17 — The Human Impact of Poverty

Close your eyes for a moment and deeply feel one or more of the following:

  • You can’t stop by a Starbuck’s or Pete’s or your favorite coffee house for even a latte because that might make a difference in whether or not your child has something to eat that evening.
  • You have to stop going out to lunch every day, or even once a week, because the $60 a month you’d spend for lunch is needed to pay your phone or water bill.
  • You just scrape by each month paying the utilities, taking advantage of your utility company’s willingness to let you stretch your back payments over several months.
  • You can no longer afford to buy organic fruits and vegetables because of the cost difference.
  • You try to eat fewer meals so that you have enough to pay the rent or the utilities or for food for your children.

Sound impossible in Marin County? Think again! It’s very real in Marin County, and it’s greatest impact is on our county’s children!

The following data is derived from several reports and websites:

The Federal Poverty Level (FPL) for 2013 is $23,550. In Marin County, the self-sufficiency standard (the ability to meet basic needs of food, housing, etc.) for one adult, one school-age child is $55,866 and for one adult, one teenager is $49,074. For more children or more adults in the household, the amount is even higher. So, a family must have an income of at least twice the FPL just to meet basic needs in Marin County!

Marin County has 51,412 children in 2013 (at last measure)—a little lower than 2012 by a few hundred. Of these, 9% live below the FPL and another 12.3% live between the FPL and 2 X FPL. That’s 21.3%—10,951 children—of Marin County children living in families unable to meet basic needs in Marin County. Most, but not all, of these children are of Hispanic ethnicity.

These are the people who are mostly in the service economy: they mow our lawns and trim our trees, they care for our children, they clean our homes, they wait on us in mostly fast food restaurants, they clean our clothes (at dry cleaners, for example), they build our houses, repair our cars, and a myriad of chores and activities we don’t want to do, or can’t do, or don’t have time to do, ourselves. In other words, they make our lives simpler and they keep things working.

Marin County is one of the wealthier counties in the U.S. (almost all the wealthiest are in the East!), and yet 21.3% of our children live in poverty. This means that their health is likely poorer, their high school dropout rate is higher, their lifetime income will be much lower, and their chances of leaving poverty behind is slimmer.

It’s easy to close our eyes to this, believing that it doesn’t affect us, and they don’t live in our neighborhoods, and besides, “if they only worked harder they would pull themselves out of poverty.” But, take a look at the news story below on this very topic and the strikes that took place in New York City in April by fast food workers unable to live on the minimum wage:

But the issues are much greater than just the struggle of a significant portion of the nation’s population to make ends meet, let alone to live self-sufficient lives. Poverty and its effects are only a part of the picture. When other measures of health and well-being are looked at in comparison to other developed nations—particularly in comparison to the level of internal economic inequality within, not between, nations—the picture is much more dire, and the impacts are at all levels of society, not just the poorest.

In 2009, two researchers from the UK published The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. From the website:

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better [UK title] was published in 2009. Written by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, the book highlights the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. It shows that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries.

As of September 2012, the book had sold more than 150,000 copies in English. It is available in 23 foreign editions.

Each of the health and social problem areas is discussed in detail, with charts summarizing findings in each. Click each of the areas in the sidebar here to see how the U.S. fares compared to other developed nations. Here are just three examples of what you’ll find:

social mobility

infant mortality

child wellbeing

A documentary based on the book is under development. For more information, click here. Here’s the trailer:

After reading the book a few years ago and recently taking another look at the charts, two things jumped out at me:

  1. The United States tends to be the poorest performer on virtually all the measures Pickett and Wilkinson have examined, and
  2. The magnitude of the entirety of social and health issues considered is “mind-blowing!”

Each one of the issues, taken by itself, is tremendously difficult to work through to a satisfactory solution. All of them taken together appear virtually impossible to deal with. What comes to mind is the Albert Einstein quote about solving problems of immense complexity:

 No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.

In other words, what is needed throughout the world are leaders in all arenas—business, non-profits, and governments at all levels—who exhibit a much greater level of consciousness, compassion, and caring than exist in general today.

Fortunately, there is a rapidly growing movement among more progressive businesses, non-profit organizations (NGOs), and some governmental organizations toward higher levels of conscious, in the form of mindful or conscious leadership—see, for example,

And very recently emerging is the awakened leader, a leader who has gone through a neurobiological shift that has accelerated her/his level of consciousness development beyond what is possible with yoga or meditation or other mindfulness practices. For more about this, see Ed Oakley’s Enlightened Leadership in a New Era: Part 1. Breaking Through the Threshold of Influence and the Awakened Leader Program of Oneness University in India.

While these changes are encouraging, they are taking place way too slowly to reverse the damage that has been done to the Earth, to our societies, to the vast majority of people, and especially to those in the bottom quarter economically.

You might be asking yourself, What can I do about any of these issues? We have a political system that is highly polarized and tremendously dysfunctional. Special interests—especially moneyed special interests—seem to have top priority over the rest of us with “our” politicians (if they ever were “ours”). Business seems only to listen to the largest of its shareholders. And the socially conscious NGO’s continue to have to beg for funding.

In case you were asking this question, the first thing you can do is recognize that true change always begins locally. From that vantage point, you can strive to increase your awareness of what is truly happening around you. Are you aware, for example, that Marin County (or wherever you live) has over 20% of its children living under circumstances where their families can’t meet basic needs every month? The second thing you can do is ask whether or not you are part of the problem or part of the solution. If you are a business or organizational leader with employees, are the wages you’re paying them enough to allow them to be self-sufficient? If not, take some time to look at how other organizational leaders are dealing with these problems. There are solutions! And thirdly, start sharing your thoughts about these issues and possible solutions with others.

Let’s hear your ideas about what can and is being done—especially about poverty here in Marin and elsewhere, and about the lack of wages that promote self-sufficiency for so many of our neighbors and members of our community.

Thank you for reading this through to the end. Poverty, health, and social issues affect all of us, not just the poor, or the poor in some other part of the world. There’s no one else to solve the problems but us!