Third World in America: Poverty and the American Dream

By Talia Whyte
Special to Global Wire

Is the American dream still alive? We are told from an early age that if we work hard enough we can do whatever we want in life and be happy. It is everyone’s dream to get a job that pays well and live prosperously. Apparently this is not true. Approximately 37 million Americans live below the poverty line and many more are on their way to poverty due to globalization. The recent tragedy of Hurricane Katrina put a spotlight on the plight of the poor. Poverty experts gathered in Boston recently to try to make sense of America’s invisible problem.

“The thing about New Orleans was that it forced people to recognize poverty,” said Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City. “You can go through life and not see poverty. Katrina forced us to see poor people and feel the pain of poverty.”

“I am surprised by the ‘rediscovery’ of poverty by the media,” said author Barbara Ehrenreich. “Who did the media think was making up their beds in the hotels down there. It shouldn’t have been a surprise.”

Ehrenreich is famed for her book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, where she gave up her middle class lifestyle to see how the working class in America get by.

Today eighty percent of jobs in the US and Canada are in the service sector. Fifty percent of those low-paying jobs are in hotels and restaurants. These workers get pay that is just barely above the minimum wage and don’t qualify for health insurance, pensions or retirement plans. The hotel industry has witness immense consolidation and expansion over the past few decades and now employs 1.3 million workers. While sales in the hotel industry are reaching back to pre 9/11 numbers, hotel workers are not reaping the benefits.

Analysts believe that the wave in globalization has caused a shift in the job market. Ehrenreich said that the only reason Americans can get service jobs is because they are not being exported to other countries such as China and India.

“Out of the top twenty jobs in America, only five of them require college degrees,” she said. “Companies are having trouble outsourcing service jobs. We have even produced professionals but they are not getting jobs. The break down of the American dream is that you can’t work hard in this country and get ahead.”

Canada said that the solution to this is to improve the public education system in the country.

“America is at a competitive disadvantage,” he said. We don’t produce scientists and engineers like India and China do. We have allowed our public schools to be horrible. We need to think about being more competitive with education.”

Ehrenreich disagreed with Canada’s premise, stating that no matter what kind of education you have, you still can’t get ahead in America.

“People with college education are being down mobilized and having to get jobs at Starbucks and Circuit City for $8 dollars an hour,” she said. “Only then do people see what poverty is.”

Poverty has taken its toll especially in communities of color and African American males in particular. Canada says that the government focuses too much of its social services on single women with children. He states that more is needed to support males in this country.

“You are not going to solve poverty by focusing on one gender,” he said. “Fifty percent of African American males are unemployed and 32,000 of them are in jail. We spend approximately $30,000 per male in jail. It is just ridiculous as a policy. We should be spending money on youth development programs that will keep them out of jail in the first place.”

The Bush administration has recently proposed that marriage would be a way to alleviate poverty. Conservatives say that there is evidence that married people get ahead better and have an easier time economically than single people.

“Marriage should be based on love, not to have a income stream,” Ehrenreich said. “There are different arrangements people can make that works. There was a case in Virginia where two single moms lived together for financial reasons. The neocons couldn’t handle it because they can’t deal with anything that looks remotely homosexual. People have to understand that poor people have to make their lives work for them.”

While no conclusion to what should be done about poverty was made, panelists believe that it should be a matter that all Americans take up.

“We are seeing a class war in progress,” Ehrenrich said. “We can only overcome this when we join together regardless of race and fight poverty.”


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