more than 70 percent of the nation's wealth and the richest 5 percent of families receives as much income as the bottom 50 percent.
It would be one thing if this gross inequality were not accompanied by massive and increasing poverty at the bottom of the pyramid. But serious poverty is deeply, widely, and increasingly evident across the United States. Last year, as Hutchinson called us the world's role model, America's Second Harvest, the nation's leading food-bank network, reported that 23 million Americans relied on their agencies in 2001. The year before that, the United States Department of Agriculture reported that the number of Americans who were food insecure or hungry or at the risk of hunger was 34 million. And a couple of weeks before Hutchinson's speech, the United States Census Bureau reported that the proportion of Americans living in poverty had risen during the previous year to 33 million and from 11.3 to 11.7 percent of the population. (6)
There are two basic problems with using the poverty level to measure how badly poor people are faring in Bush's America. The first difficulty is that it is widely recognized to be an outdated and inappropriate measure of true hardship. Without getting into the methodological details, let me simply tell you that the official poverty threshold for a family consisting of one mother and two children in the United States is only $14, 494. I defy anyone here to try to live decently at that level in Chicago with just yourself and two children. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the real no-frills cost of living for such a family in Chicago, based on what the EPI calls a basic family budget (one that takes into account housing, food, child care, transportation, health care, and other necessities and taxes), was $35, 307 in 2001. The federal poverty level is only 41 percent of the real cost of being poor in Chicago. (7)
The second problem is that you need to break down the official poverty population to see who is suffering most. Break that population down by age and you quickly see that kids are significantly poorer than adults. Children make up 26 percent of the total US population but they make up 36 percent of the nation's poverty population. Here in Chicago, 19.6 percent of the overall population but 28 percent of the city's children were officially poor at the end of the 20th century.
Break it down by race and you find that the poverty population is very disproportionately African-American. In 2000, the poverty rate for African Americans was 22 percent, basically double the rate for the entire nation. Here in Chicago, the poverty rate for blacks is 29.4 percent and only 8.2 percent for whites. The poverty rate for black children in Chicago is 40 percent, compared to 8 percent for white kids. African-Americans from Chicago alone account for 23.4 percent of all the officially poor people in the state of Illinois. African-American kids from Chicago account for 29.4 percent of the state's poor kids.
Break it down by levels of misery and you find that a fair percentage of the official poverty population is extremely poor. More than 40 percent of the nation's 12 million poor children live in what researchers call "deep poverty," meaning that five million of those kids are actually living at less than fifty percent of the US poverty level. (8) Put differently, 7 percent of the nation's children live at less than one fourth of the EPI's basic family budget level.
Combine the factors of age, race, and poverty-level and you uncover some truly horrific facts. In a story that ought to have created a national sensation but quickly passed off the radar screen of public attention, researchers with the Children's Defense Fund reported last April that 1 million black children were living in deep poverty in 2001, up from "only" 686,000 in 2000 - an accomplishment certain to be deleted from George W. Bush's re-election resume in 2004. (9)
The CDF report sent me running to the US Census in search of the detailed data that would help me get a handle on the extent, depth, and shape of poverty in Chicago.
Let's look at some unpleasant facts of life, facts that ought to matter, in some of the neighborhoods that have recently been passed over by an openly imperialist president's awesome helicopter team (right over my own car at Roosevelt and Halsted Streets last week) twice in the last six months.
While 19.6 percent of Chicago's population lived in poverty at the turn of the millennium, I learned, more than half of that unfortunate group, 10 percent of the city's population, lived in deep poverty.
In Chicago as throughout the country, there's a strong racial dimension to this poverty all this. In Chicago zip codes that have an above average black population for the city, I found, 15 percent of the population lives in deep poverty. In the city's ten most African-American zip codes, each more than 90 percent black, 17 percent or more than one in six people lives in deep poverty.
My most disturbing findings relate to children. Overall, I learned, at the time of the last census, 103, 212 Chicago kids lived in deep poverty. In 15 of the city's 77 officially designated Community Areas, moreover, more than 25 percent of the kids are growing up in deep poverty. There are six neighborhoods - Oakland, North Lawndale, Washington Park, Grand Boulevard, Douglass, and Riverdale - where more than 40 percent of the children are deeply poor and in the last one (Riverdale) it's actually more than half.
All but one of these 15 neighborhoods are located in predominantly black stretches of Chicago's South and West Sides. The only exception is the Near North Side, which has Chicago's 10th highest percentage of deep poverty kids and anyone who knows the city can tell you that's because of the presence there of the Cabrini Green housing project. All but one of these community areas have a black population percentage that is considerably higher than the city average. All but three of them are at least 94 percent black.
There are eleven neighborhoods in Chicago with more than 3,000 deeply poor kids and two with more than 5,500 such kids. Forty-three percent of the city's deeply poor kids are found in those eleven neighborhoods.
It should be remembered that these numbers come from 2000, at the peak of the longest period of continuous American economic expansion since the 1960s. They understate current misery in Chicago. Things have certainly gotten considerably worse, poverty and child poverty have certainly widened and deepened in, Chicago, during the last two and half years.
