Poverty’s Evil Twin


In this deeply polarized nation, I have found something that unites Republicans and Democrats: neither party talks about poverty, despite our current epidemic of child poverty and its consequences for the life chances of millions of children. From what this political junkie has seen and heard, both parties have studiously avoided talking about it at their respective conventions. Democrats in Charlotte talked incessantly about ‘the middle class,’ while in Tampa the Republicans gave off a distinctive vibe: “If you are successful, you did it yourself. If you are poor, you messed up. Not our problem.”

Poverty is on my mind, however. As readers of this blog know, in an otherwise inspirational profile of a forward-looking summer program in Providence, RI, we inadvertently conflated race and poverty in the opening 45 seconds. The opening visuals conveyed the message that poor people were black and that well-off people were white. That inaccuracy — the number of whites in poverty is actually larger than the number of Blacks and Hispanics — has been edited to present an accurate picture, but I haven’t gotten over how easily I made that mistake. It was a teachable moment for me, a chance to grow.

I have been reading a lot about poverty and have come to believe that the problem of poverty has an evil twin, greed. We cannot solve one in isolation.

Poverty, as one reader pointed out, is complex, because it is distributed unevenly. Although poverty is not Black or Hispanic or any other color, proportionally many more Black and Hispanic children live in poverty than do white kids.

Close to 30 million students are in poverty in modern America.

Black, American Indian, and Hispanic children under 18 represent 38% of all children but more than half — 54% — of low income children. They are more than twice as likely to live in a low-income household compared to white and Asian children.

Consider these numbers, from the National Center for Children in Poverty:

31 percent of white children – 12.1 million – live in low-income families.
64 percent of black children – 6.5 million – live in low-income families.
31 percent of Asian children – 1.0 million – live in low-income families.
63 percent of American Indian children – 0.4 million – live in low-income families.
43 percent of children of some other race – 1.3 million – live in low-income families.
63 percent of Hispanic children – 10.7 million – live in low-income families.

Perhaps you are now doing what I did when I read those numbers — adding them up. It comes to 30 million children of all colors.

That’s the national disgrace, millions of children growing up in poverty. It’s an epidemic, and professional politicians ought to be embarrassed by their failure to address the issue at their conventions.

It turns out there is poverty, and then there is ‘deep poverty.’ In a brilliant article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine a few weeks ago, Paul Tough examined President Obama’s record on this issue through the lens of Roseland, a high poverty area in his hometown of Chicago. Mr. Tough draws a sharp distinction between ‘deep poverty’ and normal (shallow?) poverty and shows just how difficult it has proven to be to ameliorate the former. Children in ‘deep poverty’ — their family income is 50% below the poverty line — tend to go to what William Julius Wilson calls ‘truly disadvantaged schools,’ further tipping the scales against them.

And in 2010 one in ten American children was living in deep poverty. That’s about 7,000,000 kids who don’t get to go to preschool, who are likely to be developmentally disabled and who will go to school hungry. To quote from Mr. Tough’s piece:

Neuroscientists and developmental psychologists can now explain how early stress and trauma disrupt the healthy growth of the prefrontal cortex; how the absence of strong and supportive relationships with stable adults inhibits a child’s development of a crucial set of cognitive skills called executive functions. In fact, though, you don’t need a neuroscientist to explain the effects of a childhood spent in deep poverty. Your average kindergarten teacher in a high-poverty neighborhood can tell you: children who grow up in especially difficult circumstances are much more likely to have trouble controlling their impulses in school, getting along with classmates and following instructions.

Mr. Tough doesn’t propose solutions, although he does quote Valerie Jarrett, perhaps the President’s closest advisor. Ms. Jarrett said that the President was proposing inclusive approaches that benefited all citizens economically, not just one specific group (the poor).

“I think our chances for successfully helping people move from poverty to the middle class is greater if everyone understands why it is in their best interest that these paths of opportunity are available for everyone,” she told him. “We try to talk about this in a way where everyone understands why it is in their self-interest.”

