I’ve been spending a lot of time recently in a homeless encampment in Lakewood, N.J. It is part of a project I’m involved with that will involve poetry, journalism, documentary film and photography (tentcityproject.com).
The camp, which has been in existence in a somewhat organized fashion for about half-dozen years, is home to about 100 men and women. It is filled with makeshift structures built with 2-by-4s and plywood, tarpaulins. There is a small chapel and a surprisingly elaborate shower tent.
The camp is home to the mentally impaired and addicted, to the physically broken and to the unemployed.
Many who live in the camp have little to do during the day, but the majority work or spend their days trying to find work.
Angelo is a stone mason who worked on expensive houses until the housing market collapsed. Laura was a home-care worker who had a mental breakdown when her mother died. They both lost everything and found themselves at the camp.
Most of us would like to think that the camp is an outlier, but it isn’t. In many ways, camps like this one in Lakewood and others are the natural outcome of an economic system built to maximize profit without regard for the cost to society.
The United States is a nation with the highest total Gross Domestic Product in the world. It ranks 11th in GDP on a per capita basis – behind countries that either have significant oil wealth or who serve as financial safe havens. By almost any measure, we are a rich nation.
And yet, as Jim Wallis of Sojourners, the Christian antipoverty group, points out, there is a significant minority within the country that goes without and that on a regular basis we have decided is not worth our attention.
We just finished a political campaign in which the health and wealth of the middle class were front and center. And there is no doubt that average Americans are hurting, with stagnant incomes and disintegrating prospects for their retirement.
But what of those at the bottom of the economic ladder, a group we rarely discuss and that we seem comfortable consigning to permanent underclass status.
According to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, 2012 Annual Social and Economic Supplement, which sampled about 100,000 households nationally in 2011: 15 percent of Americans, or 46.2 million people, live in poverty and 21.9% of children were in poverty and 8.7% of seniors – despite Social Security and Medicare – are in poverty (which demonstrates both the need to strengthen and expand those programs).
How does this compare with other points in our history? During the 1990s, a period of strong economic growth and low unemployment, the poverty rate was 12.7%. Twenty years earlier – in 1978 at the mid-point of the Carter Administration – it was 11.4%.
That means that over the last 35 years,, between one in seven and one in nine Americans have lived in poverty and that, even at periods of low employment and high growth, the number has not really budged much.
This should not surprise us given the way our economy works. Our system is designed to generate profit for large corporations who get to shift the costs of their production onto the taxpayer. These costs include not only environmental damage caused by polluting industries, but also the impact on communities when plants and other facilities close their doors and move to lower-wage regions.
The poor are just another waste product left behind in the production process that is supposed to be taken care of by the society as a whole, i.e., taxpayers, without a thought given by the corporations that are consuming the resources and pocketing the profit.
There are a lot of useful programs out there that could be implemented – homelessness prevention programs, an expansion of the safety net, etc. – but they can only do so much. We need to transform the economic system so that the corporations that rule the land are dethroned, so that workers and community members have control.
Despite what you might have heard from the political candidates this year, American capitalism is the problem.
Hank Kalet is a poet and freelance writer living in New Jersey. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2012
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