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John Kenneth Galbraith, Essay Example

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Essay

John Kenneth Galbraith claimed that “in the contemporary United States [poverty] is not annoying but it is a disgrace” (Galbraith p. 415). Unfortunately, those words from a quarter-century ago still seem to be true in 21st century America.  Poverty seems to be today’s dirty little secret, something unnoticed, unacknowledged, and untended by today’s politicians.

Living in the United States is expensive.  Wider Opportunities for Women (2010) released a report on how much income was required in 2010 to provide a sense of economic stability for workers and families in the U.S. This is not a measure of where the poverty line lies, but rather of the level of income needed to provide a moderate but not extravagant standard of living commensurate with minimum community standards.  The numbers are startling.  For a single worker, paying for housing, utilities, food, transportation, personal expenses, health care, emergency and retirement savings, and taxes requires an income of about $30,000 per year; when extended to a family of four with two adults and two children, the requirement for that same moderate standard of living soared to just under $68,000 per year (Wider Opportunities for Women, 2010).[1] It should be noted that the official federal poverty level in 2010 was approximately one-third of these levels, at $10,830 for a single worker and just over $22,000 for the family of four.

It has not helped that the economic crisis of the past few years has strained the resources even of the richest country in the world.  Natural disasters such as Katrina, along with multiple foreign wars, have also reduced the money available to help the poor. Add to that a major recession and the collapse of housing resulting in some of the highest foreclosure rates in history, and the result is that poverty has moved from being a problem of a ghettoized few and is now eating into the middle class.

The statistics are alarming.  Colorado Children’s Campaign, a Denver non-profit, claims that between 2008 and 2009, the number of children living in poverty in Colorado increased by 31,000, and the number who lived in a home where no parent had regular, full-time jobs increased by 47,000.  Abuse, neglect, and child suicide have all increased, and high school graduation rates have also decreased, with the result that unemployment in teens has also risen. Homelessness, hunger, food issues and obesity all have risen as a result. (Colorado Children’s Campaign, 2011).  While these specific statistics are relevant only for Colorado, similar impacts could be found in nearly every state in the union.

Macgills (August 26, 2009) pointed out that John Edwards’ two political campaigns in 2004 and 2008 “were an aberration in a two-decade-long shift in which the Democratic Party tried to frame its concern for the neediest Americans as part of a broader economic agenda directed, above all, at the middle class.”  Macgills quotes Democratic Leadership Council President Bruce Reed as pointing out the Democratic Party’s efforts to align the needs of the middle class with those of the poor: “In the Clinton years, we worked hard to show that it was possible and necessary to help the poor and the middle class get ahead at the same time…. In the wake of the Bush years, the interests of the poor and middle class have been brought yet closer together, because we’re all losing ground.” (Macgills, August 26, 2009). Certainly the statistics noted earlier on the dramatic increase in children living in poverty bear out Reed’s assertion.

Yet Delaney (February 10, 2011) noted that in the tussle to find an acceptable budget that will pass in a GOP-controlled House, “the White House is targeting programs…that benefit low-income Americans” (Delaney, February 10, 2011).  Specific budget items on the chopping block include community service block grants and programs to help the poor with heating and cooling costs. The latter program helped 8.3 million households in FY 2010 (i.e., October 2009 through September 2010), an astonishing 43% increase in the households needing such help two years earlier (FY 2008) (Delaney, February 10, 2011).

Lest there be a belief that these cuts derive from only one of the major political parties, GOP leaders responded to the White House’s proposed cuts by creating a budget that also reduced the community service block grant program by over $400 million.  The energy assistance program cuts are particularly brutal at a time when climate change is demonstrating its ability to produce colder, harsher winters and hotter, steamier summers, making heating and cooling assistance more important than ever.

Galbraith said that “the restraints that confine people to the ghetto are those that result from insufficient investment in the public sector” (Galbraith, 1984, p. 414). While money can apparently be found to fund wars, finding money to feed hungry children has become more problematic in Washington.  Senator Kerry (D. Mass.) is one of the active political leaders attempting to stand against the budget-cutting tide, when he wrote in a letter to the White House in response to these proposed cuts, “home heating assistance is more critical than ever to the health and welfare of millions of Americans, especially senior citizens” (Delaney, February 10, 2011).

While the budget battle for assistance of those in need may be temporarily in difficulties, it is possible that all is not lost.  The Director of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Robert Greenstein, noted that the economic stimulus programs of the first two years of the Obama administration “did more for low- and moderate-income families than any legislation in many years. They just didn’t talk about it in that way, in the way that it got talked about in the ‘60s” (quoted in Macgillis, August 26, 2009).

While politicians who cite Galbraith explicitly are rare in these days of economic tribulation, a new perspective on poverty exists in the current Administration that is in alignment with many of Galbraith’s views while framing their rhetoric in significantly different terms.  Instead of “helping the poor escapes the ghetto” the Administration provides an “economic stimulus”; instead of providing a “war on poverty” the Administration talked about “homelessness prevention.” (Macgillis, August 26, 2009).

Poverty isn’t a popular subject in the U.S. It is not a topic much talked about in Washington, despite the fact that it is encountered in nearly every community in the country. Yet, it is possible that by not explicitly discussing it in Galbraithian terms, many of Galbraith’s notions of eliminating poverty through providing fundamental economic improvements can become reality.

References

Delaney, Arthur. (February 10, 2011). Obama’s big budget cut proposals target the poor. The Huffiington Post. Web. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/10/obama-budget-cut-proposals-target-poor_n_821010.html

Galbraith, John Kenneth. (1984) The Affluent Society, 4th Edition, in A World of Ideas: Essential Readings for College Writers, 8th Edition, Lee A. Jacobus, ed.(2010), Bedford/St. Martins, Boston, MA, pp. 405-418.

Colorado Children’s Campaign. (2011) 2011 Kids Count in Colorado! Web. Retrieved from: http://www.coloradokids.org/facts/kids_count/

Macgillis, Alec. (August 26, 2009). The poverty of political talk: It’s still hard for politicians to speak clearly about the poorest Americans. The American Prospect. Web. Retrieved from:  http://prospect.org/cs/articles?article=the_poverty_of_political_talk#

Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW). (2010). The Basic Economic Security Tables for the United States 2010. Web. Retrieved from: http://www.wowonline.org/documents/BESTIndexforTheUnitedStates2010.pdf

[1] It should be noted that one of the assumptions in the WOW study is that workers received subsidized health insurance as a job benefit; workers without such healthcare benefits would require substantially higher income to cover increased healthcare costs. Healthcare costs for a single worker were budgeted at $136/month; for a family of four budgeted healthcare costs were $443/month.

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