Poverty and the moral dilemma

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By Karl Cassell


Since 1948, when official record-keeping began, the largest number of long-term unemployed Americans “left behind” in poverty are from the “Great Recession.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 47 million people unemployed and receiving food stamp benefits.

This staggering statistic is becoming increasingly apparent in many states and local jurisdictions. While many are expecting a return to normal employment figures soon, it is estimated that the rebuilding process will cover at least another five years. Does this mean it will get worse before it gets better? Will it get better?

The proportion of people living in poverty increased by 27 percent from the year before the onset of the Great Recession (2006) and 2010, according to “At Risk: America’s Poor During and After the Great Recession,” a recent report issued by Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Some states are dealing with rapidly growing percentages of poverty and unemployment that are having unrestrained effects on state budgets, while communities are struggling with educational, health, and social issues that demand local leaders to be good stewards of the communal trust.

Locally speaking, according to the most recent Census Bureau statistics for Cedar Rapids, 12 percent, or 15,159 of our 127,902 residents, are living below the poverty level.

For context, consider the segment of the population widely affected by this current economic tragedy. Individuals who have experienced long-term unemployment (e.g., beyond six months or a year) are an easily recognizable group who find themselves desperately hunting any means of employment during these harrowing economic times. Many of these have and will continue receiving food stamps, regularly visiting food banks, legally homeless, and moving back in with their parents or other relatives.

Why does it matter? Consider the last election cycle, and how collectively we are demanding economic reforms. This moral dilemma will affect our future fiscal house, through social, health and human service industries and our educational institutions — returning us to the unemployment crisis. Many of these 47 million people cut across racial and ethnic groups; the vast majority, children.

The growth of poverty is rising faster among children, above even our growing elderly population. Also rising in poverty are female-headed households and, most surprising, working-age adults from 18-34 years old.

If these circumstances persist, the status of those affected will quickly escalate from the “new poor” to the “permanently poor.” Undoubtedly, their children will have a greater risk of inheriting this impoverished way of life.

After lifelong careers, many once-valuable employees are being “downsized” due to economic decline and stagnation. Alternately, even hope-filled college graduates are being faced with moving back in with their parents when employment remains elusive. High unemployment has a rippling effect that causes many communities to feel the burden of increased home foreclosures, personal and business bankruptcy, homelessness, more school age-children receiving free/reduced lunch, as well as an increased need for more capital for social services.

While many have developed amnesia about the Great Recession and believe that the worst is behind us, we may soon see the elimination of some key safety nets because of burgeoning fiscal constraints. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, during his April 27, 2011, news conference, mentioned that the longer people are unemployed, the greater risk of mental atrophy — essentially increasing the need to make education more affordable, job training academies more accessible and entrepreneurial endeavors more attractive.

“The poor will always be among us” states the Bible in Matthew 26:11. If this is true, how will we treat the growing population of poor people? Another question worth considering: How close are you (or ones you love) to falling into this “new class”?

Karl Cassell is director of the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission and is a member of The Gazette Editorial Board’s Community Conversation Corps. Comments: coachcassell@hotmail.com

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