Your Wealth is Causing My Poverty: Grand Rapids Poverty numbers up, but we still love all the shiny new development
On Friday, MLive posted a story based on new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The article states early on, “Statewide, more than one out of every six people are living in poverty, a 17 percent increase from the previous 5-year period.” In Grand Rapids, the data shows that 26.7% of the population is experiencing poverty according to the 2014 data, which is up from 21.9% from 2009.
The article also states that medium income levels in Grand Rapids fell by 8 percent over the last 5 years.
How is this so? I mean, don’t we always hear about how Grand Rapids is the best place to raise a family and how the economy here is doing so great? There is not a week that goes by where there is a new story about a new “development project” and that there a housing boom in Grand Rapids. Even the headline from the MLive article says, Michigan’s poverty rate soars as income drops even in economic rebound, census shows.
Even in the economic rebound. However, the question we must always ask ourselves when such seemly contradictory claims are made is, WHO is benefiting from the economic rebound and WHO are the growing number of people experiencing poverty?
These are questions that the MLive story do not ask. In fact, the people they do cite in the story are from the Chamber of Commerce, a state demographer and someone from the Michigan League for Public Policy. Each of the three people who were cited do not shed light on why poverty is increasing across the state, nor who it is disproportionately impacting.
The MLive story does link to federal standards for income levels that categorize who lives in poverty. These numbers are inadequate however, since poverty is about so much more than income.
For those who experience poverty, income is just one indicator for quality of life. But lets be real, the income levels for poverty are also pretty ridiculous and it is clear that those who determine such numbers have never experienced poverty themselves. Does anyone really believe that if you earn just over $11,770 a year you can survive? Rental costs keep going up, as do food costs, transportation and health care. Increasingly, people have to make choices between eating and heating, or eating and transportation. In other words, for those who live in poverty, it is a constant battle with limited options one has.
Then there is the experience of those in poverty with the charity services sector. People are often scrutinized by the social service system and made to feel shame about experiencing poverty. This speaks to the emotional and psychological toll of living in poverty, which underscores the point that it is so much more than just income levels.
Another failure of the MLive article is the lack of investigation into whom this increase of poverty in the state and in Grand Rapids is affecting. Statistically we know that communities of color, immigrants, refugees, people with disabilities and LGBTQ youth experience higher levels of poverty than do those who hold all kinds of social and economic privilege.
Some of the most recent data from Kids Count, shows that the percentage of children in Michigan experiencing poverty in 2014 was 23% for the entire population. For White children the percentage experiencing poverty is 16%, while African American children experiencing poverty is 47% and 32% for Latino/a children. The astronomically higher numbers of poverty for communities should be a clear indicator that poverty is disproportionately a result of institutionalized racism and White Supremacy.
Wealth and Comfort for some means poverty for others
Back to the question of how can poverty be increasing during an “economic rebound.” First, it is important to point out that phrases like economic rebound or economic growth are misleading. Such terms distract us from the harsh reality of economic systems, particularly the current system of Neoliberal Capitalism.
NeoLiberal Capitalism is based on the notion that some will benefit at the expense of others. In September, the latest Forbes Richest people for 2015 has the Meijer brothers list at 58th richest in the world at $7.9 Billion and Richard DeVos at 84th on the list with $5.7 Billion. The combined wealth of these two families and that of a few others in West Michigan is greater than the combined wealth of everyone else living in this area.
However, those who have accumulated tremendous wealth aren’t the only ones contributing to the increase of those living in poverty in Grand Rapids. There is another class of people who are aspiring to accumulate more wealth, those who have six-figure salaries or more who also contribute to poverty creation. This is a professional and entrepreneurial class of people who embrace the system of Neoliberal Capitalism. We hear about these people all the time as well, since they are the ones starting new businesses, sitting on local boards or participating in some new philanthropic venture. These are the 40 Under 40 crowd who not only are benefiting from the poverty of others, but act as a buffer for the super wealthy, since they perpetuate the notion that we just need to come up with creative ways to help those in poverty. This class of people are the executive directors of agencies that convince those in poverty that they just need more opportunities to achieve success. Don’t question the economic system or the structural causes of poverty, just get people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps or get your friends to spend more of their money that will benefit the creative class, who will donate a portion of their business earnings to charitable programs that helps us all feel good and divert us from having to think about the systemic causes of poverty.