By Jeeni Criscenzo
A few weeks back Rep. Darrell Issa (CA 49) tried to defend his statement made during a CNN interview, that “we’ve been able to make our poor somewhat the envy of the world.”
As someone who has dedicated my life to helping our poor, I am compelled to offer an opposing perspective. To be clear, this is not a debate between the left and the right, or liberals vs conservatives, or Democrats vs Republicans. Those are all labels designed to keep us divided and distracted when the issue is actually who we are, as a nation and a community: people who share a connection with all of humanity and are capable of feeling compassion for others; or people who only see others as a means to their personal acquisition of power and wealth.
This is a debate between those who believe our best chance for survival is through cooperation and justice, and those who believe in the survival of the fittest.
Unfortunately, when you have people coming from such discordant perspectives on such a fundamental issue, the possibility of finding common ground through respectful, rational conversation seems hopeless. The struggle between cooperative-humans and competitive-humans has brought endless misery, war and the destruction of our beautiful planet.
So, while I feel compelled to refute the position that Issa and The Heritage Foundation take on poverty, I also sense that the effort is futile.
In his op-ed in The Hill, Issa accused his detractors of exactly what he did in his op-ed – a sort of “beat ‘em to the punch” strategy. Unable to defend his stance, he resorted to accusing those who expressed outrage with his position, of “a heavy reliance on the thesaurus… and a conspicuous absence of factual rebuttals.”
To illustrate his point, in the next paragraph he packed a thesaurus-full of descriptions of poverty he anticipated his detractors might use, putting words in their mouths that he then mocked. Nice!
So, in the interest of clarity on the subject of poverty in America, I will try to refute the pseudo-facts Issa used to support his claim, without once referring to my thesaurus.
Issa states that our poor are the envy of the world. I suppose from a strictly cold, calculating perspective, you could justify that statement. But comparing our poverty with say, the destitution of Calcutta, Mexico City or Port-au-Prince, is like saying, “My shit don’t stink as bad as a pig sty.” Our poverty still stinks, and that stink is growing worse.
The reason is directly attributable to the “it’s not personal, it’s just business” policies inflicted on our communities by Issa and his mean-spirited cohorts. By defunding safety nets at the same time that they are eliminating good paying jobs with benefits that are necessary for the average person to sustain, millions of American families that had once achieved that Good Old American Dream are tumbling into the New American Nightmare.
As a “trailblazer” in outsourcing jobs overseas, Issa’s car alarm company got that snowball-to-hell rolling. Now he stands there arrogantly declaring that his impoverished constituents don’t have it so bad after all.
Only when you see your life purpose exclusively in terms of the acquisition of wealth, can you justify taking jobs away from hard working Americans, just so you can increase your profit margins. Only when greed is your only goal, can you support circumventing our environmental regulations, worker protection laws, and equitable taxation, by moving manufacturing to a third world nation where quality of life is not in the formula.
Only when you have renounced any modicum of human decency, can you presume to preach to struggling Americans, who have become more productive than ever before, that they have to be even more productive and accept lower wages, in order to compete in the global market.
Only when the relentless acquisition of capital is your singular raison d’etre, can you insist that American workers, who have already relinquished every hard-won benefit at the bargaining table, should be thankful they are poor in America.
The Heritage Foundation likes to cherry-pick data to distract from recent sharp increases in poverty. They claim that, although the US 2010 Census found that 1 in 7 Americans are living in poverty, most of these poor people are actually okay because data indicates that they have air conditioning, and a microwave, and cable or satellite TV, and a car or truck, and oh my, even an automatic coffeemaker!
But statisticians can pull out just about any results they need to support the story they want to tell. For example, I recently sat in a meeting where a matrix provided by the VA had concluded that on any given day in 2014, there were only 4 unsheltered veteran households with children in all of San Diego County. I looked around the table and asked the people from many of the agencies working with homeless families, “Does anyone here actually believe this?” Of course not! But I was the only one with the audacity to question the data.
I’m sure that ridiculous number was arrived at using careful, systematic data analysis.
