President John F. Kennedy once said about economic development that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Kennedy was, of course, right, but he missed something really, really important: A rising tide only lifts all boats when everyone has a boat.
This has never been clearer than it is right now. According to a shocking new study out of the Brookings Institution, around 12 million Americans survive on less than $2 per day. To put that number in perspective, 12 million people is about about 25 percent of the 46.5 million people living under the poverty line and about 4 percent of the U.S. population as whole.
Poverty statistics are notoriously difficult to work with, but that doesn’t change the fact this Brookings study is really, really disturbing. 12 million people living on less than two measly dollars a day in the richest country in the history of the world isn’t just shameful, it’s also the sign of policy failure of the highest order.
So where’d we go wrong? Why is deep, crushing poverty, something that’s pretty much unheard of in most Scandinavian and northern European countries, such a problem here in America?
Obviously, there’s no simple answer to that question. Reaganomics, a political system that favors the interests of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else, so-called “free trade” deals, ongoing structural racism — you name it. All of these things go a long way towards explaining America’s ongoing poverty problem.
But when it comes down to it, the real reason there’s such a poverty problem here in the United States is that we’ve never really come to grips with what poverty actually is.
Just look at what Paul Ryan is trying to do right now. As part of his big new anti-poverty plan, Ryan wants poor people to meet with life coaches and, I’m not kidding, sign contracts “outlining specific and measureable benchmarks for success.”
The idea here is that poverty is some sort of mental sickness that poor people need to be cured of before they become good, hard-working middle-class Americans.
This is, of course, the same cruel and wrongheaded idea behind pretty much every conservative plan to solve poverty. “If only those lazy poor people got some self-discipline and pulled themselves up by the bootstraps,” Republicans say, “they’ll get rich just like everyone else.”
But while this kind of stuff might sound good on the campaign trail and help Paul Ryan get airtime on cable TV channels, it’s just flat-out wrong.
Poverty is not a disease, it’s not a “culture,” and it’s not something you can solve just by telling poor people to work harder. Poverty, at its core, is really just a lack of resources. Poor people aren’t poor because they’re lazy and don’t know how to work; poor people are poor because they don’t have the resources (aka money) to afford things like housing, food, and education that are essential to living a good life.
So, if we really want to fight poverty here in the U.S., the number one thing we can do is actually give people the resources they don’t have. And yes, this means transferring wealth, you know, that whole socialism thing that everyone is always freaking out about.
If you don’t believe me, just take a look at this graph comparing the pre and post-tax poverty rates in three Scandinavian countries to the pre and post-tax poverty rate in the United States. While Finland, Denmark, and Sweden all have pre-tax poverty rates that are about the same as ours, their post-tax poverty rates are much, much lower. The reason why? Easy — Finland, Denmark, and Sweden, all have social welfare systems that actually work to reduce poverty, compared with the dysfunction system we have here in the U.S.
Poverty in America has deep roots and is the source of pretty much every other social problem in this country. But luckily for us, the solution to this country’s poverty problem is actually pretty simple.
If we want to make good on the promise of the American Dream and make sure that poverty is a thing of the past or least significantly reduced, we need to start doing right now what countries in Scandinavia have been doing for decades: redistributing wealth from those on the top to those on the bottom.
We do this already with the skimpy social safety we already have, but that social safety net has been on the chopping block since the Reagan era, and barely scratches the surface of what we need to do to ensure a basic standard of living for all Americans.
To paraphrase JFK once again, while a rising tide does lift all boats, it only does so when everyone has a boat.
Millions of Americans have been struggling for decades to survive on creaky, sinking boats, or treading water with a piece of driftwood. Let’s give them new boats. Let’s expand the social safety net.