Bush didn't lie when he said that there are "people in our society who hurt." He was right when he cited Martin Luther King to advocate extending hope to all the nation's neighborhoods. But these sentiments are meaningless and disingenuous when they came from the White House. There isn't a single policy initiative emerging from the current party in federal power that is seriously or sincerely designed to alleviate the enormous, racially disparate "hurt" that is deepening in the American inner city, beneath the fleeting shadows of the president's imperial helicopters. When we look honestly, in fact, we see that the trend of policy and politics is moving in precisely the opposite direction. We see a radically regressive rightwing political and policy juggernaut, falsely labeled "conservative," that is boldly determined to shift society and government once and for all away from expanding the public good, away from protecting children, and away from providing for the welfare of any but the privileged few.
The disturbing facts of neighborhood poverty that I just presented matter quite a great deal to most, probably all, of us here today. But to the key players in the current rightwing Beltway regime and their allies, such facts are irrelevant or at best a nuisance. The basic world view driving this attitude is summarized quite well in a recent comment by Debbie Riddle, a Texas Republican state representative, who can't shake the lingering specter of Communism more than a decade after the end of the Cold War. "Where," asks Riddle, "did this idea come from that everybody deserves free education? Free medical care? Free whatever? It comes from Moscow. From Russia. It comes from the pit of hell." Also relevant is the recent remark of Grover Norquist a leading right-wing political strategist in Washington D.C. "My goal," says Norquist, "is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." (10)
Of course, Norquist's followers target some parts of "government" for downsizing a little more energetically than others. They are most concerned to dismantle the parts of the public sector that serve the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority of the American populace. The parts that provide "free" service and welfare to the privileged and opulent minority and dole out punishment to the poor are reserved from the budgetary axe.
The juggernaut's notion of a noble public work is to build yet another prison (there are many of these in America, the world's leading incarceration state), to attack and occupy a harmless but oil-rich nation halfway across the world, to build another expensive, military base in yet another distant corner of the planet. Its core mission, its very raison d'etre, is to concentrate wealth and power yet further upward, not to alleviate poverty and other and related forms of misery amongst the people. It's pretend idea of a meaningful response to Martin Luther King's clarion call to extend hope is yet more regressive tax relief for the wealthy few, yet harsher work requirements for the nation's deeply more kids' welfare moms, and the insincere, victim-blaming insistence that marriage is the solution to poverty.
This political and policy regime is all about destroying hope and deepening despair among the people we care about in the urban social service and advocacy community. Under its rule we are witnessing a government that is nullifying its own charter social contract, poisoning democracy, and criminalizing and militarizing social problems at home and abroad.
We will never make serious progress against the problems that activate us without directly engaging this regime and the overall system of inequality and power that gave rise to it.
Paul Street is an urban social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of "Marriage as the Solution to Poverty: Bush's Proposal for Welfare Moms and the Real White House Agenda," Z Magazine (April 2002): 33-39 and "Beacon to the World?” This article first appeared in ZNET. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. United States Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Senate Floor Speech, Congressional Record, Proceedings and Records of the 107th Congress, Second Session (October 9, 2002), p. S10149, available online at http://hutchinson.senate.gov/speec274.htm.
2. George W. Bush, "Remarks to the Illinois Sate Medical Society" (June 11, 2003), available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/06/20030611-4.html.
3. George W. Bush, "Remarks to the Economic Club of Chicago (January 7, 2003), available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/01/20030107-5.html.
4. Sean Loughlin, "Bush Honors King: Tribute Comes Amid Renewed Debate on Affirmative Action," CNN.com/Inside Politics (January 21, 2003), available online at http://www.cnn.com/2003/ALLPOLITICS/01/20/politics.mlk/
5. Bush pere is quoted in Arundhati Roy, "Instant Mix Imperial Democracy (Buy One, Get One Free), Speech delivered to the Riverside Church, New York City (May 13, 2003), available online at http://www.commondreams.org/views03/0518-01.htm
6. Robert Pear, "Number of People Living in Poverty Increases in US," New York Times (September 25, 2002); Food Research and Action Council, State of the States (2001), available online at http://www.frac.org/html/federal_food_programs/states.us.pdf;
7. Economic Policy Institute, Hardships in America: The Real Story of Working Families (Washington D.C.: Economic Policy Institute, 2001), pp. 1-43, Table A4.2.
8. Robert Rector, "Despite Recession, Black Child Poverty Plunges to All Time Historic Low," Heritage Foundation (September 27th, 2002), p. 5, available online at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Welfare/BG1595.cfm
9. Sam Dillon, "Report Finds Number of Black Children in Deep Poverty Rising," New York Times (April 30, 2003).
10. Riddle and Norquist are quoted and cited in Henry Giroux, "War Talk, the Death of the Social, and Disappearing Children: Remembering the Other War," Cultural Studies Conference, Pittsburg, PA (June 5, 2003), in the author's possession.