Friday, August 27, 2004

There's nothing surer...ain't we got fun

The numbers from the Census Bureau report released Thursday are cold and unrelenting.

- The number of poor people in the US increased from 34.6 million in 2002 to 35.9 million in 2003, or 12.5% of the population. It was the third straight increase.

- The childhood in poverty rate rose from 16.7% to 17.6%, the largest one-year jump since 1991.

- The number of people without health insurance went from 43.6 million in 2002 to 45 million in 2003, meaning 15.6% of the public has no protection. That, too, represented a third consecutive increase.

- Inflation-adjusted median household income, the level at which half of households earn more and half earn less, fell for the second straight year to $43,318 - just slightly below the 2002 level but 3.4% behind the 2000 level.

- Women working full time earned 76% of what men did, a drop of a percentage point from the year before.

- Asians had the highest median household income, followed by non-Hispanic whites, Hispanics, and blacks. Black median household income was only 62% that of whites and only 54% that of Asians.

- Non-Hispanic whites were the least likely to be in poverty or without health insurance; Hispanics and blacks fared the worse in both areas. The black poverty rate was nearly three times that of non-Hispanic whites.

The report generated the usual spate of blame-dodging and finger-pointing between the major political parties, all of which is frankly wholly and completely irrelevant. While some proposals are certainly better than others, these numbers are not going to be changed to any meaningful degree by sound bites ("Tax cuts! Tax cuts! Tax cuts!") or bumper stickers ("Put People First"). They may be ameliorated, but not altered significantly.

Because the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our presidents but in our economy, in its very structure, its very nature. The fact is, an economy like ours, built on perpetual growth, built on want want more more, built on hierarchy and an over-arching (and false) vision of competition as the source of all progress, cannot function without significant levels of poverty and significant differences among groups. The winners require the existence of the losers to maintain their victory.

Until we admit that, until we admit that there are powerful forces in our society that benefit from the existence of poverty, discrimination, and despair, we can shove those numbers around a few percent (and yes, less suffering, even if just a little less, is better than more suffering, but that's not the point here) but we will not achieve actual justice.

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