Reducing poverty in the US should be an urgent task
The United States is the richest and most powerful country in the world. It could afford to spend more than one trillion dollars in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and make B-2 stealth bombers that cost $2 billion a piece. Yet daily life in its cities often defies such an image.
On my way to and from work via the Washington Metro, it’s almost always the beggars who greet passengers coming in and out of the stations. Men and women, old and young, hold signs of “hungry”, “out of job”, “homeless” or “homeless veterans”.
And outside the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Library just two blocks from my Metro Center stop, there are lines of homeless people waiting for free meals distributed by charity organizations or shelter buses to pick them up and take them to a place to stay.
But some of the homeless choose to sleep on benches in parks, some in cardboard boxes in small alleys. In the sub-zero days like two weeks ago, some homeless slept on the sidewalks over the subway grates so the rising heat would keep them warm.
Such a picture is true not just in New York and DC, but other major US cities, such as San Francisco and Seattle. They are all great cities and my favorite cities in the US, but they would be so much nicer without such a scene, an inhuman one especially for a country as rich as the US.
In his coverage of Camden, New Jersey, last year, NBC TV’s news anchor Brian Williams described the poorest US city as “staggering poverty surrounded by staggering wealth.” Run-down houses in Camden contrast sharply to the glitzy skyscrapers of Philadelphia on the other side of the Delaware River.
Statistics showed that 15 percent of Americans, or close to 50 million, were living in poverty in 2012, according to the US Census.
These included a disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinos. A Pew Center report shows that poverty among African Americans, though falling slightly over the years, is still more than double the rate for whites, 27.2 percent against 12.7 percent. Meanwhile, the share of Hispanics in poverty has risen over the years to 25.6 percent in 2012.
There is no doubt that the poverty in the US is quite different from that in the developing world. Many of the poor in the US may have computers, dishwashers and cars. But the existence of such a large underprivileged group shows that something has gone seriously wrong in this society.
Americans have been debating issues such as poverty and minimum wage in the past weeks as they mark the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Some have applauded the great achievements since the early 1960s, but others mocked it by quoting President Ronald Reagan as saying that “the United States fought a war on poverty and poverty won.”
Both may be right to some extent, but the poverty seen on America’s streets on a daily basis, and much more behind the streets, means the country is far from accomplishing its war on poverty.
No wonder International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde would point finger at the US on Wednesday when she warned that in far too many countries, benefits of growth are being enjoyed by far too few people.
She described the fact that 95 percent of income gains since 2009 went to the top 1 percent in the US as “not a recipe for stability and sustainability.”
It’s clear that poverty reduction is not just an urgent task for developing countries like China, which, despite lifting 600 million out of poverty in the past few decades, still faces enormous hard work ahead. It’s also a pressing one for the richest superpower. The author, based in Washington DC, is deputy editor of China Daily USA.