February 12, 2006

Poverty is Common, Press Coverage is Not

Former Senator John Edwards came to Vermont to give a keynote speech at the February 8, 2006 United Against Poverty conference, an all-day event attended by over 300 activists and professionals, held on the University of Vermont campus. The conference was organized by the City of Burlington, Democracy for America, AARP-Vermont, the University of Vermont Political Science Department, and State Senator Matt Dunne. I attended the conference with my wife, Rickey Gard Diamond, who was covering the conference for Vermont Woman magazine.

The subject of the entire day’s conference was poverty and how the American economy is hurting the middle class, and further crushing low-income and poor Americans in Vermont, and around the country.

Sadly, there was no significant local press coverage of the actual content of the conference and only a few stories about Edwards’ speech. This should concern anyone who cares about the quality of media reporting in this country. Here was a conference that provided exhaustive information about increasing poverty in the state of Vermont and the limited coverage concentrated on Edwards, his life, his wife’s health, his aspirations for the Presidency, along with a piddling amount regarding his concerns about poverty.

I don’t mean to take anything away from Edwards and his tireless work on behalf of the poor in America. He gave fine voice to what he describes as the greatest moral question that America faces. What disheartened was local media’s ignoring the astonishing realities of poverty in its own backyard. It’s as if poverty is something that happens someplace else, perhaps New Orleans. The three main speakers at the conference spent the entire morning telling us that poverty is more common in Vermont and every part of America than we’ve been told.

David A. Murphey, Senior Policy Analyst for the Vermont Agency of Human Services, told the conference the current definition of poverty is "outdated, unrealistic, and misleading," and has been for years. While the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) for a family of four is $20,000, he reported recent state data and research shows the livable wage for Vermont families of four with two wage earners is actually $52,666. His Vermont caseload data suggest that poverty is increasing, that housing costs and demands are reaching a critical stage, and that there is a deepening divide between the haves and have-nots in the state. Most recent food stamp usage among children is up, and food shelf and community kitchen use is also up. Most tellingly, from1980 to the early 2000s, research shows that the top 5th of family incomes in Vermont rose by 72.3%, while the bottom 5th rose only by 27.3%.

Cornelius "Con" Hogan, Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy and former Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services, reported that the rate of personal debt has increased by 36% in the last four years, that the personal savings rate of all Americans is at the lowest it has been since the Great Depression, that there has been an unrelenting rise in the cost of health care (a 45% increase between 2000 and 2003), and that half of all bankruptcies occur as a result of some family medical catatastrophe. Mr. Hogan made it clear that the increase of people in the poor and low-income categories is coming directly from the middle class. Profits are up, wages and income are down. The time bomb, in his words, is ticking.

Jane Knitzer, of Columbia University’s Center for Children in Poverty, told the conference the worst news – about America’s children. 18% of America’s children live in poverty. Six million live in extreme poverty. Responsible research has shown that it takes an average income at least twice the FPL (that lousy $20,000) to cover basic family expenses – more in urban areas. Ms. Knitzer reports that 40% of American children are growing up in low-income families. Shockingly, the data used to determine the poverty rate does not account for work-related expenses such as child care and transportation.

Our national government continues to refuse the use of reality-based standards for determining the actual poverty and low income levels in America, because it would substantially increase the number of Americans in trouble, and fly in the face of everything George Bush perpetually says about how healthy our economy is. The current numbers are fabrication and obfuscation. When Bush speaks about our "healthy economy," he is not including a huge number of Americans who have already fallen into the abyss, or who are on the edge looking down into yawning economic despair.

When Bush was elected, many conservatives were happy with his fundamentalist Christian views on a number of national issues. Many conservatives also thought that poverty would be, as Bush himself promised, a major focus of his Presidency. Unfortunately, they were wrong.

Working on behalf of the automobile manufacturers, the government uses phony gas mileage standards for automobile gas efficiency, so buyers won’t know how really awful automobile gas mileage rates are. Likewise, our official governmental standards used to judge poverty rates and low income levels help hide from Americans how bad the economy really is for increasing numbers of us.

The more Americans feel the negative effects from the Bush policies of class warfare and corporate welfare, the more we can hope the American people will awaken to America’s economic injustices. We need an active, inquiring, and responsible media to help make that happen.

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