When the Refrigerator Is Empty: Thinking About the Census Poverty Report

7 years ago

Once there was a Barbie doll who, thanks to feminist activism, was taken off the market. She said this awful phrase, "Math is hard!"

Sexism notwithstanding, math is hard for many people, but some math is undeniably clear: Such as over 43 million Americans live in poverty. We all can agree that is "too much, too many."

Last month, The United States Census Bureau released a report on Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States, found here: http://www.census.gov/prod/2010pubs/p60-238.pdf

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 28: A unemployed man holds a cup of coffee on September 28, 2010 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. A new report released by the U.S. Census Data shows that the income gap between Americans is greater than at any other time on record. The report found that the top-earning 20% of Americans received 49.4% of the country's total income. Conversely, those living below the poverty line earned 3.4% of the national income. This is the highest disparity of wealth among all Western industrialized nations.

Although this report was released without much fanfare on September 16, it includes some extremely alarming information about the conditions under which many Americans are living. The Census Bureau found that in 2009, there were 43.6 million people living in poverty. This is the highest number of people found to be living in poverty in the 51 years in which the Census Bureau has been collecting information on poverty, and a jump from the poverty rate of 2008 (14.3% vs. 13.2%.) There are still significant gaps in poverty along the lines of race and ethnicity (for example, 25.8% of Black people, 25.3% of Hispanic) and region, with southerners most likely to be living in poverty.

Such high rates of poverty should concern all of us, but they have particular impact upon American women. Research shows that women in the United States tend to be the primary caretakers of children, and the report found that one fifth of American children are living in poverty. Hence, women are largely bearing the burden of trying to provide nutrition, shelter, and basic material necessities for children under incredibly adverse conditions. Moreover, in 2009 the poverty rate for families in which women were the heads of household and no adult male was present, was 29.9 percent, the highest of all family structures. Single mothers are bearing some of the greatest burden in this economic downturn. This is due in part to how income inequality persists. As the report shows, women who work full time continue to make 77 cents on the dollar as compared to men who work full time. These gaps are even more significant when we consider how often women are employed part time because of their familial responsibilities.

Not only are a growing number of Americans poor, but we often have impoverished imaginations when it comes to responding to the lives of the poor. There is a good deal of conversation on television, in books and in the blogosphere, which insensitively blames the conditions of the poor upon the poor. We imagine them in a narrow fashion (lazy, indulgent, irresponsible) and are not attentive to their realities (hardworking, struggling, vulnerable), nor are we imaginative about how to respond to their realities.

Sadly, many Americans no longer have to imagine living in poverty as those who were formerly middle class are today learning first hand how challenging it is to be poor, and just how hard the working poor actually work for a subsistence existence. And then there are the folks who have been poor for generations, who are falling from making do, to hardly surviving.

All over the world, there is growing recognition that poor women are often key sources of knowledge and power for transforming conditions of suffering and inequality. The careful management of limited resources, the balance of work and domestic responsibilities, and the role of nurturer and nourisher against all odds are all skills poor women cultivate, and skills which frankly we all must emulate in these challenging times.

But we must also support poor women, men, children and families. For example, in Massachusetts, physicians who offer prescriptions for fresh farmers market produce, provide poor families with an opportunity to improve their health, resilience, and reduce medical costs to themselves and the society at large. See this article for a description of this program: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/13/business/13veggies.html

While this census report is devastating, it also should motivate us. In each of our communities there are possibilities for sharing resources in ways that directly improve all of our lives, and cut against the harshest effects of poverty. Volunteering in impoverished schools, supporting food cooperatives, and urban food gardens, sharing transportation and child care resources, providing service to local community based organizations that serve the needs of struggling neighborhoods, are but a few possible ways to be involved. Moreover, we ought to hold our representatives at the state and federal level responsible for responding to what is undeniably a crisis in the well-being of our society. Women’s culture, across the globe, has been distinguished for nurturing the art of sharing and collaboration. Girls are reared to care for and work with others, and because of this, women are often best equipped to lead at these practices. Now more than ever, we need to make that giving, sharing, collaborating behavior the norm, and bring it from inside our homes and our intimate worlds, out to the society at large.


Imani Perry is a professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. Follow her on twitter: @imaniperry

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