We Are Poor

Paul Olson
UNL Emeritus Professor

Speaking Our Peace Graphic

We are poor. We now see the wreckage of Nebraska the Good Life… of America the Good Life. Too many of us cannot feed ourselves good food, educate ourselves well, or provide ourselves decent housing. The census says that one in six Americans are poor. 

We seem poorer than most of our ancestors of 60 years ago. White Nebraskans of that era could feed their children, raise their families healthily, buy their homes and secure their farm homesteads. (This of course was not true for people of color who had to contend with the onus of segregation and legalized discrimination.) 

Now virtually all Nebraska families are two-job families, some of them ‘latchkeyers’ with three or four jobs. Lincoln is probably our most consistently affluent city, but even it is hurting. This past December, the Lincoln NFP Chapter sponsored a program examining the problem of poverty in our capital. The featured speaker was Beatty Brasch, a long-time member of Nebraska for Peace who created the “Center for People in Need” which provides direct services in food, clothing, housing and employment-training to thousands of Lincolnites and Nebraskans. 

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, the Center conducted a survey of about 2,000 Center clients to collect and analyze their stories. The findings: 

  • 61.6 percent… live week to week or day to day.
  • 64 percent… sometimes, often or always have to choose between buying food and paying bills. More than 12 percent answered “always.”
  • More than 27 percent [were] in danger of having their utilities cut off that month.
  • 13.5 percent [had had] their utilities… shut off already.
  • 7.6 percent… didn’t know where they’d be staying in a week.
  • 11 percent… didn’t know where they’d be staying in a month.
  • 43 percent… did not have health insurance.
  • 69 percent… sometimes, often or always need help from multiple programs to have enough food.
  • 46 percent… sometimes, often or always skip meals because of a lack of food.

Pertinently, these people said they had no support network of friends and family — no community — to fall back on. 

Nebraska’s North Omaha has the highest child poverty level of any U.S. Black metropolitan area. Three of the top ten American poverty counties in America have often been Nebraskan. Even now, two of the top 100 counties are: Thurston and Keya Paha. More than one in eight Nebraskans live in poverty — over 200,000 people.*

Do we not care about the hungry, cold, sick without insurance and homeless?  How do we read Jesus’ exhortations in Matthew 25 or the admonishings of the Hebrew prophets or the preachments of the Koran on the obligation to care for the poor? Over 90 percent of Nebraskans profess to follow one of these three religions. 

We have deliberately lost our sense of community — ‘common weal.’ The economic proponents of capitalism would have us believe that we support the common weal by enriching ourselves at the expense of others. Adam Smith pictures the rich farmer growing beautiful grain fields to satisfy his greed but actually feeding thousands. Ayn Rand, the guru of Libertarians and Tea Party people, says that 19th century robber barons, starving their laborers and giving them unsafe places to work, were the world’s “greatest humanitarians and the greatest benefactors of mankind… because they had brought the ‘greatest good’ and an impossible standard of living — impossible by all historical trends — to the country in which they functioned.” Seduced by  such grotesque thinking and unable to create true community, we divide ourselves into ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ bullies and bullied, with the former taking silent satisfaction in the latter’s suffering. Lazarus — covered with sores and begging outside our door—serves only to remind us of how comely and superior we believe ourselves to be. 

As a nation, we have become too poor of heart and spiritually bankrupt to do anything about Lazarus. Bishop Helder Camara of Recife once said, “When I fed the poor, they said I was a saint. When I asked why the poor were poor, they said I was a Communist.” If, like Camara though, we were to honestly explore why the poor of our nation are poor, one obvious explanation is that we have spent our inheritance on militarism. The federal debt now stands at nearly $14 trillion ($13,872,528,054,411.59) — about $45,000 per person. If one includes the costs of our wars, the war debt, the Pentagon budget and the military part of the Energy Department — plus the cost of military pensions and medical care — about half of the $14 trillion is result of war-making. Yet, if one asks Tea Partiers, Libertarians, Republicans, and even some conservative Democrats, their solution for paying down the national debt is to cut earmarks, Social Security, the Department of Education, Medicare... the so-called ‘nanny state’—everything but ‘national security.’  Even a CNN analysis of the budget followed this pattern.

Yet, after having spent $7 trillion, our security as a nation seems more elusive than ever.

Our CIA’s and military’s wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, Iraq, Iran under Mossedegh, Afghanistan, and the Congo under Tschombe have not provided the security we seek. Nor have our seemingly endless array of weapons systems. We are the greatest military power in the history of the world, and yet, our security appears increasingly precarious. Abroad, America is rarely loved, and religious-based terrorism (directed at ‘the great Satan’) can now be found literally around the world. 

It’s at the individual household level though that militarism has taken its toll. As UNL economist Ann Mari May has shown, the assumption that war produces domestic prosperity reflects only the special circumstances of WWII. In most cases war overheats economies, creates price controls and fosters severe economic dislocation. Our military do not live in a capitalist economy where they exchange goods for other goods. Theirs is a command economy. The government just commands production — most of it never consumed. A “2002 Congressional Budget Office report found that every $10 billion spent on weapons generates 40,000 fewer jobs than $10 billion spent on civilian programs (Gold 2002).” Thus, our $7 trillion military debt has deprived us of the equivalent of 28 million jobs — more than the ten percent unemployment we’re currently facing. For sure, the now decades-old trend of exporting jobs to Mexico, China and India has also hurt the jobs market. Wall Street’s profit-motivated downsizings have hurt. But compared to the military, these are sideshows. 

The reality is this, as Dwight D. Eisenhower said in 1953, “Modern weapons take food from the hungry and shelter from the homeless: Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” Why? 

The second editorial in this series will explore the macroeconomic reasons for our self-destructive military spending and propose a blueprint for NFP action.

* The “National Center for Children in Poverty” (which believes the federal poverty level to be too low and sets its poverty level at twice the federal level based on an analysis of what it takes to meet basic family needs here) calculates that we have 232,919 Nebraska families living in poverty—and almost 500,000 children. Depending on which standard is used, either 12 or 35 percent of our families are impoverished.  


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March 26th 2014

Karen Thompson - I am only a 68 year old lady who has worked since I was 16 and most of those years worked two jobs in order to provide for my children. Fortunately I had parents who also worked hard by the sweat of the brow; they instilled in my great values. I see now that these don't make a difference anymore. Our country is stymied and don't know how to influence those in power (or even know who they are anymore). Watched program on Men Who Built America; very enlightening. Power, corruptness, mistreatment of laborers etc. then in later years they became philanthropist?? Where are the "good people" who care and are able to make a difference in this current travesty? Your editorial stirs me and makes me ask "remember this and that" and "can't you see the error of your thinking"? We are indeed "destroying ourselves from within" as Lincoln told us would be our only enemy.