Poverty in a Time of Thanks

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.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • Nicely written. One does not have to scratch too deep to uncover the poverty around us. Colorado now has more uninsured than ever before. Very few people have job security or good benefits, and those who do (usually government workers) are under sustained attack. There is tremendous jealousy in the private sector as they see their lives crumble.

    In the meantime, the socialist countries are doing just fine, quality of life very high, and amazingly, class mobility far greater than here. This is capitalism as it is supposed to work, cold and cruel and indifferent to suffering, while that is socialism as it is supposed to work, everyone guaranteed a slot at the starting gate.

  • “the socialist countries are doing just fine”

    Wistfully wishing belies reality. Ireland? Portugal? Greece? Italy? Spain? http://euobserver.com/843/114325

    With markets putting Spanish bonds in the cross-hairs, voters dismayed by the country’s economic situation are expected to eject the incumbent government in parliamentary elections on Sunday (20 November).

    Official opinion polls indicate a landslide victory for the opposition conservative People’s Party (PP) who are set to win an absolute majority of anywhere between 190 and 195 places in the 350-seat lower house – their best result ever.

    The incumbent Socialist Party (PSOE), in power since 2004, will according to the same polls not win more than 121 seats – their worst result ever.

    The economy has dominated the campaign. PSOE is widely being held responsible for bad management of the global credit crunch that burst the country’s housing bubble and put millions of people out of their jobs and, as a result, their homes.

    Unemployment today is at 20 percent – the highest in the EU. Almost half of all young people have no work.

    • I was not talking about political shifts, nor about fallout of the American housing bubble. I am talking about the general well-being of people. Here we are in a downward spiral. Not so in socialist countries. If fascists take power again, as seems the case in Spain and Greece, then indeed we can expect upheaval and turmoil. If the parliamentary systems are strong, they will be ejected like a dog who eats an orange rind.

    • I was not talking about political shifts, nor about fallout of the American housing bubble. I am talking about the general well-bing of people. Here we are in a downward spiral. Not so in socialist countries. If fascists take wowed again, as seems the case in Spain and Greece, then indeed we can expect upheaval and turmoil. If the parliamentary systems are strong, they will be ejected like a dog who eats an orange rind.

      • Mark, if there was widespread contentment with socialist rulers the voters would not be throwing them out: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57329233/leftists-get-the-boot-in-europe-amid-crisis/


        MADRID – Throw a dart at a map of Europe now and it takes expert aim to hit a country run by a left-of-center government, especially after Spain’s Socialists were emphatically drubbed out of power over the weekend.

        Although the shift to the right began years ago in such heavyweights as France and Germany, it is now all but complete three years into the continent’s grinding debt and economic crisis. Why? When times get tough — when “the cows get thin” as the Spanish say — political experts say edgy voters seek comfort with conservatives.

        “The center-right is the natural preference in times of crisis,” said Piotr Kaczynski of the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. “If you look at societies and how they make their preferences, they all tend to vote more conservative in times of crisis and more center-left in times of economic progress.”

        Granted, on the European Union map there are scattered spots of leftist liberalism. A new Social Democratic government runs Denmark, there is a center left government in Norway and there is a broad Social Democratic-led coalition in Austria. And the Socialists might beat conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy in France’s presidential election next year.

        But Kaczynski said there is no doubt the European left faces an uphill battle in re-establishing itself with an appealing message and the means to enact it, despite widespread disillusionment with go-go capitalism as seen in the Occupy Wall Street protests and Europe’s widespread anti-austerity marches.

        In Spain, voters enduring a 21.5 jobless rate ejected the Socialists and install the center-right Popular Party by a crushing margin in Sunday’s election.

        Voters dumped the Socialists in Portugal earlier this year and the Labour Party in Britain last year, in both cases shifting to conservative parties. A technocrat government has taken over in the last month from Greece’s Socialist prime minister.

        • Craig, the back and forth is to be expected. Of course they are going to try on different solutions to their problems, most of which originated in American banking circles and on Wall Street. Over the long haul, since the end of World War II, and excepting Spain (,which was fascist until the mid-70’s), these countries have pursued heavily socialist paths. These elections may indeed trim some benefits, but just as Spain threw out the right wingers when they helped Bush invade Iraq, so too will they react if the new leaders attack their basic social fabric.

          By the way, I was in Barcelona neon May 1 of 2007 and saw the Mayday parade. It was amazing in size, no floats or baton twirlers, just miles of people marching arm–in-arm. Unions there are well organized and have real power. One election will not change that.

          Put it this way: They are not going to toss out their health care systems and adopt ours, they are not going to privatize education, hey are not going to deregulate banks. There will be some seeking, but if it gets out of hand, they are toast.

  • Mark, you claimed that the socialist countries are doing just fine, but when confronted with the upheaval going on in Europe you come back with nonsense in defense of the ridiculous. The people living there say otherwise with their elections.

  • “Your comment is awaiting moderation.”

    This is happening with every comment I make here even those that do not have any links. What’s up?

  • Don, Mark, Craig… happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. And I leave you with this thought:
    “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
    Dwight D.Eisenhower

  • Nice read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing some research on that. And he actually bought me lunch as I found it for him smile Thus let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch! “No one can wear a mask for very long.” by Seneca.

  • Excellent read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch because I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thank you for lunch! “Life is a continual upgrade.” by J. Mark Wallace.

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  • Nice read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing some research on that. And he just bought me lunch since I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch! “The capacity to care is what gives life its most deepest significance.” by Pablo Casals.

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