Dean Barber

The Other America is All Too Real

In Uncategorized on September 16, 2012 at 8:48 am

Be assured, there is another America out there.  Most of us will not see it cheek by jowel, because we live in our own worlds, our own personal bubbles. But Lord knows, it is out there and probably not too far from your doorstep.

I’m talking about poverty, real, honest-to-God, abject poverty.  Yes, Virginia, there are poor people in America.

The U.S. Census Bureau this past week released new data on poverty in 2011, poverty being defined as a family of four with an annual income of less than $23,000. The data revealed that 46.2 million people, or roughly one in six Americans, lived in poverty last year. That’s right, one in six.

Now I know what some of you are thinking. Heck, it’s my first reaction: Well, that’s a damn shame. I’m not doing as well as some, but I’m not as bad off as others.

Here in Texas, where I live, a lot of people are pretty well off. And a whole lot of people aren’t. Despite our oil and gas wealth and success at job creation, Texas had the sixth highest poverty rate among the states in 2011. About 4.5 million Texans, or 17.4 percent, lived in households with incomes below the federal poverty line, and that included nearly 1.8 million children, or 25.8 percent of all Texas children.

Not only do one out of every four children in Texas live in poverty, but the Lone Star State has the highest uninsured rate in the nation with more than 6 million people lacking health insurance in 2010, representing nearly 24 percent of the population, according to the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities. The state has the second highest uninsured rate for children, behind Nevada, the center said.

I’ve attended a number of economic development conferences this year in multiple states, spoke at a number of them (hint hint), and have noticed that poverty is seldom mentioned, much less discussed in any detail, which I find a bit curious.

The subject is not on the agenda of the upcoming Texas Economic Development Council, which I plan to attend in a few weeks, although “How Texas Got On Top,” is a prominent subject. Some professor from California is going to tell us and I look forward to hearing from him.

Now please understand that I am not slamming the TEDC. My friend Carlton Schwab, president of the group, agrees with me that economic developers don’t talk much about poverty per se, although the profession addresses the subject in a roundabout way.

While I have read definitions ad nauseam on what defines or constitutes economic development, I think most economic developers just want to increase the level of wealth and quality of life in their respective communities. (Although most will be judged in terms of job creation.) It’s that rising tide lifts all boats mentality, which I think is appropriate.

“Years ago, there were many more of those ‘war on poverty’ guys who were involved in many of the federal programs. But those folks, many of whom came out of LBJ era, are largely not out there anymore,” Schwab said. “So what motivates us? Why do we live and breathe this stuff? Well, it is about helping people. That’s why we do what we do.”

When I visit communities, economic developers invariably want to show me quality of life factors that they are proud of and they should. I do want to see the nice subdivisions with the manicured lawns and your country club. But I also want to see the poor parts of town, which will sometimes raise an eyebrow. (The way I see it, a potential corporate client will want to know about the good, the bad and the ugly.)

You see, unlike some folks, I don’t blame the poor for being poor. Life’s circumstances can throw a person or a family into dire straits with the loss of a job. And despite the fact that 12.5 million people in this country are unemployed, many job recruiters and prospective employers will still look at an unemployed person with a sort of distain and suspicion. Well, what is wrong with you? Why are you unemployed?

I spoke to a friend of mine, a very talented economic developer who I truly love and respect, and broached the subject of poverty with him. This man is a compassionate guy, and active in his church. But he surprised me by essentially blaming the poor for being poor and/or jobless.

Essentially, he said this (I am paraphrasing): Most of them are unwed mothers who couldn’t pass a drug test, and won’t get off their backsides to help themselves.

Granted, we make choices in life and some of those choices are bad and have lasting repercussions. But to suggest that the poor essentially deserve what little they have for the lack of trying. Well, I was surprised my friend said that. And he is a friend and will remain a friend. We just see this one differently.

Earlier this week, I also spoke to a Texas medical researcher who suggests that certain “neglected tropical diseases’, which we ordinarily think of as confined to developing countries but are found in poor neighborhoods in our country, will essentially trap its victims into a life of poverty. In other words, if you get this disease, because of what it does to you physically, it almost ensures that you will not be able to significantly improve your station in life.

Peter J. Hotez is the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and the president and director of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development in Houston. He is the author of the book, “Forgotten People, Forgotten Diseases.”

“The neglected tropical diseases thrive in the poorer South’s warm climate, especially in areas where people live in dilapidated housing or can’t afford air-conditioning and sleep with the windows open to disease-transmitting insects. They thrive wherever there is poor street drainage, plumbing, sanitation and garbage collection, and in areas with neglected swimming pools,” Dr. Hotez wrote.

“Most troubling of all, they can even increase the levels of poverty in these areas by slowing the growth and intellectual development of children and impeding productivity in the work force. They are the forgotten diseases of forgotten people, and Texas is emerging as an epicenter.”

Now at first blush, it might seem that I am picking on my home state of Texas. Actually, I am not. I love Texas. I actually chose to live here and have no regrets. But it’s not the land of milk and honey. No place is.

Despite the so-called Texas miracle in terms of job creation, this is a state plagued with certain problems, some of which are in the incubation stage. Economic developers openly worry about the billions cut from education and the possible ripple effects to come.

The Census figures released last week show that the income gap between rich and poor Americans grew to the widest in more than 40 years in 2011 as the poverty rate remained at almost a two-decade high. I don’t think that means that poor people are getting dumber or more lazy. No, something else, something more ominous is at work here when the numbers show that median household income fell for most people in this country.

In 2011, median household income of $50,054, adjusted for inflation, was 8.1 percent less than in 2007, the year before the Great Recession began.

“The gains from economic growth in 2011 were quite unevenly shared as household income fell in the middle and rose at the top,” Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, said on a conference call with reporters.

So it’s not just the poor that are hurting, the middle class has been taking in on the chin, too. But heck, you knew that. But I have to think that it is in all of our best interests that we concentrate our efforts on not only stopping the erosion of the middle class, but also extending help to the poor. And aside from the Judeo-Christian ethic as being the right thing to do, there is an economic case to be made.

As more and more children grow up in poverty, it will invariably lead to higher health-care costs, lower educational levels and reduced worker productivity, none of which is good for our nation’s future competitive standing in a global economy.

I am not advocating that big government solves all. Big government can’t and won’t, especially with the spending reductions that will have to come down the pike, no matter who wins the White House in November. Our debt crisis is real and growing.

But policy matters and to that extent, we really are in this boat together.

Dean Barber is the principal of Barber Business Advisors, LLC., a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at 972-767-9518 or at dbarber@barberadvisors.com Please visit our website at www.barberadvisors.com

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  1. Back in the late ’70’s I read Michael Harrington’s book “The Other America.” Things have not appreciably changed since he wrote it in 1962, except that the middle is disappearing. One of the constants is the blame on the poor. Sure, there is enough blame to go around (there are the poor who chose life on public support; there are entrepreneurs who are only interested in their own wealth, etc, etc). Oft times when I see economic development discussions they are reflective of suburban economic development and “high tech” development. These areas by definition exclude poor people as they do not have transportation or educational access to these areas and the jobs entering suburban communities. And like our political parties, we are finding ourselves more polarized into our respective positions. I do not know the exact answers or the exact remedies however, a growing class of poor that used to be middle and upper middle class persons will become extremely angry and activist – and that will create a cultural, social and political mess which this country can ill afford.

  2. Dean,

    Good reminder that our ultimate goal as economic developers is to create opportunities and pathways for everyone in our community to move up the economic ladder if they’re willing to work hard. My favorite and most rewarding volunteer opportunity is to serve on the board of our city’s NeighborWorks organization. There are always more we can do to connect residents with the economic opportunities we help create.
    Brett

  3. […] a blog post by Dean Barber that does a great job highlighting the problem of poverty in America.  Here it is. Go have a look at it; I will see you back here in a […]

  4. I always enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for being so honest with your thoughts. I think poor people have an exponentially hard time overcoming challenges that middle income. I’ve never been without, I put myself through school and struggled my first several years out of school, relying on public transportation and living paycheck by paycheck. I appreciate those moments because it grounds me.

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