January 19, 2018
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The Final Word

This Issue's Final Word: In the richest country on earth, millions have been left out in the cold. Why?



Around the 80s I noticed there was a change in how we spoke about poor people. We started talking about welfare queens who were taking advantage of taxpayer money and suddenly we started not thinking about the challenges faced by our families but we started blaming the victims of poverty.

I believe our American Dream has turned into an American nightmare.  By falling for the lure of individual success, that we have forgotten our ideals. It's not just our safety net that's falling apart. It's the moral fiber and that's what happens when we forget to have love and compassion for one another.


In Oregon, and this is mirrored around the country, about 26% of the population lives in a condition of asset poverty. So that's one out of four people. If you don't have income for three months, you're going to your friends--hopefully you have some friends, right? Or family--maybe you don't have family nearby. Or public assistance. The resiliency cushion, the economic resiliency of Oregonians and, in fact, nationwide is almost non-existent really.


The social safety net has more holes in it. You have to be significantly poorer today to even get in the door. Okay? For them to consider you. In Oregon, for instance, a three person family whose income exceeds $616 for a month cannot get into the door to be considered for the TANF program. That was set in 1991 when our minimum wage was under $5.00.  And it's been frozen there ever since. That's a bad budget priority. It's a bad choice. And we need to change that.


[We] simply have this problem where no one can afford to buy stuff anymore. Helping a poor family isn't an act of charity. It's converting a family that you have to support into a family that can buy things from your company.  Helping the poor is what drives the economy. That's why all prosperous economies have big middle classes.  Right, that there's a huge return uh economically, socially and politically in helping poor people.


If capitalism is not regulated or checked, there's a harsh logic and it will always seek out the lowest costs, highest return, which is why we have historically viewed government as a check and a balance on that. Over the last quarter century, we have reduced regulations, degraded wages, cut back on healthcare. We've reduced taxes and now people are more vulnerable. And my job is to communicate to people the absolute moral imperative during these times of using public resources to maintain the safety net until things turn around and to make sure that we don't throw some of our most vulnerable people essentially to the wolves.

What we have is a system that once someone falls into homelessness we've insured that the highest cost service delivery system kicks in. The police officer becomes their case worker. The fire bureau becomes their medical provider. They get their, most of their medical care through emergency room services. What if we actually went upstream and said how do we prevent people from falling into homelessness. How do we make investments upstream so that no one falls into homelessness and what if it turns out it costs a lot less? Now of course we've documented all over the country that that's the case. If we make a small investment then, early on to keep someone in their apartment and avoid all of the dominoes which follow when there's an eviction, then not only do we save a fortune on the back end, but we keep someone in a healthy place.


I have never seen a time when there has been as much venom over things that in previous years we agreed on. We've always been a nation that would look out for those that needed help. And for the life of me, I don't understand the response that would say, ‘no, fend for yourself’.  That's not rooted in the fabric of America.

What does it mean to be in America?  What does it mean to live in this country?  Everybody wants the same thing. We want to be able to live in a place of freedom. Want to be able to live in a place where we have the chance to be the best we can be. That's why you're seeing so many other nations appreciate America. Yet we're throwing it away. And it's our most powerful asset that we have.

These words are reposted courtesy of Joe and Harry Gantz, filmmaker-producers of the HBO documentary "American Winter".