Poverty: A Vicious, Systemic Cycle

In “What is Poverty?” author Jo Goodwin Parker uses accounts of her own life experiences to describe to us what it is like to live in poverty in the rural United States. The piece was written in the mid-to-late 1960s and it reads as if it were a speech delivered to a live audience. For Parker, poverty is a life of filth and disease, of exhaustion and exasperation, and of hopelessness and despair. The impact of her address lies in her use of sensory and figurative language to convey the sights, smells, experiences and sensations of her day-to-day struggle. Parker has “come out of despair” to tell us about the struggles of living in poverty in the hopes that they we be motivated to help people like her, but when she speaks on the subject it’s with a very matter-of-fact tone. She makes it clear that she doesn’t want sympathy, but rather for her audience to “listen with understanding.”

The horrors and difficulties of living in poverty are inconceivable to someone who has never witnessed or experienced them firsthand. Parker vividly describes the incredible filth she and her children live in – from the stained mattress whose sheets were cut up long ago to be used for diapers to the bugs in her food, clothes, hair, nose and everywhere else. She lives enveloped in the stench of rotting garbage, boiled onions and feces. Because she has no money for electricity, she has no hot water to cook or clean with and is constantly exhausted. All day she scrubs the rags her children wear with cold water and no soap, and all night she stays up watching the fire to make sure the house doesn’t burn down and her children stay warm. Parker has a case of worms, but no money for medicine. Her children are malnourished because the only food she can afford has little nutrients, such as cornbread, grits and oleo. Parker sums up the paradoxical desperation of her condition with the powerful statement: “Poverty is cooking without food and cleaning without soap.”

Once a person falls into poverty, these impossible circumstances make poverty virtually inescapable. She knows her children ought to go to school, and that she, too, would be much better off if she had graduated, but there are no school buses that reach her and school is much too far for her children to walk. Besides, her children are never healthy enough for school. They have worms, infections and pink-eye. Medicine to cure them costs money Parker doesn’t have and, again, the medical clinics are too far for her small children to make the trip. Parker once tried to get a job to try to lift herself up. She had to leave her children with their grandmother during the workday, who didn’t change the children’s diapers, clean their clothes, or keep them safe at all. Without anyone she could trust to watch her children, she had to quit her job. Parker had already deliberately sabotaged her marriage and ran her husband – the only person she might have been able to trust to watch her children – off, out of fear he might get her pregnant again and make an already impossible situation even more desperate. Forced to live off a meager seventy-eight dollars a month of financial assistance, she can barely pay her rent and heat enough water to cook and feed her children. She didn’t turn to the government for help until after her husband left. In one government office after another, Parker “spilled out the whole shame of [her] poverty all over the desk” between her and some government worker, whose replies and explanations Parker couldn’t hear “because of the red cloud of shame and the rising black cloud of despair.” Parker faces one catch-22 after another; the atrocious circumstances of her impoverished condition eventually render any attempt to improve them futile, and each futile attempt her hope diminished until none remained.

It is clear from both her tone and her explicit words that Parker has embraced despair. She dreams of a day when she might have money for decent food and medicine, for hot water and soap, but she doesn’t believe that day will ever come. She fears her sons will spend their lives addicted to drugs and alcohol, or in prison, or both. Her daughter will likely follow in Parker’s footsteps, burdened by children she can barely feed, fathered by men who ran away. There is no hope of change for the better, only the “black future” of poverty to look forward to.

In closing, Parker urges us to remember that she did not come from another time or place and that there are more like her all around us. Harkening back to the opening of her address when she told us, “I cannot use your pity,” Parker asks us to think of her and the rest of the impoverished with something she can use: anger.

And we should be angry. The late ‘60s, the time frame when Jo Goodwin Parker either wrote or delivered the address “What is Poverty?”, was one of the most prosperous economic periods in American history. The 1950s and ‘60s are known for being the days when a family only needed one breadwinner: a man with a respectable job (and they were abundant back then) could afford two cars, two kids, a stay-at-home wife and a house big enough to put them all in. It was the last time workers’ wages were still rising in accordance with their productivity, until they suddenly flat-lined in ’73. In the late 1960s, the United States had the best income equality and best-educated workforce of any nation in the world. Yet even still, as Jo Goodwin Parker’s address demonstrates, poverty was abundant.

What’s changed since then? One would think that such an advanced nation as the United States would have solved, or at least made some serious progress on, the problem of poverty in fifty years. Yet that’s not what the data shows. Poverty in the United States is just as prevalent as when Parker wrote “What is Poverty?” While the official poverty rate in the U.S. has dropped – from 19% in 1965 to 15% in 2014 – once we put that rate into numbers of whole human beings, it is far from consoling. Over 47 million people struggled through 2014 in poverty, shamefully high in comparison to 36 million in 1965, and almost double the historic low of 23.5 million at 11.1% in 1973. The United States has the highest rates of child poverty of any first-world nation, with 21% of all children living below the federal poverty line. However, the federal standard, which comes out to just over $20,000 a year for a family of three, is artificially low; an average American family needs roughly twice that to make end’s meet, and based on these standards, the National Center for Child Poverty estimates that 43% of American children live with low-income families.

Perhaps it is time we finally accept and confront what Karl Marx tried so hard to explain to us over one hundred and forty years ago: the problem of poverty cannot be solved within the framework of the capitalist system because it is a both a product and an integral component of the system. While corporate profits, stock prices and CEO salaries continue to soar, the masses of Americans are struggling harder and harder. On February15, the stock market closed at record-breaking highs for the third day in a row, yet income inequality has reached historically disastrous levels. The top 1% on the income ladder in the United States now take in thirty-eight times as much income as those in the bottom 90%, with the top 0.1% of earners amassing over one hundred and eighty-four times the income of bottom 90% annually – a stratification that hasn’t been so severe since 1928, preceding the stock market collapse of 1929 and beginning of the Great Depression .  For over four decades, the American people have not seen an increase in their wages, yet productivity is as high as it has ever been. If there were a shred of truth to the capitalist dogma that higher profits correlate directly to higher standards of living, we would have arrived at the neoliberal utopia the politicians and CEOs pushing globalization and deregulation promised us a long time ago. The utopia is only for the rich, who can retreat to their high-rises and gated communities with filtered air, purified water and armed guards, and leave the rest of us fighting for scraps and crossing our fingers when we drink from the faucet.

To realistically confront the problem of poverty in America, and around the world, we need more than donations to charity or another government program. We need revolutionary systemic change that allows the masses to share in the abundance produced by increased productivity and advances in technology, instead of giving control of that surplus to a greedy minority. Anything less is a half-measure. Anything less still traps tens of millions in the same vicious cycle Jo Goodwin Parker was trapped in. The change we need will require courageous action and radical new ways of thinking. It will not come overnight. It will come as the result of many battles, losses and victories alike, over many years. And battles, as Parker understood, aren’t fought because people felt sorry, but because they got angry.

So, America, are you angry enough yet?