By Ben Cohen: When faced with a serious problem, it is always crucial to understand exactly what you are dealing with in order to change it. The first step is an awareness of the problem itself – if you don’t see it, you can’t fix it, and the problem remains. And if everyone is telling you the problem doesn’t exist in the first place, it can get so bad there’s a chance the consequences could be irreversible.
Poverty in the US is now so bad that it could be a permanent function of American society. If greater awareness isn’t raised, it may well become an acceptable norm that the political classes no longer believe needs redressing. The economic crisis in 2008 hit most people in America badly, but minorities and the working poor were dealt a devastating blow that has reduced their wealth in dramatic fashion. As the Nation reports, the crisis has reached epidemic proportions in 2012, and it’s not getting better:
More than a quarter of blacks and Latinos live below the government-defined poverty line (about $11,000 per year for an individual, $23,000 for a family of four), compared with 12 percent of Asian-Americans and slightly less than 10 percent of whites. Among African-Americans and Latinos, the slide into poverty has been marked by a concomitant collapse in assets. This past July the Pew Research Center released an analysis of government data that concluded that the median wealth of white households was a staggering eighteen times that of Hispanic households and twenty times that of African-Americans. Fueled by disproportionate home foreclosures and underwater mortgages among these minorities, this trend indicates a reversal of decades of progress toward reducing such inequalities. “From 2005 to 2009, inflation-adjusted median wealth fell by 66% among Hispanic households and 53% among black households,” says the report, “compared with just 16% among white households.”
Worse than this, according to the Pew Research Center, more than 20 million Americans are living in what is referred to as “deep poverty,” – a term used to describe those with incomes lower that 50 percent of the poverty line. More than 16 million children in the United States (or 22 percent of the country’s children) live in poverty, the largest number since 1962 and the highest percentage in almost 20 years. This ‘deep poverty’ is so serious that it means millions of Americans don’t actually know where their next meal is coming from. The nonprofit Feeding America, a network of more than 200 food banks around the country reports, one in five children are at risk of hunger. For children in African-American or Latino households, the number is closer to one in three.
While the stats are getting dramatically worse at the bottom end of the economic spectrum, they are getting dramatically better at the top. From the LATimes:
The rich got richer over the last three decades — and the very rich got very much richer — according to a new government study.
The top 1% of households saw their after-tax incomes grow by 275% from 1979 to 2007, said the study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. That was more than quadruple the growth of the rest of the top 20% of the population during that period.
While the economy grew for everyone as a whole, it doesn’t mean a great deal when wages have not kept pace with inflation, meaning the poor may be richer in actual terms, but their purchasing power decreased. There is no sane explanation for millions of children not knowing whether they will eat three meals a day in a country where billionaire’s wealth has almost tripled over the past three decades.
Why is there no major outcry over this gigantic inequality and spiraling poverty? Why aren’t the major news networks covering food insecurity and interviewing the people actually affected by foreclosures? News networks spend a great deal of time following the back and forth between Republicans and Democrats and covering dramatic foreign wars, but not a lot of time on people suffering in their own country.
I remember an interview I did with Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi about his book ‘The Great Derangement’ that spent a great deal of time looking at poverty in America. I put that question to him and I’ll never forget his answer. He said:
Well poverty certainly is something you don’t get a whole lot of information about, for the simple reason that poor people turn off advertisers. That is strictly an economic decision with the media. I know this, I cant really get into the specifics of it too much, but let me just say that I do know a lot of TV reporters, who for instance, let me give you an example: I knew one guy who was doing a story and it involved a murder in a small town in Georgia, and there were a lot of poor people involved who were characters in this story, and they were talking a lot on camera in his version of the story. When he took it to his editors they told him to re-cut the story, and take the poor people out and have him do stand ups instead so that he would be on camera more and the poor inarticulate people would be on camera less. This is something that goes on all the time in the media, and it’s not because they have a political bias against the idea that there are lots of poor people in this country, it is just that it is a fact of economic life that when people see wealth on TV, they are inclined to buy more and when they see depressing images, they are inclined to buy less. That’s why golf, for instance, is such a popular sport on television because it is a sport where you tend to see lots of upper class people in upper class settings in country clubs, and you’ll notice that corresponding advertisements for golf are always luxury cars and luxury perfumes and colognes and those sorts of things. And you can’t sell those things when you have a lot of people without teeth on TV, it’s just a fact of life. That’s why you have that, it’s strictly an economic thing.
This self censorship is a function of the corporate media system that exists in America – the sole motivation for news networks is to increase ratings and increase profit, and if reporting on poverty and poor people means less advertising revenue, it simply won’t get covered.
As a result, much of America’s politically active population is not aware of how dire the poverty situation is – they don’t see it on their television sets and are never given statistics about how bad it has gotten. With no context, most people just assume that poverty is a part of American society and there is little that can be done about it.
Poverty does not have to be a fact in American society. There are many countries that have far less poverty and far less wealth inequality than the United States, and they don’t come close to America’s overall wealth. There is absolutely no reason why politicians shouldn’t be forced to confront the poverty epidemic and provide real solutions to a problem that isn’t beyond them to solve. But first of all, the public needs to know exactly what is happening in America, and that is down to the media. While covering Mitt Romney’s latest gaffe or Michelle Obama’s newest dress may drive ratings, it isn’t helping the country in the long term. TV networks sell advertising space to companies looking to promote their products. And if poverty in America continues to grow, there won’t be many people left to buy them.