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The rise and fall of poverty in America

Millions of Americans live in poverty
Millions of Americans live in povertyPhoto by John Moore/Getty Images

What happens in Washington can change lives thousands of miles away, whether people realize it or not. Ideally, elected representatives work on laws intended to make the lives of their constituents better. However, that has not been the case of late.

Budget cuts to food stamps and unemployment benefits are having a real effect on American families; they are sending more of them from the middle-class into poverty.

The Republican leadership leading the charge on stark austerity measures claim they will eventually lead to prosperity for more Americans. Precisely how and when remains vague. In the meantime, while millions find themselves unable to find work and with government assistance cut off, the lofty idealism of smaller government is actually creating more poverty in a nation with more millionaires than any other on earth.

The policies being implemented by congress today heighten awareness of the income inequality that has burgeoned since the economic meltdown of 2008. In the years since, the wealthiest Americans have reaped the rewards of economic recovery, while millions of others lost their homes, jobs, and hopes for the future.

There has been no massive bailout for struggling Americans. That was reserved for Wall Street and too big to fail banks. Instead, average Americans are being told by their leaders in Washington that nothing is stopping them from economic prosperity but their dependency on government. Those ideological words may resonate with some, but for the jobless and working poor they represent hardship and more poverty.

The Ventura County Star reports, “The percentage of California children living in poverty has soared by 21 percent since the start of the Great Recession in 2008, and more than 1 in 5 children live in households with incomes below the federal poverty threshold.”

But it’s not just California facing more poverty. Hunger in America has become an epidemic. In 2010, a record-breaking 17.2 million households were food insecure, and poverty has overtaken 46.9 million Americans. Poverty rates have not been that high since the 1950’s.

According to the Federal Reserve Board, “Using market income (or wages), inequality and poverty rose sharply between 2008 and 2010… Since 2009, as the economy has grown slowly, inequality has risen for all groups, and poverty remains high for the working-age.”

During that same period of time, congress has implemented an increase in austerity measures targeted at low and middle-income workers. The result has been the creation or exacerbation of poverty rates directly related to congressional action. Government’s role in poverty creation and reduction can be seen in this chart, which shows that in 1973, President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” had worked. But as subsequent administrations rolled back those policies, poverty rates soared.

While some may believe that programs that help the poor are just government handouts, they do reduce hunger in America. Therefore the difference in past and present poverty rates can be tied to attitude. There was a social contract between Americans and their government that created a safety net. Its object was to maintain a minimal standard of living in the country. As conservatism gained momentum among the electorate, it became politically acceptable to default on that moral promise.

On May 22, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson said:

The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community. It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what is adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.

In 2014, one can only ask, where did we go wrong?