In $2.00 A Day, Kathrin Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write the following about working to improve the lives for the poorest people in the Untied States, “the primary reason to strive relentlessly for approaches that line up with what most Americans believe is moral and fair is that government programs that are out of sync with these values serve to separate the poor from the rest of society, not integrate them into society.” Shaefer and Edin explain that most Americans think we should be doing more to help the poor, but that they also dislike the idea of giving free aid to the undeserving. Consequently, any programs that are designed to help the poor, the authors argue, should be generous, but should match what Americans believe is moral and fair, otherwise it will leave the poor as an undeserving separate class, and keep them from integrating with society.
This is an important idea to consider. We want to do more to help the poor, and many would argue that we have an obligation to help the poorest among us live dignified lives with a reasonable floor set for their income, healthcare, education, and access to opportunities to advance. At the same time, giving aid and benefits to those who are not seen as deserving, particularly in America where we constantly judge ourselves and others on measures of hard work and moral character, will create problems and schisms within society. The result would be a form of economic segregation, cutting the poorest off from the rest of society, perpetuating and reinforcing the existing problems that we see among the poorest individuals in the nation.
The authors continue, “the ultimate litmus test we endorse for any reform is whether it will serve to integrate the poor – particularly the $2.00-a-day poor – into society. It is not enough to provide material relief to those experiencing extreme deprivation. We need to craft solutions that can knit these hard-pressed citizens back into the fabric of their communities and their nation.”
One of the great failings of our current society is our de facto acceptance of economic segregation in the United States. For a few decades the poor were stuck in dense and ignored city centers while the middle class fled to suburbs to live out the American Dream and the wealthy locked themselves within gated communities to keep their vast wealth to themselves, away from the prying eyes of everyone else. The poor were cut off from any real or meaningful interaction with the middle and upper classes. Zoning regulations and the way we developed neighborhoods meant that people in certain areas all had similar incomes. The rich were grouped among the rich, the middle class among the middle class, the poor among the poor, and the poorest of the poor amongst only themselves. Real community connection for each group dissipated, with no group fully comprehending the struggles, fears, and problems of the others.
The poorest of the poor were the ones most hurt by this economic segregation, and it is one of the first things the authors suggest we address to begin to help the poor. Their first suggestion is a jobs guarantee, to ensure that everyone can do some sort of work to earn money and be seen as deserving for further aid. In the end, however, I think the authors would agree that we need to find ways to better integrate society and rebuild community organizations and institutions that help bring people together, not keep them separated in their own homes and neighborhoods, where everyone else that they interact with in a meaningful way is like they are. We cannot address the worst poverty in our country if we don’t find a way to overcome economic segregation and to better integrate the poor into society in a meaningful way.