How Shitty Should American Poverty Get?

Photo: Homeless People

Recently, income inequality has become one of the hottest topics in left-leaning politics. There are countless graphs, videos, and statistics available to emphasize how much money each percentage of household owns. This abstraction can dehumanize people in poverty.

No matter what we do as a capitalist society, there will always be poverty. It’s certainly within our ability to change the number of people at any given point on this scale, but it doesn’t change the humanitarian aspect of it.

We should be asking…

What is the lowest quality of life we’re willing to tolerate for our fellow citizens?

Regardless of how we can get these things done, these are my choices for a minimum level of what should be American rights. While reading this, keep in mind we built our country on the mission statement: everyone has the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Let’s start with the essentials…

Life

  • Clean breathable air
  • Clean drinking water
  • Nutritious food
  • Shelter stable enough to be used for a mailing address
  • Safety from malicious harm (Police protection, child abuse laws)
  • Preventative and emergency healthcare (including mental healthcare)
  • Accessible basic education
  • Access to vital information (public libraries, internet)

These rights cover a minimum ability to survive. Any American who can’t count on one or more of these things has difficulty surviving today.

Liberty

  • Bodily integrity (right to control matters of one’s own body)
  • Free speech (1st Amendment)
  • Voting rights
  • Non-discrimination laws
  • A free press (including whistleblower protections)
  • Freedom from unreasonable invasion, search, and seizure (3rd – 4th Amendments)
  • Fair trials when accused (5th – 8th Amendments)
  • Right to individual privacy
  • Freedom of information for government operations
  • International human rights laws
  • Freedom to leave (unless under criminal charges)

Many of these come straight from our Bill of Rights. Other adjustments and additions have come with changing times. In my view these are rights, not privileges. Thus, no one should be able to take them away or limit access (charge fees, limit availability of services, cut funding, [etc.]) to them.

The Pursuit of Happiness

  • Access to voluntary mental healthcare (substance abuse treatment, therapy, suicide prevention)
  • Criminal rehabilitation
  • Public safety (police, hospitals, firefighters, CDC, etc.)
  • Equal entrepreneurship, employment, and education opportunities
  • Economic mobility
  • Worker protections (40 hour work week, minimum wage, OSHA, [etc.])
  • Consumer protections (FDA, BBB, CPA, FCC, FDIC, [etc.])

We already have many of these benefits today, but they get meticulously chipped away by special interest groups and their pet politicians.

Each day the people who claim to represent us do the best they can to take these rights away from us. They’re stripping away the threads of our American right to Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit of Happiness.

These aren’t luxuries. These are the foundations of why we sing our songs, pledge our allegiance, and pay our taxes. These are the ideals we became an independent nation for. At least we’ve spun things this way in hindsight.

But what about wealth distribution?

Comic where a minimum wage worker is digging into the V in Poverty while a rich person tells them to keep working and they'll get out

Despite what we’re told, it’s easy to redistribute wealth however we choose. We can modify the numbers in our tax structure. Maybe take more social security funding from rich people. Robin Hood had this figured out centuries ago. Rich conservatives would rather pay their lobbyists and super PACs out the ear than see the money go toward poverty, of course.

The problem with focusing entirely on distribution is: Even if we get our percentage of people at or under the poverty level down to 20% (less than half of the current level), I still don’t want our citizens in poverty to have such low economic mobility and quality of life. I don’t want them to have to scrape out a life without clean air and water, without being able to learn how to read and do basic arithmetic. Without preventative and emergency healthcare. They shouldn’t have to attempt to live without any of their rights.

Even if we had a few dozen citizens in poverty, if those people were living on the streets and eating from garbage cans I would still see a need for change. No American should ever be put into this position. Any American somehow finding themselves there should damn sure be equipped to get themselves out of it.

Re-roll Your Character Sheet

Think back to when you last played Dungeons & Dragons. If you haven’t played before, don’t worry. I’ll keep the references shallow. You only have to know we generate character stats by rolling dice (usually 20-sided ones). You can play along at home if you have a few of them on hand!

