A New Kind Of Poverty

Winter flits in and out of New York City in the late fall, hitching a ride on the wind that whips the Hudson River. One cold morning not long ago, just as day was breaking, six men began to shift beneath their blankets under a stone arch up a rise from the water. In the shadow of the newest castle-in-the-air skyscraper midwifed by the Baron Trump, they gathered their possessions. An hour later they had vanished, an urban mirage.

There's a new kind of homelessness in the city, and a new kind of hunger, and a new kind of need and humiliation, but it has managed to stay as invisible as those sleepers were by sunup. "What we're seeing are many more working families on the brink of eviction," says Mary Brosnahan, who runs the Coalition for the Homeless. "They fall behind on the rent, and that's it, they're on the street." Adds Julia Erickson, the executive director of City Harvest, which distributes food to soup kitchens and food pantries, "Look at the Rescue Mission on Lafayette Street. They used to feed single men, often substance abusers, homeless. Now you go in and there are bike messengers, clerks, deli workers, dishwashers, people who work on cleaning crews. Soup kitchens have been buying booster seats and highchairs. You never used to see young kids at soup kitchens."

America is a country that now sits atop the precarious latticework of myth. It is the myth that work provides rewards, that working people can support their families. It's a myth that has become so divorced from reality that it might as well begin with the words "Once upon a time." According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1.6 million New Yorkers, or the equivalent of the population of Philadelphia, suffer from "food insecurity," which is a fancy way of saying they don't have enough to eat. Some are the people who come in at night and clean those skyscrapers that glitter along the river. Some pour coffee and take care of the aged parents of the people who live in those buildings. The American Dream for the well-to-do grows from the bowed backs of the working poor, who too often have to choose between groceries and rent.

Even if you've never been to the Rescue Mission, all the evidence for this is in a damning new book called "The Betrayal of Work" by Beth Shulman, a book that should be required reading for every presidential candidate and member of Congress. According to Shulman, even in the go-go '90s one out of every four American workers made less than $8.70 an hour, an income equal to the government's poverty level for a family of four. Many, if not most, of these workers have no health care, sick pay or retirement provisions.

We salve our consciences, Shulman writes, by describing these people as "low skilled," as though they're not important or intelligent enough to deserve more. But low-skilled workers today are better educated than ever before, and they constitute the linchpin of American industry. When politicians crow that happy days are here again because jobs are on the rise, it's these jobs they're really talking about. Five of the 10 occupations expected to grow big in the next decade are in the lowest-paying job groups. And before we sit back and decide that that's just the way it is, it's instructive to consider the rest of the world. While the bottom 10 percent of American workers earn just 37 percent of our median wage, according to Shulman, their counterparts in other industrialized countries earn upwards of 60 percent. And those are countries that provide health care and child care, which cuts the economic pinch considerably.

In America we console ourselves with the bootstrap myth, that anyone can rise, even those who work two jobs and still have to visit food pantries to feed their families. It is a beloved myth now more than ever, because the working poor have become ever more unsympathetic. Almost 40 years ago, when Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, a family with a car and a Dutch Colonial in the suburbs felt prosperous and, in the face of the president's call to action, magnanimous. Poverty seemed far away, in the shanties of the South or the worst pockets of urban blight. Today that same family may well feel impoverished, overwhelmed by credit-card debt, a second mortgage and the cost of the stuff that has become the backbone of American life. When the middle class feels poor, the poor have little chance for change, or even recognition. Does anyone think twice about the woman who turns down the spread on the hotel bed?

A living wage, affordable health care and housing, the bedrock understanding that it's morally wrong to prosper through the casual exploitation of those who make your prosperity possible. It's a tall order, I suppose. The lucky thing for many Americans is that they don't even have to see or think about it. The office hallways get mopped somehow, the shelves get stocked at the stores. And on Thanksgiving Day, children will be pushed up to the table for a free meal in a church basement or a soup kitchen, with the understanding that that is the point of the holiday--a day of plenty in a life of want.