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Jan. 14 2010 - 1:16 pm | 524 views | 2 recommendations | 6 comments

Are there still poor people in America?

New show on TV. Have you seen it? It’s called “Jerry and Bill”, and it debuted recently in the Cincinnati area.

TV talk show host Jerry Springer and conservative radio host Bill Cunningham debate the issues (often, both speaking at the same time, from the looks of it).

First topic? Health care, and whether America even needs the health care reform Congress is so busily working on.

Cunningham makes an outrageous claim: “There are no dirt poor people in America.”

Take a look:

“To be poor in America means you’re probably morbidly obese.  You have a cell phone. You have big screen TVs. You own your own home. You might own your own car, and you have charge accounts. There are no dirt poor Americans in this country.”

Bold claim, isn’t it? The shouting match alone made me want to turn off that video clip (I would rather dot myself in the eye than watch this show), but this is an argument I hear all the time.

No one is poor in America.

What do you think?

Here’s my answer, Bill:

Poor people are morbidly obese because good, nutritious food is more expensive than cheap, high calorie junk food. Eating well is a luxury.

Poor people have cell phones because they’re cheaper than land lines, and they often have the pay-as-you-go plans, which means they’re shut off every other month when they can’t afford to pay anymore.

Yes, many poor people do have big screen TVs. But one, many poor people rent their TVs and appliances from places like Rent-A-Center because they rarely have enough cash on hand to make a big purchase. Rent-A-Center doesn’t rent out little economical TVs. Who wants to rent that? Second, upward mobility is so lousy in this country for certain groups of people that many people believe they’ll never be rich, so they might as well enjoy themselves now, rather than saving for the future. It might seem silly to you, but when you live paycheck to paycheck, you have a different attitude about the future.

Pretty much anyone who is poor in America and did own their own home are now in foreclosure. Like the TVs, some have fancy cars that they “own,” (and by own, I mean make the payments on until they can’t and the bank repossesses it), but many, many more take the bus.

Are there still “dirt poor” people in America? Hell yes, there are. Talk to homeless families and undocumented immigrants, living on the street. Talk to desperate families in rural America, killing squirrels and raccoons for food. Talk to families who live in rat-infested, moldy, rotten conditions because they have nowhere else to go.

If we’ve reduced poverty over the last 50 years, isn’t that a reason to celebrate and keep moving forward – not a reason to give up? The health care crisis is real. Even with medicaid, many poor and low-income families are in dire need of medical attention and preventative care.

So, that’s my argument. What’s yours?


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  1. collapse expand

    That was AWESOME.

    While I’m cringing & LOLing at him, Bill kinda has a point — people all over the planet (for example, the undocumented immigrants mentioned in the post) sacrifice to come here, because being poor here is rich compared to where they came from… If it came down to it, I’d way rather be broke here than say, Mexico.

    But wow! that’s some chutzpah! ~~lol

  2. collapse expand

    I know people run out of food stamps in the 3rd week of the month. I know people sleep on the street or in warehouses. I know people who never have more than $5 in their pocket.

    I know other people who better hope there is no such thing as judgement day.

  3. collapse expand

    I always assumed that it referred to having nothing but the dirt they were standing on. Or dirt to farm. Or dirt floors. Or eating dirt.
    Do we really have that here?

    If our poor *are* “dirt poor” then what are the poor in Haiti, China, Mexico, North Korea, or Bangladesh? When was the last time you saw poor in a poor country and thought…”I don’t know, that doesn’t look so bad?”

    These guys are blowhards, but if [big "if"] their point is that BY COMPARISON our poor have it pretty good…they are right, because most of the rest of the world (by population) has it really, really bad.

    I hate the way the poor are treated in this country (look no further than New Orleans) and there is a lot we could do about it. Imagine if every dollar we’d poured into Operation Iraqi Freedom we’d instead poured into the War on Poverty. I barely CAN imagine that.

    We can quibble about numbers, but the fact is, life is much better here for our lower classes than those of the other 95% of the world. People risk their lives every day to cross borders to come to America so they can be poor here. For illegals, they are looking at a life of poverty here. But that’s still an improvement for them! And they will make enough money to send some home every month. In how many countries can the poor say that?

    Again, this is not to minimize the plight of the poor here–merely to put it in perspective.

    • collapse expand

      You are right. Poverty in a developing nation looks different than in America. The problem is that too many people (not you based on your comment) use that “perspective” to justify not addressing poverty here in the U.S.

      There is a place where the chronicling of the differences in how poverty looks in a developed nation versus a developing nation breaks down. It is the issue of social inclusion. Poverty excludes people from engaging in civil society. It puts barrier after barrier in front of them, locking them out of opportunity. This is true the world over. If we want to address poverty, we need to look at ways to end this exclusion, to break down these barriers, and to create the path to self-sufficiency that everyone wants, but far too many people are barred from stepping on.

      You are also absolutely right about what we could accomplish if we put real resources up to the task of ending social exclusion. We did not have a war on poverty, we had a skirmish. We, as a nation, have never taken seriously the task of ending poverty, and thus are victims of a self-fulling prophecy: It won’t work, so don’t try to hard. Look. it didn’t work.

      The irony is, having a real, sincere effort would cost a lot less than the war in [insert your country of choice here]. There is no lack of ideas, strategies, tested models that could be implemented to scale. We just have to find the will to actually do. When it comes to political will, THAT is where our country is dirt poor.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    you’re only free in America if you have a set of wheels and perhaps 10 credit cards.

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    About Me

    I'm a journalist living in Chicago writing about poverty and public housing. I don't come from the streets - I grew up on a farm. But I'm passionate about urban issues and getting to know people who are completely different from me. I'm quirky, funny and friendly.

    I have this idea about journalism - that it should be approachable and less "newsy." I want my stories to make you laugh, cry and draw you in to neighborhoods and situations you don't deal with every day. I hate the broadcaster voice. I hate TV news. I hate the inverted pyramid. I love surprise. I love humor. I love people and telling their stories.

    In addition to being a journalist, I also teach dance for the Chicago Public Schools. I don't just do it for the money. I love children and love arts education. I'm also on the board of a new nonprofit dedicated to helping the underserved find jobs called Employing Hope. I write fiction, keep house, and am generally a renaissance woman.

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