But nevertheless, you only have to have a tenuous grasp of reality to know that the conclusion was outrageously false. Sometimes you just need to ask yourself, Where did this data come from? When was it collected? And what’s missing in this story?
Issa used a Congressional Budget Office study to claim that “after-tax income has increased for every segment of the population, including the poor, whose income grew by nearly 20 percent.” The problem is that study compares 1979 incomes to those in 2007 – 8 years ago, just prior to the Great Recession when millions of middle-class Americans fell into poverty because “too-big-to-fail” banks gambled away our economy.
Issa was being deliberately misleading by using the present tense “has” in this statement. Likewise the Residential Energy Consumption Survey he cites in his claim that poor households possess an abundance of electronics and appliances, is from 2009 – just when so many formerly middle-class people had fallen into poverty.
The report doesn’t tell you if their computers were five years old and slow as molasses; if their kitchen appliances came with the sub-standard rental they had to move into when they lost their home to foreclosure; if they are three months behind on their car payments and live in fear of the repo man; or their car has been parked on the street for three months because they can’t afford to get it repaired, or replace the bald tires; or they can’t renew their registration without paying the parking tickets they’ve accumulated because they can’t get the clunker running, or even put gas in it. Or worse yet, maybe that car they “own” is also the place the family sleeps every night.
Numbers simply don’t tell you the whole story. And when people use numbers to justify their mean-spirited war against the poor, it’s time we all take a stand for truth. So let me share with you the reality of poverty that I have personally observed in the past five years working with homeless women and children in downtown San Diego, where HUD’s 2015 Point-in-Time Count (PITC) shows that the number of unsheltered homeless has increased by 25.8% from last year.
Based on prior PITC numbers, Downtown San Diego 25 Cities Campaign to End Homelessness had initially planned to assess 800 homeless individuals in the first 100 days of their campaign. Instead, they assessed 2,369. And less than a year into the program, they have assessed over 5,000 homeless individuals Downtown!
The data gurus are at a loss to explain how there can be so many homeless people. One explanation is that the HUD PICT count misses the hidden homeless – those women and families with children who are not out on the sidewalks waiting for volunteers to count them. And while anyone can see that the number of people camped on our city sidewalks, under freeway overpasses, and in the park, continues to climb, despite the best efforts of our police to get them to “move on”, you are not seeing the hundreds of families doubled up, tripled up and couch surfing.
You are not seeing the women who have resigned themselves to being prostituted by their pimp just so they have a “safe” place to live. You are not seeing the moms who can’t pay the rent even working two jobs, who stay in an apartment until the night before the sheriff comes to evict them, because their next step is the street. You are not seeing the young adults who have to go back home to live with a relative, often with kids in tow, because they can’t find a job – any job.
My purpose here is not to explain how these folks came to be homeless or impoverished – that’s another story for another day. And I could fill another book with the barriers to housing our poor people face, and how so many are working for minimum wage, often holding down two or more jobs because they can’t get enough hours from the one job to just cover their basic necessities.
I can tell you, unequivocally, that the poor I see every day are truly destitute and only a lunatic would be envious of them. The Federal Poverty guidelines for a family of four is $24,250. That’s $2,020 per month and it doesn’t even cover rent and utilities for a two-bedroom apartment here in San Diego. So if that thrift-store coffeemaker, Issa begrudges them, breaks down, there won’t be a dime left to replace it.
Without the safety nets that Issa and his cruel cohorts keep chipping away, more and more of these folks don’t even have a roof over their heads. And once they lose their housing, their lives fall apart and it becomes nearly impossible to pull themselves out of that hell.
California, Issa’s state, now boasts the highest percentage of unsheltered homeless people in the nation. San Diego County, including Issa’s district, has one of the highest homeless populations in the U.S. The fact that San Diego has a representative in Congress who thinks that mothers with children in his district, who don’t have a place to sleep at night, are better off than mothers in Calcutta who don’t have a place to sleep at night, should be a big fat wakeup call to his constituents to finally vote that sociopath out of office!
He certainly isn’t representing me.