The Tear Sheet: If poverty is a disease, it’s catching in Kentucky

“Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.”
—George Orwell, “Down and Out in Paris and London”

Being poor is a lot like being sick. It drags at your spirit, even as others tend to keep their distance, as if being hard up, as Orwell put it, was contagious.

The problem is, maybe it is catching — at least in Kentucky and Louisville, where the poverty rates are up sharply since 2000.

“The median income has fallen very fast in Kentucky over the past several years,” said James Ziliak, an economist and director of the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research. “So poverty has gone up over the past four years, too.”

Kentucky’s poverty rate is much higher than the nation’s — and higher, too, than the rest of the South, according to the Center.

Ziliak said the problem began with the 2001 recession, but didn’t ease once the rest of the country began to recover. There’s just not enough people earning enough money to make ends meet, he said, making it harder to fend off poverty.

Plenty of the people who are impoverished are also full-time workers. A worker with two children, for instance, has to earn nearly $8 an hour, full-time all year long, to avoid poverty.

Bring home less than that, and your children will be, officially, impoverished. But they won’t lack for company here in Louisville.

Turns out, about one out of every five children in this city is raised in poverty. (In Kentucky, it’s closer to one out of every four — a statistic that makes us the worst in the nation, except Alabama and Mississippi.)
I started asking questions about poverty in Louisville two weeks ago, after sitting through several moving testimonials by poor women whose children had been taken away from them. It was billed as a Truth Commission, akin to what took place in South Africa after apartheid, and put on by Woman In Transition, a local group run for, and mostly by, poor women.

Most often, in Kentucky, children are removed from homes because of neglect, not abuse or other reasons, according to a recent report by Kentucky Youth Advocates. That means they had been deprived of something essential — like care, food or shelter.

“Allegations of abuse account for only 11 percent of the total number of the children who were removed from their own homes in 2004,” read a recent report put out by KYA and the National Institute on Children, Youth & Families Inc., based in Louisville. “Instead it is poverty and lack of parenting skills that are the main reasons why children are removed from their own homes.”

Many of the women who spoke at the event said they had simply been too poor, and too stressed out by being poor, to provide the kinds of homes their kids deserved. Their complaint now is that the decisions made about their children when they were down and out can’t be undone, even though they are back on their feet.

David Richart, executive director of the national institute, said the problem isn’t that the state is necessarily wrong to take children out of a troubled home. It’s that the intervention, he said, comes too late.

Children — and their parents — ought to be protected from poverty, not just from poor parents, he said. What we have now is a social services system that is geared to respond to crises, rather than help prevent them.

The report may have done some good — Vikki Franklin, a spokeswoman for the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said the inspector general has launched an investigation into child-removal policies in Hardin County based on allegations the report contained.

In the meantime, the real solutions will probably require a change in attitude among all of us.
Nobody wants a child to grow up in a home characterized by neglect. But why not view “neglect” as a problem for the whole family — the parents and the children — and look for ways out of poverty, rather than the permanent “solution” of removing the children?

The idea of a real safety net, something that prevents poverty rather than responds to poverty-induced crises, is no longer in fashion in America.

Ziliak, the economist, said America has made some progress in recent years, adding insurance to millions of poor children and expanding the earned income tax credit for the poor. But traditional welfare payments have all but died away, and only the food stamps program (which is rapidly expanding) remains available based purely on need, he said.

Richart said a Marxist critique of our way of doing things would point out that the aid we give to the poor is only enough to keep them tame and unlikely to interfere with the capitalist economy. He has a point, but Ziliak said it doesn’t take socialism to create a more helpful, and cost-effective, approach to tackling poverty.

“It is the difference between preventative medicine and emergency surgery,” he said. “You can see your hygienist to have your teeth cleaned and maybe prevent … having your teeth removed. … Many of these family situations are induced by economic stress. If you can alleviate that stress, you might eliminate many of the problems.”

The grieving women who told their stories were like patients reaching for amputated limbs. For them, it’s too late for preventative medicine. But there are thousands of others, just like them, many right here in Louisville.
I don’t have all the answers, but some first steps seem rather obvious. For instance, why not set the minimum wage at something closer to the poverty level for a family of three, rather than the $10,000 a year it sits at now?
But for now, maybe we can simply start seeing poverty as a disease that has infected all of us. It’s just that those of us who are not poor have the means to better treat the symptoms.
That, like Orwell said, is a beginning.

Michael Lindenberger wrote the Tear Sheet column for LEO from June 1996 to December 1999, and during that period he also served as the paper’s chief political writer. He rejoins LEO as a contributing writer after reporting stints at The Dallas Morning News and, most recently, The Courier-Journal, where he was a state correspondent and bureau chief. Michael is in his final year of law school at U of L. Send him story ideas at [email protected]