Wednesday, October 15, 2008

On Poverty

October 15, 2008 is Blog Action day, committed to the discussion of poverty.

Where to begin? Causes? Resultant problem? Solutions?

These are just my random thoughts.

I've been a poverty lawyer for more than 30 years. I help low income (and no income) clients get access to justice by having me, a free lawyer, represent them in court. I only handle civil cases, and I work for a private non-profit agency that is one of hundreds of such organizations funded in part by the U.S. government's Legal Services Corporation.

Lawyers are not the first line of defense for poor people. They need food, shelter, clothing, medical care. The children also need free, public, appropriate education. These are critical needs.

But lawyers can help poor people use what little they have to get their basic needs met; can advocate for them to get benefits from programs that may help; and can try to protect them from being cheated out of the basic fairness of being heard when they are involved (or need to be involved) in some litigation.

As with all goods and services needed by the poor, there aren't enough poverty lawyers to do the job. And so we get put into the horrible position of deciding what is a "priority" and whose case isn't important enough for our limited resources.

Some have no sympathy for the poor. They view poverty as a result of laziness or stupidity or personal fault (criminal conduct, bad health habits). There is no doubt that there are lazy and stupid, the criminal and those who don't take care of themselves, among the poor. But these same attributes can be found among the middle class and the rich. These individual traits do NOT explain poverty.

The successful do not want to believe that the system that has allowed them to progress is somehow unfair. There is a resentment by people of means toward the indigent because, if the system is wrong, then their success isn't as meaningful; and a change in the system could also change their own personal fates.

Poverty exists throughout the world, and has existed throughout the centuries. In hindsight, we can easily see that the feudal system kept the masses in poverty and illiteracy --as a system. But we are blinded to the faults of our current economic system.

Our current capitalist system is definitely an improvement over feudalism. We have a larger middle class and some protections for the poor. But there is a staggering discrepancy between those at the top of the economic ladder and those at the bottom, and there is no real way to eliminate the bottom rungs. If those at the bottom manage to move up, someone in the middle will be moving down.

I don't have answers. I don't know what are solutions. (I'm not embracing socialism here because I'm not all that knowledgeable about the ins and outs of such an option.)

I only know that we must keep trying. We must recognize that poverty is with us, not because individuals are weak or bad, but because our system needs improving.


KAP said...

Did you mean to say "These individual traits do not explain poverty?

I'd update Winston Churchill's It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried. replacing 'democracy' with 'capitalism' and 'government' with 'economics'

Massive inherited wealth just creates a new nobility, with all of the accompanying excesses and attitudes.

Lil' Hammerhead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lil' Hammerhead said...

It's great that we live in a country where, through hard work and ingenuity, we can become wealthy. That being said, seeing that we live in a country of such wealth, and it is a country of overwhelming wealth, there is absolutely no reasonable excuse to leave those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, without good basic care. This includes healthcare, housing, nutritional care, educational support, etc. The only reason is greed.. and it is forwarded by the obtuse arguments, like "no big government", "anti-socialism", etc.

The longstanding conservative tenet of keeping government out of business is now awash. Government has, for all practical purposes, socialized, or at least nationalized banks (at least temporarily). If this type of government intervention in the banking industry is alright.. why isn't it alright where medical care is concerned? We've got millions of Americans unable to get proper medical care? It's an overwhelming national crisis? Right? Why isn't government intervening to make colleges affordable? Why isn't government putting acceptable resources towards poverty related programs?

The conservatives can no longer use their anti-government intervention, anti-socialist, anti-federalization excuses ever again. If they can throw taxpayer funds at the wall street and banking industry problems.. they can throw taxpayer funds at other serious issues.. like those related to the crisis that is poverty in America.

Hee Jae said...

What about the welfare system? Is it right that all benefits get taken away because you make $5.00 over the income threshold? How can people try hard to get out of poverty if the system doesn't allow people to excel? Some people choose not to work hard because they are worried about going hungry or homeless tomorrow by working a little bit harder.

Bon said...

Affluenza. It may be overly simplistic, but we need to define for ourselves what both poverty and wealth really mean. You're right Lil', we spend our money irresponsibly but I'm willing to bet that even if we threw money at the war on poverty we'd still need to make sure we had personnel who really CARE about addressing the deep issues of poverty. Issues like empowering people while giving them aide, providing affordable and adequate health care for all and monitoring the welfare system so that abusing the system doesn't happen.

Saipan Writer said...

Thanks, Ken. I've edited to correct omission.

Hee Jae, I see this all the time in my work. Some programs do have built in disincentives to individuals helping themselves-the dollar for dollar knock off of benefits. Others have tried to address this by continuing benefits for a time period before implementing the reduction in benefits, or reducing benefits but allowing some earned income to be kept without effecting the amount.

There's a new movement afoot to redefine poverty, so that people receiving benefits are not considered to be living in poverty. The contention is that not counting benefits when deciding who is in poverty hides the success of programs at combatting poverty.

I fear that it would be used to lessen benefits, saying that communities no longer have such high numbers living in poverty as to warrant aid, etc.

We need more effective reporting and clearly defined statistics on this, for sure.

There are lots of interesting discussions going on about poverty around the world. Check out the poverty-blog site that I've added a link to in the first sentence of the post for these.