Aside from drunks on skid row, I had not experienced homeless people until I traveled to Bogota, Colombia in 1972. I saw men living on the street and wondered what kind of a society would allow that. It was then considered a “third-world” country and I shrugged it off. When a friend and I went to a small restaurant to get “fresas con crema” (fresh strawberries with whipped cream), we saw two young girls outside the restaurant digging for food in the trash container. At first we wrinkled our noses, but when one of them took out a carton of milk and began drinking it, we both lost our appetite and gave the girls our treats. Central and South America were known for the gaps in inequality there. It was acceptable. I was a tourist and what could I do? I was in my twenties and didn’t see my responsibility for making the world a better place.
On January 8, 1964, I was a junior in high school, full of optimism and happy with the government of Kennedy and Johnson. I remember Lyndon Johnson declaring the War on Poverty, in which every home would be able to secure food and shelter. We’re not talking fancy food or fancy shelter, and there was no mention of cars, so the nation got behind it. With the new set of voters from the Voting Rights Act of 1965, attention was turning to their living conditions. The poverty rate had risen to 19% and the government felt that was too high. After all, the unemployment rate in the Great Depression had been 30%. The way poverty was computed was to add up the cost of living for a family of four, not counting housing or meat.
This remained in effect until the 80s under President Reagan. Conservatives began to portray welfare recipients as single-parent minority families, who only have children to collect benefits. Poverty levels are much higher for blacks and Hispanics. Reagan reduced benefits, claiming it was a waste of money because it didn’t get rid of poverty. Calculated in the poverty level now are the benefits they poor receive, making it seem they are wealthier than they are. If you have ever had to live in this “safety net” you will know you can’t do it on your own. Our present poverty rate is 14.8 and increases in the last year surprisingly affected people with a bachelor’s degree or more and married-couple families.
Source citation: DeNavas-Walt, Carmen and Bernadette D. Proctor, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-252, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2014, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2015.