That approach, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” strikes me as doomed to fail as long as greed rules. And, make no mistake, greed is in the saddle. Over the last 30 years, the salary of the typical CEO has increased 127 times faster than workers’ salaries.

To put this in perspective, the average Fortune 500 chief executive is paid 380 times more than the average worker. In 1982, the ratio stood at 42:1.

Most Boards apparently set their CEO’s salary based on comparisons with those of other CEO’s, not with the company’s own workers. And that means that scant consideration is given to the effect of that inflated salary on employee morale, loyalty, effectiveness and turnover.

It’s not just CEOs. A shrinking percentage of our population controls a growing percentage of our national wealth. In fact, the gap is as great today as it was just prior to the Great Depression. Today the wealthiest 1% control about 40% of our wealth. Those in the bottom 80% control less than 7% of the nation’s wealth. Those in poverty aren’t even on the chart.

The starting point for the CEO-worker comparison was 30 years ago, just after the Presidencies of Nixon, Ford and Carter. We weren’t Socialists then (and never have been). Thirty years ago was when the worldview of our newly-inaugurated President, Ronald Reagan, began to dominate Washington and the country. It was later summed up, without much exaggeration, by Gordon Gecko in a popular movie: “Greed is good.”

One of Reagan’s predecessors saw the world differently. “We have always known that heedless self interest was bad morals, we now know that it is bad economics,” said Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

I have no quarrel with a CEO earning a lot more than the average worker, but 380 times more! How much money does one person need? How much is one person worth?

Why not return to sensible capitalism and recognize the value of the team? It doesn’t have to be 42:1. Go ahead and pay the CEO 100 times what Mr. or Ms. Average Worker makes. The boss gets $5,000,000 if the average Joe or Joan earns $50,000. Want to pay the boss $6,000,000? Then boost the average salary to $60,000.

That would be a genuine rising tide, one with widespread benefits, because we know that, while rich people tend to squirrel away money, middle class people spend it.

And if we backed away from greed, we would be more open to recognizing the scourge of poverty and the long term threat it poses to our nation. If we were genuinely disgusted by greed and not merely embarrassed by it, our hearts would not be so hard, and our intuitive generosity would rise to the surface.

We cannot solve the problems of poverty, whatever its colors, without tackling its evil twin, greed.

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9 thoughts on “Poverty’s Evil Twin

  1. The solution is NOT within government at any level, regardless of what policy (or non-policy) is put forward! Yes, … Here I go yet again. The solution – poverty, deep poverty, urban, rural, native American, whatever neighborhood characterization – starts with those motivated, engaged individuals in the community. Focusing on the education issues (I believe the catalyst for dealing with all community issues), I call this group a “local Education Community” – one that identifies, understands, deals with, and assesses outcomes of LOCAL ISSUES. For sure, the community may be small initially; but as they identify and implement the BETTER ALTERNATIVES following the advice of the late Stephen Covey, their successes will gain additional volunteers – allowing the efforts to expand. It is THEN that government at all levels can justifiably supply proposed resource requests that are critical to the success.

    I don’t know what the solutions are any more than any government does. The Community will discover those better alternatives – better that the plans each Community member championed at the start of the process. Two things are certain for me at least: ALL issues are local and better alternatives WILL be found!

    Being the “glass is half full” kind of person (by the way, being engineering faculty, engineers would say the glass is twice as big as it needs to be), I believe strongly that those obsessed with greed will support such efforts once the positive outcomes emerge.


  2. John,
    I too noticed how the words “middle class” kept playing in the Dems speeches, and how the P word was almost totally missing. No question how I will vote in this election, but beyond keeping the boat rowing forward, how do we address greed? Mr. Bennett’s approach would be nice if all the circumstances were in place for those motivated individuals in every community, but it feels much too limited given the scope of the problem and the stacking of the deep poverty deck that you point out.

