American poverty is increasing the house, not just the backyard
An Op-Ed by Megan Balani
-Photo credit to The Economist
Though policymakers and the government claim to be on the side of Americans, it is becoming clear they are not on the side of all, especially of poor and minoritized groups. Poor and minoritized groups continue to be imprisoned and deprived of basic resources such as running clean water, food, and education. Those in the middle and higher classes may think “these issues do not pertain to us - why should we care?” But in reality, these issues pertain to all.
It is not something that happens in our backyard - it is in the house as Americans as a collective are robbed of millions of tax dollars, including the educated and healthy who can contribute to the economy. Fueling poverty not only puts minorities at a disadvantage but makes the whole country blindly suffer.
The first reason why the country is disadvantaged is that the US continues to focus on solving problems through the use of law enforcement and prisons in minority communities, but these resolutions end up causing harm and costing citizens billions of dollars. There is a large amount of money that is invested in law enforcement and prison systems, rather than in the rehabilitation and education of citizens. This method is both expensive and ineffective.
The US is “home to the largest prison system on the planet, with a rate of incarceration that is five to ten times higher than that of comparable nations” (Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Drugs: 5). The country’s “prison system costs taxpayers $80 billion annually and has become such a paramount component of domestic social policy that states like California and Michigan spend more money on imprisoning young people than on educating them” (Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Drugs: 5). These systems continue to add to minority generational inequality. As minorities continue to be deprived of accessible education (a major contributor to human capital), their human capital decreases. Having a prison record is often a permanent stain on someone’s character, decreasing their chances of getting an education or a good job.
In addition, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) uses at least $15 billion of taxpayers’ money to expand America’s carceral state, which is prisons and jails. These investments go into “the police, sheriffs, and marshals responsible for law enforcement; the judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers that facilitate the judicial process; and the prison officials and probation and parole officers charged with handling convicted felons” (Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Drugs: 2).
The second reason why the rest of the country is at a disadvantage is that minority communities will continue to be deprived of basic resources such as water, electricity, and education, which contributes to generational health issues and the inability to start building human capital. America will continue to be robbed of generations of healthy and educated minorities who could be able to contribute to the economy as well as their community.
The deprived resources came primarily from the GI Bill after the first World War. The bill was a re-entry program to allow honorably discharged (White) soldiers to receive a free education and a governmentally secure loan for housing (Lecture 13). In addition, the FHA (Federal Housing Administration) invested in housing for White people, creating Levittowns, which were essentially suburbs for White people. As a result, the minorities were left in the cities with little funding for sanitary buildings, access to food, and running water. There were community bathrooms, shared rooms, and paying the same amount for rent (Lecture 13). A whole demographic of people were not able to receive the same necessities to get their families out of generational poverty.
A common argument is that the poor have their own issues; that if the middle class and elites are comfortable, why should we care about the poor? They won’t go far anyway because poverty will always exist.
According to Oliver and Shapiro, 65% of White middle-class households can maintain their present living standard for at least a month, while “only 27% of the Black middle class has enough Net Financial Assets to keep up present living standards for one month” (Oliver and Shapiro, Black Wealth/ White Wealth: 99). White households possess nearly “10 times as much mean NFA as Black households. Nearly two-thirds of all Black households have zero or negative NFA” (Oliver and Shapiro, Black Wealth/ White Wealth: 100). When people are not given access to something as basic as an education, they have difficulty maintaining a basic standard of living. Taking care of the poor is necessary because ignoring their needs threatens our democracy.
Part of sustaining a democracy is giving access to education. In Georgia, 14.4% of White children received funding for their education, and only 1.5% of Black children received funding in 1935 (Katznelson, “When Affirmative Action was White”: 396). Black students are no less capable of doing well in school and receiving a degree. In “Race: The Power of Illusion: The House We Live In”, the intellectual superiority of White children is debunked. When you “compare a Black kid and White kid from the same wealth, rates of college graduation are the same” (Race: The Power of Illusion: The House We Live In, 2003). It is no longer a valid argument that non-Whites simply lack the innate abilities needed to excel.
The combination of extensive monetary investment in the prison system and significantly less investment in developing opportunities for minorities continue to bring minoritized families down. As a result, the American citizens are paying taxes for the downfall of minorities and robbing communities of the possibility of having enough upward mobility to positively contribute to the economy. The White elite and middle class do not experience the consequences of poverty just in their backyard - it is a part of their homes. Opening and helping minorities walk through the gates of opportunity — whether by giving communities access to food, running water, education, and jobs — will increase the standards of living for everyone as more people will be in a position to contribute to society.