A D20 and D8 Dice

Let’s pretend you’re going to be reborn. Your current body and mind, your friends and family, your possessions and reputation, your education and experience, gone. You’re going to be born fresh to a family you don’t know, in an unfamiliar place.

Everything will be randomly selected, and you have no say in any of it. You don’t get to decide where you roll 20s, and where you roll 1s. Do you think you’ll do better with this re-roll, or do you think the odds are against you?

Let’s break the probabilities down and see our chances for various character traits.

Income Level

Using the What Percent Am I calculator from Wall Street Journal, let’s see what our dice rolls mean.

  • You have to roll a perfect 20 to be in the top 5% of household income (~$120,000 a year or more).
  • If you roll a 15-19, you’re in the middle class (~$50,000+).
  • Rolling 11-14 places you in the working class.
  • If you roll anything from a 10 or lower, you’re in poverty line range (depending on where you live).

Yup. You have a nearly 50% chance to be born poor.

The real world turned out a bit different from the 25% chance we thought we had to live in a mansion while playing M.A.S.H. in middle school.

The MASH game
I was devastated to learn I’d never marry Ferris Bueller and drive into the Paris sunset in my Bitchin’ Camaro

Maybe we should have called it M.A.A.A.A.S.S.S.S.S.S.S.S.S.S.H.H.H.H.H.

Gender

We’re slightly more likely to be born male, but the margin is small enough to flip a coin for it. If your coin flip lands on female*, your personal contribution to the income we rolled above will be reduced by 21%.

But hey, at least you get to have other people decide for you what you can do with your own body. You get to have lots of flirty conversations with creepy people on the streets whenever you leave the house by yourself. Your TV will tell you what you can wear and who you should have sex with. You get these nice little conveniences and services for paying the 21% vagina tax.

Comic portraying a woman being told she could have her father's nice office one day if she were a man

(* This would be more accurately described “not male” if you don’t subscribe to the gender binary. The vagina tax would be a “not-appearing-to-have-a-penis tax” instead too, but it didn’t roll off the keyboard as nicely.)

Race

Now we’ll roll your racial stats. Your race will affect your everyday life to a varying degree based on which group you get visually assessed as, and many of your economic opportunities will also be affected. Sometimes you’ll see this happening, but most of the time it will go on behind the scenes.

A parody workplace sensitivity video about white fragility.
From an EXCELLENT video.

These odds are raw percentages, so you may want a 100-sided die for it.

  • 62% chance to be born white
  • 18% chance to be born hispanic
  • 12% chance to be born black
  • 6% chance to be born Asian
  • 3% chance to be born “Other” (on most surveys)

Being placed into the “other” category means you’ll be treated as one of the other specifically named categories based on your skin color. It’s a wild card of discrimination!

Sexual Orientation

4/10 LGBT Youth report that their community is not accepting of them.

You have roughly a 3.5% chance to be born non-heterosexual based on a UCLA study. This percentage includes people who consider themselves non-binary or transgender, but doesn’t take into account people who are closeted. For the sake of my D&D metaphor, we’ll say your new character qualifies as some degree of “Queer” if you roll a 20.

Orientation doesn’t affect income as much as some early studies claimed, but your quality of life will definitely differ from most. Your childhood will be rough at varying degrees depending on where you live. If you manage to get through the first 20-ish years of your life relatively unscathed, you’ll hopefully find it gets better. And by better, I mean it eventually improves to become similar to how cis heterosexuals have it.

Disability

According to the Census, nearly 20% of Americans report they have a disability. If you roll a 20-sided die and get a 1-4, you get one too. Because disabilities cover a wide range of experiences, I’ll leave it up to your imagination.

If you think disability is a sweet deal that gets you all the government cheese you want, you’ll be disappointed. Not only do you have challenges most others don’t, but some people will resent you for it as if it were an advantage. Welcome to the miracle of concentrated media ownership.

