July 12, 2012 - Issue 480
How Did The Problem Of Poverty Disappear?
Solidarity America By John Funiciello
The war on the poor seems to be going very well.
In the minds of the rich, the poor, even the working poor, seem to be
at fault for most of our economic troubles, from the national debt, to
the cost of government programs, the lack of adequate housing, to the
obesity epidemic, to the staggering cost of the “war on drugs.’’ They
are even blamed by some for various ills like HIV and AIDS and the
drug abuse “epidemic.”
The incarceration rate of black and other minority young men that
outstrips most other countries, just in general terms, has everything to
do with poverty. The attitude is that, “if you’re poor, you’re going to
jail.” That’s especially true if you’re poor and African-American or
Anyone who had occasion to watch or hear the Republican candidates
in the presidential primary campaign spout off on what is wrong with
the American economy knows that the GOP view is that most of the
problem stems from so many who don’t pay any federal taxes. And,
at the same time, they were militant against any source of new money
(taxes) from the rich and corporations. They seemed prepared to
protect them and their money and their accumulated wealth with their
very lives.As for protecting the most vulnerable, the poor and the working poor, they were not so inclined to protect them and their families from anything (including natural or economic disasters) much less give them a helping hand. If anything, they seemed to resolve to punish them for being vulnerable and quite powerless to defend themselves against the attacks of the Right Wing, no matter the party.
For example, more IRS audits have been done on workers making
between $7,000 and $25,000, than those who reported incomes of
more than $100,000, as much as eight times that of the affluent or
Why would this be true? Why would the rich and powerful single out
people who can’t defend themselves? The answer: Because they can’t
They don’t have batteries of lawyers and accountants, advertising
executives and copy writers, and, most of all, they don’t have scores
or hundreds of politicians whose very existence in politics depends on
millions, even billions, of dollars that keep them in office. There are
people who provide all of that and it isn’t the poor.
There were GOP candidates who, during the primary season, declared
that only about 53 percent pay federal income taxes, indicating that
those pesky poor people and low-wage workers don’t pay their fair
share. This, of course, ignores all of the sales taxes, excise taxes,
fees, and licensing costs, along with Social Security and Medicare
(both of which are federal taxes). They pay much more of their
income in taxes, fees, and other such costs than the average middle income worker and they pay much more as a percentage of their
income than the rich. That’s why sales taxes and similar taxes are so
popular with right-wing politicians: They eat at your substance quietly
and in small doses.
The Social Security (payroll) tax is 6.2 percent. The Obama
Administration has temporarily lowered that amount to 4.2 percent, as
part of the stimulus package. Workers, no matter how much they are
paid, pay this amount, as do those who are paid hundreds of
thousands of dollars a year. The difference is that there is no Social
Security tax on incomes of more than $106,800, so those who are paid
millions a year only pay the 6.2 percent (or, 4.2 percent) on a small
fraction of their income. In addition, workers pay 1.45 percent for
their Medicare tax. You can see how much more heavily these taxes
fall on those of low income or modest middle income. The rich may
pay only 2 percent of their income in these taxes. An army of Republicans and others on the right have made it a career
goal to keep the poor poor and help the rich stay rich, or get richer.
Long gone are the days when politicians of every stripe were aware of
the plight of the poor (many of them elderly, disabled, or
disadvantaged in some other way), and they spoke of this national
problem and tried to find solutions to poverty. Regularly, there was
legislation introduced to try to relieve the burden of poverty, which
brought with it inadequate housing, ignorance, ill health, and other
evils of a deprived existence.
Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America: Poverty in the United
States, was said to have had an effect on President John F. Kennedy
and had much to do with furthering President Lyndon Johnson’s War
on Poverty. There is little spoken in the modern era of eliminating
poverty, certainly no “war on poverty.” Rather, there seems to have
been formulated a “war on the poor” in recent decades. And,
politicians and corporate leaders across the country shamelessly ignore
Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, which calls for raising
revenues for the defense of the nation and its “general welfare.”
There has been an ongoing debate about what those two words mean,
but it has been held to mean that the government will act in the best
interests of the people.
