NEW YORK (MainStreet) What does it mean in America to be poor? Annie Lowrey of the New York Times has an insightful new article that takes apart the question of how costs of living in America has changed over the past nine years. Her result: as toys and luxury prices have plummeted, the important things like food, education and health care have only gotten more expensive.
A few thoughts.
First, the price of poverty in this country continues to increase. Many costs in America disproportionately impact the poor, including the popularity of flat taxes like sales tax and Social Security/Medicare withholding. It turns out market prices drive this phenomenon too. As televisions and iPads become more affordable, basic necessities like keeping the family car in working order have gone up.
For the poor, this means working steadily harder to simply keeping food on the table and a roof over their heads. Prices have increased for everyone, but it means a lot more when you have much less to spend.
Second, America is eating its seed corn. Our toys come cheaper than ever while the important things keeping getting farther and farther out of reach. Right wing politicians mock an American underclass that can afford flat screen TVs, but that's because trivial "stuff" like consumer electronics have gotten dirt cheap. It's a bait and switch to point at someone's refrigerator and ignore his medical bills.
The costs of education and health care, the absolute best mechanisms for lifting people out of poverty, keep going up.
Tuition in particular has soared, outpacing even the incomes of even most middle class families. Without access to quality schools our next generation will get to choose between broke or stagnant, and in 20 years we'll all be scratching our heads wondering what the hell happened. (Apologies. We're already there.)
Third, this is a direct result of government policies. We have a tax and trade system that heavily rewards shipping jobs overseas; beyond just the cost savings of paying for Chinese labor, companies can shelter vast amounts of money from the government by moving offshore. The result is, as Lowrey's graph demonstrates, tumbling costs of stuff that you can manufacture abroad and ship back to America.
At the same time, the top half of her chart shows the growing cost of basic well being. Government involvement in the public good keeps getting rolled back as legislatures at the federal and state level slash support for education, food and health care. (Obamacare notwithstanding, 24 states have refused to even expand Medicaid, leaving nearly 5 million people out in the cold.)
We don't have to see the prices of our luxury toys drop while our most important investments get steadily more expensive. We just choose to have it be this way. Since Washington is, in fact, highly responsive to the voters who actually turn out, these results are on our shoulders.
Finally, being poor in America is more comfortably hopeless than ever as the elements to build a better life climb past their reach. Education in particular has become cripplingly expensive, pricing a growing share of Americans out of college altogether. Child and health care costs have spiraled out of control as well, locking parents and the sick into financial traps from which they increasingly cannot escape.
Yes, we have installed TVs and microwaves in most American living homes. Poverty is more comfortable than ever. But is that really the best we can do here in the Land of Opportunity?
--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.