    There have been times in our history when we legislated to create equality. It is time now to look at what role government can play to create economic justice, but I am not very hopeful that either party will do so unless we the voters push them mighty hard. Occupy Wall Street pointing out the divide was a first step. What next?


    • Valerie:
      It’s to bad you and to many other voters have ALREADY decide how they will vote. The debates, then, are a worthless exercise? The billions spend on advertising by “special” interest groups could be going to offer some relief for the 99% instead trying to increase the bank accounts of the 1%?


  3. Dear John: As a teacher for more than 25 years, chiefly to immigrant kids and farm-worker’s kids, I know what it is to teach youth who are the “orphans of Empire.” But the poorest were not necessarily the most difficult to teach. The very poorest if they had strong traditional families seemed more receptive to discipline and education. The most difficult students to teach were American born poor from dysfunctional families. They had spotty attendance records and were recalcitrant almost resistant students. They would not show up on time, they would not listen in class -acting as if it were a cantina-they would not study they would not make up work when absent and when possible would cheat to try to get by with a low D. So, yes, the poverty figures you cite are very disturbing and sad. I think we should NEVER give up on our young people and give our best efforts to help them help themselves. But there is a grimmer reality behind those figures and it is the high numbers of Blacks, Hispanic and Whites who come from single-parent families who have NEVER known a father or male-role model. I believe the upbringing of most of these children is very irregular and essentially one of benign neglect at the very best. I do the very best I can to help at-risk students. I am there in the morning. My door is always open. I am there at lunch. I am there after school (when I don’t have to be). I am there for our graduates when they need advice or help at the local junior college. I advise the Academic Decathlon team; I tutor students for their high school exit exam or their AP tests (in English, Spanish or history). But the key fact is a student MUST SHOW UP and MUST MAKE AN EFFORT. They have to choose to give education a chance. They must choose to make sacrifices for their education. But instead many choose the siren call of hedonism and “kicking-back.” They look at me with amazement that they should study or read after 3PM or Saturday or Sunday. They say “that’s OUR time”; the weekend is “free time” or “party time.” They are engrossed in their personal lives (usually sexually active at an early age) and personal gossip. They spend many hours texting or sharing photos on Facebook. They are not supposed to have their phones on in class but many do and we teacher have to police the use of electronic devices and make tedious incident reports on-line. On parent teacher night the only parents who show up are the parents of “good children.” Personally, I have not met with a single African-America father in more than 25 years not one. By contrast Indian-American or Chinese-American fathers -who are a tiny minority for my schools- only about 2% I meet all of them and often their uncles and aunts as well. All are involved in the education of the youth of their families. And the discipline in the home is evident. Students are almost never left alone. They do not have their own computers. Indian-American females (chiefly Sikh here) do not date and do not even dine with the males of their family. The authority of the grandfather even in the home of the son seems complete. The Indian-Americans start out poor, materially, but are indefatigable workers and soon own their own farms or businesses. They hire (chiefly) their own relatives and these trusted relatives work long hours. By contrast many American-born poor have no ambition to work nor any humility or patience. They are not good workers. They are angry and spoiled and resent routine and authority. They are very proud and have high self-esteem and so carry a chip on their shoulders. They resist and resent any correction at all and never talk any personal responsibility for their actions. And of course when there is conflict they become very combative and in the case of African-American students especially resort to the race-card. I have taught Burmese students, Hispanic students, Chinese students, Indian-American students, Egyptian Copts, Iraqi and Yemeni Muslims. Some are lazier than others, naturally, but most are not unpleasant and most do not blame the teachers or society for their failures. So yes, material poverty for our children and youth is a national disgrace. I do not agree with the amoral and anarchic social agenda of the Democratic Party but I fear the creeping libertarianism of the Republicans. Education begins at home. We need, I think, different kinds of schools. We need more after school tutoring and after school programs. We need to teach better parenting skills. But, above all, we must cultivate a spirit of virtue and order in the lives of our very young. We have a thriving JNROTC unit at our school; many go on to the Navy or Marines. The Marines, in particular, are very successful in educating and training youth and developing their character and a strong positive identity. Over and over, I see the young ex-Marines comeback to our community to be successful (in modest ways) as managers of restaurants, teachers, coaches, owners of small construction business and quite often active Marine Reservists prominent in local charities like Toys for Tots or Wounded Warriors. Many are intensely active in their local churches or houses of worship.