That is the last thing on the minds of the rich and powerful in America
today. Rather, what is on their minds is to remove any semblance of
support from the poor, low-wage workers, the elderly, the disabled,
and unemployed middle-income workers (all of those who are
vulnerable to the vagaries of their precious “market” which they seem
to be able to manipulate according to their own whims).
To do this, they have been busy cutting budgets and slashing
programs that benefit these most vulnerable, at the federal and state
levels of government. Of course, local governments, tied as they are
to dispersal of money from the national budget, are left standing in
their streets and wringing their hands, wondering what to do.
At the same time, there is plenty that corporations are doing to push
along this destructive trend. They not only lobby for these program
cuts through their politicians, but they have systems of their own to
exploit the poor. In his 2003 book, Perfectly Legal, David Cay
Johnston, has a chapter in his book entitled, “Preying on the Working
Poor,” in which he describes the IRS auditing 397,000 of the millions of working poor, who had applied for the earned income tax credit
(EITC), a small benefit for those who do the tough work of the nation.
That number was eight times the number of IRS audits done on
taxpayers who made $100,000 or more. Johnston noted that, when
Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House, President Clinton,
fearing that the Republican majority would gut the EITC program,
made a deal: He would provide the IRS with $100 million additional
funds to audit those who participated in the program. The EITC is a
program that provides a big income boost (from a few hundred dollars
for some, to $4,140 maximum for others), and represents a relatively
minor expense item in the federal budget that brings some relief to
working families. Even so, there were vociferous detractors. Then Senator Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican, denounced the
program as welfare and “an income redistribution program.” He and
others would have ended the program, since it is the kind of program
that the Right Wing wants to end now, at all levels of government.
Since he retired from the Senate in 2004, his firm, the Nickles Group,
has been a consultant to corporations and trade groups, exploiting his
connections to lawmakers and government agencies.
Johnston also explains the kind of industry that is not unique, which
uses the poor as a cash cow: The tax preparation and quick-loan
industry, which can charge interests that amount to (in one of the
more outrageous examples Johnston cites) a 2000 percent annual
rate, although a rate of 222 percent is more typical. This is criminal,
of course, but it is perfectly legal and, since it is the poor who are
being exploited, politicians have saved their outrage for those who
would ask the rich to pay more in taxes to help balance the nation’s
Although Johnston’s book is not the first to point out the exploitation
of the poor, it is one of the most recent that so explicitly does so.
Since it was published in the last decade, it doesn’t seem to have
made a difference in the attitude of the powerful, as Harrington’s book
did. There is no rush to find solutions to the misery and suffering of
poverty (note the lack of interest in providing universal health care),
on the part of any of the 1 percent. There is very little discussion on
the floor of either house of the Congress and that attitude trickles
down to the state legislatures and their members and functionaries.
When there is a discussion about poverty and its ills, usually it is
before an empty house and it’s just to get it into the record.What has happened is that there is no agitation from the people for
the nation to rise up against poverty and the specter that it raises for
this generation of youngsters, who are wandering the cities, wondering
when they might find a job. Many of their parents are wondering the
same thing. Unemployment is unyielding in America, especially since
the manufacturing base has been sent elsewhere and we have become
a service economy. We have wars that never end and Corporate
America has a pipeline into the national coffers that politicians support,
literally pouring the economic substance of the country from the
people to the rich.
The powerful rich complain about the poor, the working poor, and the
young. They complain that they are not willing to work hard, while
they themselves sit in air-conditioned offices manipulating the system
to maintain the status quo. The working poor do more work in a week
than the rich do in a year. If hard work automatically brings a worker
the “American Dream,” there should be tens of millions more of the
working poor sharing that dream, right now. This picture is turned
It has been a long time since the Poor People’s Campaign, organized
by Martin Luther King Jr. And the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, back in the late 1960s, in an effort to stop the Vietnam
war and end racism and poverty. Goals that they sought then are the
same as now: Stop the wars, end racism, end poverty. A few more
can be added for this time in our history: Provide free public
education, decent housing, and give the nation true universal
healthcare for all.
It’s time for renewed and expanded Poor Peoples’ Campaign!
BlackCommentator.com Columnist, John Funiciello, is a labor
organizer and former union organizer. His union work started when he
became a local president of The Newspaper Guild in the early 1970s.
He was a reporter for 14 years for newspapers in New York State. In
addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle
to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food
producers and land developers.