Children of American poverty

In recent years, conservatives have decried the poor for being poor. Poverty in America, according to this logic, is produced by faulty sub-cultures, by flawed work ethics, and by immoral, or amoral social codes. People are poor, the argument goes, because they don’t have the drive to be anything else. In such an environment, talking about the struggling middle-classes is safe; but talking particularly about the poor, and about the conditions locking so many millions into poverty and near-poverty, becomes dangerous. Poverty is seen as somehow morally questionable; people in poverty as morally unsound.

Always a lazy argument, in recent years the “culture of poverty” theme has become simply untenable. In an era of mass unemployment, plummeting living standards for the working poor, collapsing pension systems, a stubbornly broken housing market, and frayed local, state and federal safety nets, blaming the poor for their poverty demonstrates a staggering moral blind spot.

Yes, at the bottom of the economy, much dysfunction exists – violence, addiction, mental illness; collapsed families, depression, sometimes criminality. But, as the stories chronicled on this website show, such behavior is more frequently the product of poverty rather than its initial cause. Of course, once entrenched, cultural dysfunction can serve to perpetuate poverty, to lock it in over generations, to keep already down-and-out communities prostrate. But, for policy makers and social workers looking to intervene against poverty, tackling the social dysfunction has to go hand in hand with pushing for social programs and economic policies that map a route out of poverty not just for individuals, but for tens of millions of Americans. Poverty has to be seen, in the aggregate, as a cause rather than a consequence of other ills.

Treating poverty as a disease, as something that somehow infects unfortunate or dissolute individuals, rather than as a product of deep political and economic inequities serves only to truncate our sense of the possible. Treat America’s sprawling poverty as a sickness, an epidemiological singularity, and the response can only be piecemeal, charitable interventions that channel largesse to individuals or families; treat it as a symptom of systemic breakdown, of large-scale economic failings and a massive malfunctioning of the political system, and the responses by necessity become larger, more ambitious.

Poverty is, in many ways, the American story of our time. Its reach is huge, and getting more so by the day. Its impact is corrosive in the extreme. In early 21st century America the numbers are staggering:

• Fifty million Americans living below the government-defined poverty line.

• More than forty million Americans reliant on food stamps to avoid going hungry.

• Fourteen million-plus Americans unemployed, and millions more either underemployed or so despondent about their job prospects that they have stopped looking for work.

• Three million homes foreclosed since 2006, with forecasters predicting another three million will be repossessed in the years to come.

• Fifty million Americans without any form of health insurance, at permanent risk of financial annihilation should they fall sick.

The Voices of Poverty tells the stories, in their own voices, of these men, women, and children. They are the voices of America’s invisible poor.

Visitors to the site can listen to a growing audio archive of interviews. As you listen, visit our maps, and explore the changing poverty numbers around the country. You can also put your own stories of hardship onto the site. The site is linked to photographic archives documenting poverty, as well as to sites dealing with specific poverty-related policies and networks engaged in working on solutions to some of the country’s deepest hardship-related problems.

Over the coming months and years, the site will grow to include stories from around the country.

In seeing the size of the challenge readers will be stimulated to place poverty back where it belongs: full-center in the American political debate. That fifty million Americans live in dire poverty, their economic security shattered, their prospects dim, ought to trigger both outrage and creativity: outrage that such a situation has been allowed to fester, to grow, for so long; creativity in that solutions to these problems have to emerge at every level of society – amongst the political classes, but also at the grassroots; amongst regulators and policy innovators, but also in classrooms, in community credit unions, in union halls and amongst the poor themselves.

Understanding modern poverty as a product of specific policies and specific failings of political will sets the stage for change; not the superficial changes embodied by soaring sound bites, but the kind of change that alters generations’ aspirations, that shifts a nation’s political priorities. That is the challenge, and the hope, embodied in these stories.