Location

Population Density of US States

 

The darker the green is, the greater your chances to be born there. You could be born in:

  • A state with a lot of natural disasters (tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, [etc.])
  • A state with toxic drinking water or polluted air
  • A region where you have limited work opportunities (coal country for example)
  • A county with poor education funding
  • A state with sparse health services for women
  • A state with a great economy, a healthy environment, and laws that protect you

Now, let’s take into account the previous dice rolls. Consider the likelihood of a few unfortunate combinations:

  • A minority, in a state where there are laws on the books that openly discriminate against you
  • Poverty, in a city with major crime, gang, and drug problems
  • Poverty, in a state with a high cost of living
  • Asthma, in a state with unregulated air pollution (which actually increases your chances of having asthma in the first place)

Some people are able to move when they grow up someplace that is inhospitable to them. Sadly, many lack that option when they need it.

Miscellaneous Rolls (Advanced Mode)

There are dozens of other factors affecting you from birth, with little to no control over them. The ones I’ve mentioned were the low hanging fruit among them, but you can probably imagine several others. Add additional dice rolls into your character sheet for more realism!

A Necessary Safety Net

Before you’re reborn as your re-rolled character, how do you gauge your future prospects? We can’t choose any of these factors for ourselves, yet they will impact our quality of life and opportunities forever.

What should the penalty be for rolling your dice differently than others? In a just society, there would be no penalty at all. We would also minimize the benefits of exceptionally lucky dice rolling.

It’s healthy for successful people to be able to pass advantages down to their children, but the gap shouldn’t be wide enough to resemble feudalism. Most of the first world has rejected monarchy by now. The caste system is [hopefully] giving out its last dying breath around the globe. At least the ones operating openly.

This is a necessary conversation to have when discussing poverty. Much as we may feel we have a free country — where we judge everyone by their merits and anyone can make it here — the real numbers don’t agree.

Unemployment will rise as our technology improves and the quantity of available jobs decreases. It’s critical we address these issues today.

Imagine you lost your job tomorrow and couldn’t find another one for a year. What do you think your life would be like? Would you live in a tent under a bridge, in public housing, or in the same place you had before? Are food, water, and other supplies accessible for you? If you’re still unable to find work a year from now, will you lose access to these essentials?

(I wouldn’t be surprised if a Democratic president gave this speech in our near future. This issue is bipartisan, even if the conservative side seems louder.)

Imagine you’re at the super market buying groceries. You’re on a tight budget with some help from food stamps. Before you lost your job, you worked and paid taxes for 20 years. You spot an upper-class-looking person walking toward you in the aisle. They sized you up immediately when they saw you, and now they’re peeking into your shopping cart. After you pass them, you hear them mutter under their breath that you shouldn’t be allowed to buy fish with food stamps.

This is the real class warfare we see in our media constantly.

Specifically on conservative outlets, you’ll find arguments where people in poverty are undeserving of government benefits. They believe poor people have limitless economic mobility, and choose not to be rich because they’re lazy. They’ll say:

  • You shouldn’t get to enjoy small middle class pleasures, like junk food.
  • Whole Foods and Wegman’s are too fancy for you.
  • Fish and organic produce are too healthy and expensive for poor people.
  • You probably have a refrigerator! You don’t need benefits!

Essentially: Poor people aren’t suffering enough.

For the child born tomorrow with their own random assortment of dice rolls, should being born in poverty mean they go hungry? Do we look at them and think, “Sucks to be them” and keep walking because we rolled our dice better?

Can we still call ourselves the land of the free if our circumstances at birth can shackle us? Can we still call ourselves the home of the brave if we’re too afraid to step up and make these hard choices for ourselves? How great can we truly be if we look down on 50% of our population because it makes us feel better about ourselves?

Maybe you can tell me, because I apparently have ridiculously high expectations.


Also published on Medium.

2 responses to “How Shitty Should American Poverty Get?”

  1. Corry, I’m always heartened by your compassion. A nation’s government is derelict in its duties when the poor and/or homeless have to beg from the public. The bargain a country’s citizens make with its elected officials is that we pay taxes for services that benefit us all, and feeding, housing and hospitalizing the less fortunate should be one of those services. We shouldn’t have to feel guilty when we walk out of our homes and offices for not wanting to give money to beggars – it’s the government that should feel guilty for putting this burden on taxpayers as a result of of wasting tax dollars on tax breaks and subsidies for the better off rather than spreading it across all strata of society.

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