    So what is the answer to our educational crisis? Our problem is not just money or greed –though material resources are needed for our schools k-16. It is a cultural, philosophical and religious crisis as well as an educational crisis. We must broaden our education programs to provide more choices in vocational training while keeping open the educational ladder in Adult Schools and Junior Colleges for mature students. It is a cognate fact that many students do not realize the importance of education for their futures until they meet adult responsibilities. Our task is daunting. As teachers, adults and citizens we must literally convert students from a culture of anti-intellectualism, nihilism and hedonism to a culture of learning, moderation, self-discipline and self-improvement. I am only a humble rural schoolmaster of low degree but I believe unless we address student attitudes and the deficiency of their home lives and the deepness of their anomie, emotional disorder and depression that lead to an ethos of sloth, hedonism and anti-intellectualism we will get nowhere in our educational reforms.


    • John, as usual you’ve initiated a robust debate. I’ll limit myself to addressing your observation that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are even mentioning poverty in this election. That’s true, but not a surprise. The Republicans, indeed, have no interest in addressing poverty. Your characterization of the message of the Tampa convention is correct. The Democrats, however, certainly have a great concern for our growing level of poverty. The demographics of the party faithful virtually guarantee that. So, your question devolves to why the Democrats are silent on poverty.

      It seems to me that in a dead-heat race that pits those parties’ radically different world views against each other, the focus of each party has to be the few remaining voters who are openly undecided or whose present vote might be changed. (Indeed, only the subset of those voters who live in states that are not already clearly red or blue are worth addressing.) Voters who live in poverty are likely already in the Democratic camp. Voters not in poverty may or may not care about poverty, but other issues that are likely to resonate much more strongly with them. More important, raising poverty as an election issue would give the Republicans one more context in which to parade their propaganda about the deficit, entitlements, and big government.


  4. Great post, John. Unbridled growth in inequality — fueled by greed — is an insidious, corrosive force in our society. And kids are paying the price.


  5. Thank you, Mr. Munro, for taking the time to share your experiences as a teacher of students of many backgrounds. I think the trait of “delayed gratification” has been proven to be the biggest predictor of success in school and life. The Indian-Americans and Chinese-Americans obviously cultivate traits like this (self mastery, etc.) religiously. Not sure if we can we teach this in our schools if it is not being taught and modeled at home? I feel for teachers who must do their best with students who simply lack the self control to learn.


  6. Elizabeth: thanks for your kind reply. Students, if they are to succeed, in my view, MUST take charge of their own lives and take some responsibility. Many seem to leave it all to chance; they are nonchalant students who do not even keep a notebook or write down any assignments. Many are what I call “D-Daredevils”; they do as little as possible and hope to get a D-. Unfortunately for them many of these student cannot pass their basic proficiency tests in English or Math and if they do get to Junior College (often without a diploma) they are doomed to years of remedial work for which they go into debt thousands of dollars. I strongly recommend my students to become as competent as possible ; to me getting a GED is essentially a dead end (especially when we realize many GED’s are taken in Spanish with a small English comprehension element). Students have to believe in education the way they believe in health or hygiene. I remember my dentist telling me that I should only floss the teeth I wanted to keep. My dentist can help me but ultimately the day to day job of oral hygiene is up to me. A teacher can help a student gain insight and smooth the way but ultimately the student must do much of the work himself (or herself). There is no royal road to geometry.


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