Poverty is worse than you think, but it’s different than you think, too.... poverty in America is fluid, and people move in and out of poverty over the course of a year and over the course of their lives.One can argue that precarity is not a new phenomenon in capitalism:
Thanks to other data from the Census Bureau, we can step back a bit to see that more common kind of movement in and out of poverty. If we look at how many Americans were poor for at least two months during 2009, 2010 and 2011, for example, we find a poverty rate not equal to the Census Bureau’s 15 or 16 percent — but twice that, at 31.6 percent. That is, over a recent three-year period, almost one-third of all Americans were poor at least once for two months or more.
There’s another important lesson to learn from this data: while lots of Americans experienced a “spell” of poverty during those years, only 3.5 percent of the population was poor for all 36 months. So how we think about poverty is all wrong: it’s a much more common occurrence than people realize and the chronic, persistent, generational poverty that features so prominently in political rhetoric and media coverage is very much the exception, rather than the rule.
We live in a world of widespread economic fragility, of insecurity, of what some have come to call precarity: According to one recent survey, about one-in-four Americans have no savings at all.
US household economies are fragile, so it often just takes one crisis to push a family over the edge — from just getting by to not getting by at all: An injury that makes it impossible to work, a sudden physical or mental illness, a death in the family, a car breaking down, or even the birth of a new baby. All of these can be traumatic economic events for a family with little or no savings and no margin for error — events that most families recover from, with time. But then the next crisis hits. And in the US, you can’t necessarily count on the social safety net to be there for you when you need it. And you’ll need it.
We can’t hope to address a problem if we misdiagnose it, and one of the virtues of thinking more clearly about what poverty actually looks like is that a better diagnosis might alter the political landscape.
Don’t fight poverty because you feel sorry for other people; fight poverty because the odds are increasingly high that you and your family will be poor someday, too.
Fordism, not neoliberalism, was the exception to capitalist rule. Both before and after this short-lived period of relative prosperity, precarity remained the norm. Whatever stability and prosperity were achieved during the auferious era of capitalism, they were built upon ecologically devastating consumer lifestyles, neocolonial exploitation of the “Third World,” a racialized underclass and the exploitation of women in the home. They also depended on cheap fossil fuels, easy access to credit and an explosive urbanization process, all of which are growth factors impossible to reproduce today. Although these benefits were never extended to more than a fraction of the world’s population, they were and still are the primary justification for global capitalism.Jack London's The People of the Abyss gives a window into precarious conditions in 1903 London:
To the young working-man or working-woman, or married couple, there is no assurance of happy or healthy middle life, nor of solvent old age. Work as they will, they cannot make their future secure. It is all a matter of chance. Everything depends upon the thing happening, the thing with which they have nothing to do. Precaution cannot fend it off, nor can wiles evade it.
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