Sunday, July 01, 2007

How the Other Half Lives... still.. in USA

Sometime back, I was invited by an e-friend to start blogging on a colla-blog How the Other Half Lives.

The site introduces itself as:

    In 1890, Jacob Riis wrote about and photographed the appalling slum conditions in New York City. Around the 1890s, half of New Yorkers lived in slums (similar to modern Bombay) and Riis wrote his book to garner much needed attention. The book was called How the Other Half Lives.

    India is changing and in many ways. Yet in many ways India is much the same. This blog is a fruit of that tension and an attempt to examine the ground in between.

Curious to find something more about Jacob Riis, I googled and reached a 2003 article by Jack Newfield, How the Other Half Still Lives, who "tried to retrace some of Riis's steps through modern New York's pain and deprivation" to "understand better how the other half lives now"

Given that US is a benchmark of Gilded-Age prosperity for most urban-educated Indians, these excerpts are worth quoting:

    "...I hung out in unemployment offices, food-stamp application centers and the occasional job fair, where lines of job-seekers were never short. I traveled around in a van with volunteers from the Coalition for the Homeless... I visited union halls, food pantries, immigrant community centers and the dreadful Emergency Assistance Unit (EAU) in the Bronx. I interviewed community organizers, economists, politicians, leaders of nonprofit advocacy groups - as well as the jobless, homeless and hopeless.

    What I learned was that in some ways little has changed since Riis published his reportorial findings in 1890. The poor are still largely invisible to the complacent majority. Most Americans don't see the everydayness of poverty. It is segregated in "bad neighborhoods" and in impersonal government waiting rooms. We don't see all the people being told there are no applications for food stamps available at that location; all the people postponing medical treatment for their children because they don't have health insurance; all the people trying to find a job with their phone service shut off because they couldn't pay the bill; or all the deliverymen for drugstores and supermarkets paid only $3 an hour, which is illegal.
    In one way we are even worse off than we were 113 years ago: We have no Jacob Riis now humanizing poverty, making the satisfied see it and smell it. We have no American Dickens or Orwell, no James Agee and Walker Evans, no Michael Harrington, no John Steinbeck, no Edward R. Murrow.

    Something else in addition to poverty's invisibility that harks back to the first Gilded Age is the widening economic disparity between the rich and poor... In 1998 the top 1 percent of households collected almost 17 percent of the nation's income.... tax cut that gives the richest 5 percent of taxpayers most of the economic gain. This is a class-warfare policy of shooting the wounded and looting the amputees.

    What is amazing is that this expansion of inequality took place without ever becoming a noticeable issue in American politics. This growing concentration of wealth has given the superrich domination over politics through extravagant campaign contributions and media ownership...

    ....Downward mobility is the hot new trend in the city of buzz and billionaires. By every measure, unemployment, homelessness and hunger are on the rise in New York. In December, unemployment jumped up to 8.4 percent, the highest it has been in five years, the highest of any of the country's big cities. New York has lost 176,000 jobs in the past two years, more than any other city. Today more than 1.6 million New Yorkers (20.2 percent of the population) are living below the federal poverty line; another 13 percent are barely above it.

    And, as always, poverty is more severe among people of color. Blacks and Latinos comprise 47.5 percent of the city's labor force but account for 61.2 percent of the jobless. The city's poverty rate is 25 percent for blacks, 28 percent for Hispanics and 12 percent for whites....There are now 38,000 homeless people in city shelters each winter night - and 17,000 of them are children. Homelessness has increased by 82 percent since 1998.

    ...Every day the city's soup kitchens and food pantries provide about 1 million people with meals. The Coalition Against Hunger reports that because of increased demand, in 2001, the soup kitchens and food pantries have had to turn away 350,000 New Yorkers - including 85,000 children.

    ... Most poor people work. The roughly $10,700 a year that $5.15-an-hour minimum-wage jobs pay is without question not sufficient to hold a family together in New York. But a big part of the city's poverty crisis is the World of Low-Wage Work, just above the legal minimum--"McJobs," as organizers call them. There are hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who are trapped in such jobs, from which they can be fired or lose shifts on the whim of a supervisor, at big chain franchises like McDonald's, Tower Records, Duane Reade drugstores and Gristedes supermarkets.

    ....More than 600,000 New Yorkers earn between $5.15 an hour and $10 an hour. Some 56 percent of these low-wage workers have no health insurance for their families, 52 percent have no pension or 401(k) plan and 37 percent receive no paid leave...

    ...About 800,000 city residents are eligible for food stamps, but do not receive them.... Only malice, or the most wretched incompetence, could explain the city's failure to provide food stamps to half the city's poor population. Food stamps add at most $4,000 of food to the table of a family living on less than $15,000 a year. They also recycle the money immediately back into the poor community's economy of supermarkets and bodegas. And if every poor New Yorker who is eligible received food stamps, it would inject almost $1 billion in federal benefits into the city's economy. Food stamps are the mother of all win/win propositions.

    ... With the recession now in its third year, New York's homeless population is larger than it has ever been. In the late 1980s the shelter population peaked at 28,700. Now it is 38,200. More than 85 percent of the city's homeless population are families, including 17,000 children. Forty percent of these nomadic children suffer from asthma and have no regular doctor.

    ... Every governmental attempt to ameliorate poverty seems to attract its own breed of parasite and leech. New York has had scandals involving poverty programs, community school boards, nursing home operators and Medicaid fraud, kickbacks to politicians for helping get state contracts for drug and alcohol rehab facilities, and politicians monopolizing twenty-year no-bid care leases....

These are just excerpts... If interested the full article is here

I guess, every country - even the most prosperous one - has its own underbelly. India has its own - and so has USA

Don’t know whether this realisation is a reassurance or a damnation.... What I did recall was the first line Tolstoy's Anna Karnina:

"All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way"

1 comment:

gaddeswarup said...

I came across this article which may be of interest in this context: