Poverty is a form of slavery. It denies individuals access to resources critical for life including healthy food, secure housing, and education. Scarcity of resources places chains on an individual’s ability to survive, let alone thrive. Children born into poverty don’t choose it, and all adults in ghettos, urban slums, or country ramshackle houses everywhere were once children.
The legacy of poverty is premature death. Poverty kills more people in the U.S. in eight weeks than the police and Coronavirus combined kill in one year. It’s our number one epidemic. Investigators have tracked deaths attributable to poverty, dividing them into categories: 250,000 attributable to low levels of education, 176,000 to racial segregation, 162,000 to low social support, 119,000 to income inequality, and 133,000 to individual-level poverty.
In other words, by comparison, every person in San Francisco, California —over 800,000 people — would die from poverty every year, year in, year out. Perhaps a cemetery comprised of vast fields should be consecrated for victims of poverty. A headstone might read, “Here lies Alice, age 12, died from malnutrition, June 29th, 2020.
The effects of scarcity scar those who don’t die. Half of the children in the U.S. live at or below the poverty line, defined as $25,750 annual income for a family of four. It’s virtually impossible for a family living at this income level to experience anything but constant fear and anxiety. Many of these families parcel out food according to proximity to paycheck or days the food bank distributes food. Scarcity hones the mind to attend carefully to daily tasks.
Imprisonment to social conditions actually begins at inception. Infants born into poverty are different physiologically and cognitively than infants born into economically secure families. The placenta, an umbrella-shaped organ, is our first lifeline to the outside world. It provides a mix of blood, oxygen, and chemical transmitters, while exhausting carbon dioxide to sustain the life of the fetus. Under conditions of scarcity, the placenta is fundamentally altered: its neurochemistry, biomes in the gut, brain weight, and cognitive flexibility are all challenged in order to survive.
Many of these infants are born premature, have fewer defenses, and are less likely to survive post-birth. The infant mortality rate in the U.S. ranks 33 out of 36 when compared to other advanced industrialized countries. Rousseau, one of the great writers of the Enlightenment, noted, “ Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains”; a neonate born to poverty is shackled by circumstances of birth, not born free.
America’s Fantasy: No Government Is Good Government
A core group of Americans hold ideas that perpetuate poverty. They are comfortable with highly segregated cities, and differential access to resources the lack of which kill people. They also hold the view that government is a plague that retards economic development.
The belief that no government is good government is based on ignorance of history. It serves as a psychological mechanism used by individuals to elevate a hyper sense of individualism, which promotes a sense of being exceptional. This posture leads directly to blaming the victim for their poverty; poor people are poor because they are stupid and lazy.
President Trump captured this sentiment during his campaign, referring to government in Washington, DC as a “swamp that needed to be drained”. This metaphor of government as a swamp that needs to be drained stuck throughout the election.
Its battle cry is taking place now as evidenced by individuals who refuse to wear a mask to reduce exposure to Coronavirus. The choice may be between getting sick or relenting to instructions from the Center for Disease Control to wear a mask. Individuals in this camp choose to risk sickness. The anti-government contingent is over-represented in the Republican Party.
Hyper-individualism precludes any real understanding of U.S. economic development. It serves as a way to deny the importance of the role of government and escape responsibility for the conditions and events that actually shaped our history.
The Truths of Economic Development:
U.S. economic development would have been virtually impossible without the active role of the U.S. government. From inception, the government used its legal authority and military force to open the country for settlement. In so doing, it used military force to conduct 1,500 wars, attacks, and raids against Native Americans — the most attacks against a native population of any country in the world. This resulted in 374 treaties that recorded the destruction of an estimated five million indigenous people. Most treaties, ironically, begin with the phrase “ this treaty is being offered in peace and friendship”.
The government to compete effectively with England directly accelerated economic development by approving slavery as an institution. Four million slaves provided the U.S. with a cheap source of labor to jump-start the economy and compete effectively against England. One dollar in 1830 would be worth approximately $278.00 today. Imagine what it would have cost to pay four million people daily for their labor for approximately 100 years.
Large-scale plantation farming would have been impossible without slave labor, which, in turn, was dependent on government authority. The Supreme Court opined that slaves had no civil rights and would “never become full citizens with rights”.
The original sin of genocide, land grabs, and slave labor was carried forward into the Western movement, and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. The government provided free land grants of 640 acres, below-market financing, and eminent domain (legalized land theft) to help finance and drive the growth of the railroad, which opened up transportation across the U.S.
The U.S. government even approved the killing of buffalo to eliminate the food source of Native Americans who lived on the plains, essentially driving them to extinction.
If our government was able to further economic development through genocide, slavery, and racism, why can’t it use its power to further genuine humane economic development, meaning a commitment to inclusion and equitable access to and distribution of resources? Economic justice, driven in part by the government, and your efforts, is key to eliminating poverty.
What You Can Do:
All suggestions below assume protective behavior against Coronavirus.
- Recognize the power of the government to drive positive social change. Discuss it with your friends. Put an end to the idea that good government is no government at all. Good government is attached to guiding humane policies and ends; it needs good people to speak up and push it forward.
- Get active locally. Find out how poverty and racism work in your area. Lift the covers on poor areas, see what projects you can contribute too, attend city council open meetings and speak up about your concerns. Visit wealthy neighborhoods or gated communities and protest wealth differences and what all people can do to improve the situation.
- Join Black Live Matter, but make sure that issues of poverty, social class, and race are discussed. Build a platform on economic justice; eliminate new forms of modern slavery.
- Openly challenge the government to support initiatives that drive humane economic development. Support raising the minimum wage to $20.00 per hour for anyone who works in a company that generates over $50 million in profits. Fight for a guaranteed annual wage for all individuals. No households in America should be poor, worried about food, paying medical bills, keeping the heat on in the winter, and buying books for their kids at school, for example.
- Work for progressive candidates that support qualitative change in the role and purpose of government to help make our everyday lives more peaceful and secure, enrich the environment, and make sure that every child receives a quality education. There are plenty of solid candidates to choose from in every local area.
- Show up to vote. While it may true that our favorite candidates didn’t make it to the presidential level, this is one election that is critically important; Trump must go.
- Stand on any corner with a sign that states your beliefs; freeway overpasses are good venues. If you are worried about Coronavirus, protest with a few friends at six-foot distances. There’s plenty of room on the street.
- Volunteer to help at food banks. Use care in wearing a mask, keep appropriate distances, and wash your hands.