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The American poor and their lesson for Europe

by Fran Thu Sep 8th, 2005 at 01:21:55 PM EST

Important commentary - from the diaries ~ whataboutbob

I have seen discussions about this topic on the internet before. However, I think this UN report is a good opportunity to look at the topic of poverty and how to deal with it again. The American dream seems to be evaporating - as its reality becomes more visible. I hope that here in Europe the admiration for the US and the desire to copy it, by many people, will be reduced. I hope that this will be a lesson for Europeans to search for other ways of dealing with current problems.

So lets look at some of the points from the UN report via an article from The Independent:   UN hits back at US in report saying parts of America are as poor as Third World


Parts of the United States are as poor as the Third World, according to a shocking United Nations report on global inequality.

Claims that the New Orleans floods have laid bare a growing racial and economic divide in the US have, until now, been rejected by the American political establishment as emotional rhetoric. But yesterday's UN report provides statistical proof that for many - well beyond those affected by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina - the great American Dream is an ongoing nightmare.


The annual Human Development Report normally concerns itself with the Third World, but the 2005 edition scrutinises inequalities in health provision inside the US as part of a survey of how inequality worldwide is retarding the eradication of poverty.

The Independent lists some of the effects of poverty in the US.
Child mortality is on the rise in the United States

The infant mortality rate in the US is now the same as in Malaysia

Blacks in Washington DC have a higher infant death rate than people in the Indian state of Kerala

Hispanic Americans are more than twice as likely as white Americans to have no health cover

Child poverty rates in the United States are now more than 20 per cent

Maybe one of the first actions that Europeans, or at least their governments, can take presently is to stand up to Bolton and Bush at the UN. The ammunition is available:

Last month John Bolton, the new US ambassador to the UN, submitted 750 amendments to the draft declaration for next week's summit to strengthen the UN and review progress towards its Millennium Development Goals to halve world poverty by 2015.

The report launched yesterday is a clear challenge to Washington. The Bush administration wants to replace multilateral solutions to international problems with a world order in which the US does as it likes on a bilateral basis.

"This is the UN coming out all guns firing," said one UN insider. "It means that, even if we have a lame duck secretary general after the Volcker report (on the oil-for-food scandal), the rest of the organisation is not going to accept the US bilateralist agenda."


But to come back to what this means for Europe - it used to be that trends started in the US and then moved to Europe. Now, this is a trend I would rather not have moving to Europe. So my question here is, what can we learn and how should we proceed differently, without ignoring the problems we have here and find solution that address those problems in an adequate way?

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I just saw that Canberraboy posted on this topic too. If you think my diary is one to much, please delete it, as I will be out for the evening. :-)
by Fran on Thu Sep 8th, 2005 at 11:32:58 AM EST
No mention in the article of conditions on Indian Reservations in the US. Granted a number of reservations are now well-financed by casino operations, but the worst poverty in the US is likely to be found in South Dakota on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge (site of the Wounded Knee massacre) reservations. Both are home to members of the Lakota Sioux tribe.

PS- we should be following the example of Europe, especially in terms of social welfare and working towards the common good.

by US Blues on Thu Sep 8th, 2005 at 12:19:02 PM EST
I recently read in the times that the second or third poorest census tract in the country is a housing project up in East Harlem. Average household income was, IIRC, c. $7,000 or $8,000.  Now that is very poor. It is also on the order of the average household income in a middle income country like Poland. As far as standard of living goes, a typical working poor American family with its c. 30,000 - $40,000 annual income lives at around the same level as a middle or even upper middle class one in Poland. And again Poland is not really what we think of when we say Third World.  The highlights you point out are indeed striking but they should not imply that, say, your average person down in Anacostia has a standard of living comparable to the average person in Kerala.  And health insurance rates for Hispanics are somewhat skewed by the large percentage of recent immigrants, particularly illegals who effectively can't get health insurance.  

The problem of poverty and lack of social mobility in the US is indeed horrific, but no need for skewed comparisons.

PS question for the Euros here - what happens to illegals under the various European universal insurance systems?

by MarekNYC on Thu Sep 8th, 2005 at 03:52:39 PM EST
MarekNYC, I don't want to contradict you, but I'm going to have to contradict you.  The census tract in that housing project means that everyone in that project is being taken care of by what remains of the safety net.  There are many millions of others living below the safety net.  In other words, housing projects such as this are the example of how the system does work if you can get it to work.  

Having spent some time living under the safety net in Los Angeles, I can assure you that the third-world comparisons are not out of line.  How many homeless do we have in this country?  Are they even counted in the census?

I would also question how the census in the project and the finances were counted -- how many people were perhaps living in households, but unreported because they didn't want to violate the rules?  Also, often our government counts amounts equal to "rent," foodstamps, utilities (that may or may not be functioning), and various other dollar amounts attached to entitlements and count all that as your income.

We also have a huge illegal population that is completely out of the system.  All this to say, that when I read stuff like the one you quote, I know from both research and experience that that is just the tip of the iceberg of a huge underclass that is out of the system entirely.

Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding. -Hobbes

by Izzy (izzy at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Sep 8th, 2005 at 05:07:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But I still don't think that the third world is an appropriate comparison. There's poverty and there's third world poverty. I think Americans often forget just how much poorer most of the world is.

I have no idea how the census functioned in LA but in NYC the authorities pulled out the stops to maximize participation. They did not want a repeat of the massive undercount of 1990 since population determines both funding and political power.  

