I’ve been thinking a great deal about poverty lately. When people ask me why I am a liberal, it’s always this that comes first to my mind: the fact that in the richest country in the world there are so many people who lack access to basic economic and health security—and our systemic unwillingness to confront it.
The truth is that I’m doing better than I was before the recession. While some conservatives will no doubt see this as a sign of government spending run amuck, I’ve seen small, incremental increases in my teaching salary and I’ve picked up some independent, part-time gigs to add to the bottom line.
I’m not writing this to boast—or to suggest that I am currently more successful than others who are struggling because I work harder or am better in some way. I write it, because I think that I, like many other people, have not personally felt the impact of our struggling economy.
The fact is that the recession has been invisible to me—in my own life.
But at work, in the faces of students who clearly aren’t getting enough nutritious food to eat, who clearly don’t have access to basics like sundries and laundry, and who increasingly depend on services available at the school and the community, it’s impossible to ignore the crushing reality of poverty.
Whether it’s the Missoula Food Bank running short of turkeys for Thanksgiving, the new Census numbers showing a huge increase in poverty, homeless shelters overfilled with residents, or the ever-growing ranks of those who need to rely on food assistance, the evidence of the impact of the economic downturn is all around us, though many of us aren’t experiencing it.
As the gap between those who are making it and those who are not grows, we are undermining the very structure upon which our society became the greatest and richest country in the world. We’re undermining faith in the very idea that made America exceptional for so long, that effort and merit can result in greatness.
Telling people they just need to work harder may play well in a GOP Presidential debate, but try telling that to a child too hungry to concentrate. Or to a parent who has to decide between enough food and an educational opportunity for her child.
Those of us who are doing well might not feel these impacts immediately, but a future of increasingly economic disparity and diminished opportunity for all citizens presents a very real danger that we will never truly get ourselves out of this economic mess, one created by the very people who are still benefiting most from it.
George Packer, in a a stunning essay for Foreign Affairs, discusses this reality:
The surface of life has greatly improved, at least for educated, reasonably comfortable people — say, the top 20 percent, socioeconomically. Yet the deeper structures, the institutions that underpin a healthy democratic society, have fallen into a state of decadence. We have all the information in the universe at our fingertips, while our most basic problems go unsolved year after year: climate change, income inequality, wage stagnation, national debt, immigration, falling educational achievement, deteriorating infrastructure, declining news standards. All around, we see dazzling technological change, but no progress.
Every student whose potential we lose because of poverty is an incalculable waste and an infinite moral failure. Every bridge left unstable while billionaires don’t pay taxes weakens the structure and moral fiber of our nation.
As we head into this Thanksgiving, it’s worth taking a moment to be thankful for all that we have, but we can’t be satisfied merely with what we possess. We must recommit ourselves to the idea that our society is only as strong and healthy as its weakest members.
Let’s be thankful—for our friends, families, jobs, and everything that comes from them. But let’s also be mindful of those doing without.