Poverty Creeps into Lilly-White Suburbs

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor
into your house;
when you see the naked, to
cover them,
and not to hide yourself from
your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth
like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring
up quickly;
your vindicator shall go
before you,
the glory of the Lord
will answer;
you shall cry for help and he
will say, Here I am.”

-Isaiah 58 7-8.

United States Census Bureau Statistics for 2009 display a disturbing trend: the poverty so long a part of the landscape and itself a blight on the people of this nation we all value so much is now making its way in greater strength into lily-white suburbs not associated with the plight of the poor and the dispossessed.

In the seven county region of Southeastern Wisconsin, poverty statistics reveal the weight of the economic meltdown falling far and near and upon more and more Americans.

Before we look at the numbers, we should note that the poverty line in the United States is defined as $22,000 a year gross annual income for a family of four. Now anyone who has to pay the bills knows that for even one person to comfortably live and have signficant disposable income living away from home and parents, $22,000 is not all that much money. Having to support three other people in addition to that is a disaster. Worse yet, people don’t just live at the poverty line they unfortunately can live below it! The obvious assertion to make at this point is to declare that twenty-two thousand dollars a year is a poverty line set far to low. That standard needs drastic revision upward to account for the real living costs for human beings in the United States.

According to UPI.com, in “White-black wealth gap quadrupled,” The gap between the median wealth of white and black families in the United States has quadrupled between 1984 and 2007. Research study co-author Tatjana Meschede of the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts stated this gap ncreased from $20,000 to $95,000 dollars in those years. That is an increase of $75,000 dollars added to the racial wealth gap in the United States.

The UPI article of May 20, 2010 quotes co-author Thomas Shapiro, director fo the Institute on Assets and Social Policy as saying: “Even when African-Americans do everything right–get an education and work hard at well -paying jobs–they cannot achieve the wealth of their white peers in the workforce, and that translates into very different life chances.” Whatever statistics reveal about suburban areas with high population densities of white Caucasians in this present period of economic distress we can bet that African-Americans suffer even more.

Waukesha County, a bustling suburban collar county of urban Milwaukee County and very upscale, and with the fastest growing economy in the state the past ten years shows that in 2000 9,635 human beings lived in poverty. Flashing ahead to 2009 that number was at 18, 015. That is an 87% increase. No doubt the number has even edged higher this year as the depression the nation is suffering in continues and deepens for working people and small business, though not for wealthy multi-national corporations.

In Kenosha County. a county with a high minority population especially African-American, our suspicions about those people suffering more are born out. In 2000, 10,915 persons lived in poverty. Nine years later it was 21,368, a 95.8% increase. In the City of Kenosha, within that county where many African-Americans live there were 8,328 persons at the poverty line or below it in 2000 and 17,105 of the county’s 21, 368 poor living in the city. The increase in the City of Kenosha was a whopping 105%. Joblessness and poverty typically hits people of color harder than even white people even when everybody seems to be suffering badly.

In Milwaukee County, the poster child for the area regarding an unholy and unwelcome tradition of poverty the numbers have changed little but for the worse. People living in poverty are not about to climb out of it in the midst of an incoming depression. 139,747 of our own citizens lived in poverty in 2000. Nine years later our U.S. Census snapshot reveals 188,254. Here the percentage increase is a modest one-third: 34.7%. But Milwaukee County for many years has led Wisconsin in poverty. Not an enviable assignment for its residents.

Ozaukee County, home of wealthy Mequon and surrounding comfortable white communities shows that 2,078 people lived at or below the poverty line in 2000 while 4,477 did so last year. That increase is 115% reflecting the small numbers but indicating the trend line is not good.

For Racine County, 15,491 persons lived in poverty in 2000 and 23,806 in 2009. The increase: a relatively modest 53.7%.

Walworth County shows 7,478 persons in poverty in 2000 and 13,774 in that unwelcome position in 2009 an increase of 84.2%.

The numbers for people living below the poverty line are important too given what has been said about how unreasonable the poverty line number for a family of four is in the first place. Wealthy Waukesha County has just under five percent of its residents living below the line. Milwaukee County has 15.3 percent which is dangerously close to being able to say that one of five county residents live below that line.

What all these numbers point to is the heavy hit the area took when Wall Street had its meltdown and millions of jobs were as they now euphemistically say “shed” all over America. No doubt those of you reading all this in other parts of the nation will find similar statistics available from your area planning commission or Census Bureau office to confirm this trend.

These disturbing numbers tell us that now white Americans who have long been accustomed to being firmly implanted in the middle class no longer are part of it at all. When a job is lost, a divorce occurs, your wages and time are cut, or profits of your small business are nonexistent these things can happen. It highlights the need to put America back to work and to make those jobs fully family supporting jobs well above the poverty line.

There is also something else those of us who still have jobs and live above the poverty line can do. Support your local or area food pantry to the hilt. Volunteer your time. Donate food. Give money. They need it. For example, the Food Pantry of Waukesha County at 1301 Sentry Dr. in Waukesha. WaukeshaPantry@tds.net now serves 1,400 people every single week. The dramatic increase in clients they tell us, has forced them to move to a larger facility at that address. They must need volunteers, food, and money just now and throughout the entire year. People do not just eat at Thanksgiving when those of us with guilty consciences make that modest donation to our food pantries.

Let us all do God’s work and the work of justice for the poor. Let us advocate for more action by government to alleviate their suffering in this time of great distress. Let us aid our private churches and food pantries and community organizations that fight poverty and help the helpless now.

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