But the point really isn't whether or not our poor are living better than in poor or middle income countries. The US is a very wealthy nation and should easily be able to minimize abject poverty. Its failure has been dramatically illustrated in New Orleans.

Finally just a quick illustration of what upper middle class life is like in Poland, based on some relatives of mine in Krakow who earn about 25,000-30,000 per year pre-tax:
Two parents, two children, modern three bedroom apartment, two cars. TV, computer, regular vacations, good education. So far so good. But... that three bedroom apartment is seventy square meters meaning that the bedrooms are about the size of a full sized bed. The cars are both bottom end sub-compacts, one a few years old, the other ancient. Vacations are to relatives who happen to live in a nice rural lake district. The kids occasionally get a trip abroad for language learning. The parents never vacation abroad (remember that in Europe a vacation abroad is a much more normal thing than in the US).  Going out is a rare luxury.  And these are people whose standard of living is well above the average for Poland where the average gross salary is, IIRC, about 600/month.

by MarekNYC on Fri Sep 9th, 2005 at 12:15:41 AM EST
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Well, unless there's something I'm just not understanding, I fail to see the distinction.  If you cannot eat, find clothes or shelter or medical care, and you have to perform all of your bodily functions outside and die of starvation or exposure, that seems pretty third world to me.

And we do indeed have a significant population living this way.  It's hard to admit when it's here in the richest nation on earth, but it is true.  Go to any major city to the bad parts of town and look under the bridges and overpasses -- you'll find camps and whole families.  Barefoot children and malnourished babies.  

Look inside the condemned buildings and you'll find the packs of feral teenagers.  Look at the faces of the boys and girls selling their bodies on the streets, if they still look presentable enough.  This all seems very third world to me, even though the backdrop is different.

But maybe there's a component of this discussion I'm missing.

Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding. -Hobbes

by Izzy (izzy at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Sep 9th, 2005 at 12:47:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I live in a rapidly gentrifying but still primarily black working class neighbourhood right next to one of the poorer parts of Bed Stuy (a huge black neighbourhood in Brooklyn primarily made up of a mix of solid working class and the very poor with an increasing but still small number of well off people running from escalating housing prices.) I used to live right next to Harlem before it began to gentrify. I see US urban poverty constantly.

I think we seem to be talking about two different things. If what you're saying is that the bottom one or two percent of Americans live at the level of the bottom half of a rich third world country like Brazil or bottom four fifths of a poor one like India - ok. What I was talking about was the people in the tenth or twentieth percentile - and their lives, while very bad by rich country standards, are quite different. And with the important exception of health care access the lives of the bottom one or two percent are pretty miserable in most European countries as well.

by MarekNYC on Fri Sep 9th, 2005 at 04:49:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
This issue has been addressed in the Netherlands, I thought. Hospital personel is required to deliver aid to anyone, and many illegals without health insurance show up after work hours or in weekends at First Aid in hospitals. Hospitals and doctars can declare their costs for providing aid to illegal aliens via a special (government sponsored?) funds.
by Nomad on Thu Sep 8th, 2005 at 08:03:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]

i must say that i was speachless when the reports came out that 36% of the population of new orleans lives below poverty line. to have over 1/3 of the people live in squalor is IMO an unconscionable crime against same people. that is not neglect. it is apartheid pure and simple, brutal genocide. it is no different than what jews are doing to the palestinians. and now there are reports that they are deporting these poor, black people to internment camps around the country.

since that is the the title of this thread, IMO the lesson for europe, and for the rest of the world actually, is that the american way of doing things is an example of how NOT to do things, of how NOT to manage a society. the evil inner truth of capitalism was laid bare by katrina for all to see.

i hope that our political class is not yet subject to the rot as extensively as the americans, and that a significant amount of them will give capitalism and the "american way" a very critical glance, in the process finding a better way (not really that difficult) for our societies to regulate and organize life, more respectful of the common good, which IS society after all.

by name (name@spammez_moi_sivouplait.org) on Thu Sep 8th, 2005 at 03:56:58 PM EST
One note: "poverty" does not necessarily equal squalor...most places in the US have decent sanitary sewers almost regardless of station in life, or in rural areas, septic tanks or sumps keep (most) human waste out of rivers, streets, etc. (though this still doesn't cover many homeless). But, poverty, concentration of people and infrastructure failure did result in squalor in the Katrina aftermath.

There's one rather cynical lesson of Katrina -
if you happen to have a disaster, and do little enough, late enough, the poor become someone else's problem. Houston, Austin, Atlanta, and all the urban areas near New Orleans have suddenly gained population with absolutely nothing (by now, maybe they have a $2000 FEMA debit card, if they're lucky), who are in need of medical services, jobs, housing, etc. These people may not have the luxury of taking a few month "vacation" (in the literal sense of "to vacate", not somewhere for pleasure) or staying with relatives, and then returning. They have nothing to return to in New Orleans, no insurance money to collect. They will start building a life somewhere else. This also takes what injustice was done and might result in political consequences, and scatters the angry victims/voters to the four winds, destroying what electoral clout or solidarity they might have had.

I haven't heard my favourite cruel "let them eat cake" line mentioned anywhere in the media yet, from Dickens' A Christmas Carol, so I'll here it is (might be a bit off, since I can't find my copy):

When asked for contributions for the poor, Scrooge replies, "Are there no prisons, no poorhouses?....let them go there." Told that many would rather die than go to a prison or poorhouse, he counters that "If they're going to die, then they better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

Spirit of Scrooge, thy name is G.W. Bush.

by kaleefornian on Fri Sep 9th, 2005 at 12:12:20 AM EST
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