Today is The United Nations’ International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.
This day has been observed every year since 1993, when the General Assembly passed Resolution 47/196 and designated this day to promote awareness of the need to eradicate poverty and destitution in all countries. At the Millennium Summit, world leaders committed themselves to cutting by half by the year 2015 the number of people living in extreme poverty, less than $1/day in household income.
We are not concerned with the very poor. The modern poor, wrote E.M. Forster, “are [the] unthinkable, only approached by the statistician or the poet.”
In the United States, one in five poor households with children is living without meaningful cash income.
In a February 2012 brief on “Extreme Poverty In The United States 1996 to 2011”, the National Poverty Center estimated that as of the beginning of 2011 about 1.46 Million US households with about 2.8 million children were surviving on $2 or less in income per person per day in a given month. This constitutes almost 20% of all non-elderly households with children living in poverty. About 866,000 households appear to live in extreme poverty across a full calendar quarter.
At this rate, the United States will not reach the UN’s Millennium Development Goal Date of 2015. In the United States, extreme poverty has risen sharply; the number of households living on $2 or less per person rose from 636,000 in 1996 to 1.4 million in 2011. Half of Americans receive some type of government benefit, but most of these benefits do not go to the extremely poor. And those benefits that do go to the poor are more often in—kind benefits than cash assistance.
The welfare program ended in 1996 the cash assistance program for poor families with children. America has since given birth to a new class of citizens: households with children living on virtually no income. Even when food stamp benefits are valued the same as dollars, the number of extremely poor households with children is only cut in half.
America is losing her war on poverty. It is often joked that a poor man with nothing in his belly needs illusion and hope far more than a loaf of bread. I disagree. Those who throw the crumbs of idealism, our political leaders, our community leaders, and our champions of industry, who give us our promises of hope, change, who give us five point plans, must rise to a new challenge: our politicians must be both statistician and poet at once. The goal of great politics, of true politics, is the recognition of man’s common bond across creed, race, gender, class, and nationality.
Thankfully there are international organizations like the United Nations that serve as a reminder of our common thoughts, common interests in order to strive for a common destiny. We exist, across colors, countries, classes, therefore it exists.
The Russian Novelist Vladimir Nobokov began each of his American lectures with the same adage from the Lebanese poets: “A man only needs two pennies to survive. One penny for bread and one for the flower. The penny for bread is the penny for life. The penny for the flower is the penny for joy.” Too many of us have one and not the other.