Sunday, December 30, 2007

Let Them Eat Steak

I've been reflecting upon what it means to be poor in America. In temporal and geographical terms, we have the wealthiest poor in history.

Don't believe me? Consider this. Currently the supermarket nearest me is selling USDA Choice Sirloin steak at less than $4 per pound. If a person were to make the foolish decision to live on nothing but sirloin steak for a year, the cost would be around $8 per day (Two pounds of meat). That comes to $2,920 on food per year. The poverty line in the US is $10,210 for a single person household. Our steak eating person would be spending 29% of their income on food.

Let's put this in perspective. Until the Industrial Revolution the lot of most of humanity was fairly miserable. In most countries over 95% of the population were peasants. In most cases they were bound to the land in some way. Often they were simply slaves, rarely did they own their land outright.

In pre-Revolutionary France, which was probably the most prosperous country in the world right before industrialization changed the world, the typical diet of a Frenchman consisted of barley or rye bread, pease porridge, assorted vegetables (onions and legumes) and very little protein and very little fruit. The French serf, and they were mostly serfs, raised wheat for cash to help pay the taxes and rents. Life was indeed brutish, miserable and short. To be poor was to be starving.

Of all of the people in Europe, the one's who could afford to have steak every meal were as follows: The King of France, The Ottoman Emperor (Sultan), the Czar of Russia, and the King of Spain. That's the full list. Steak every meal meant slaughtering a cow a day for an entire year. And even with that, the quality of meat was nowhere near as consistent or as good as the poorest of us can now attain.

All of this is not to say that there isn't poverty in America. There is. But it is to say that we have the wrong image of poverty in America. I see a lot of poor in my daily life. None of them are starving. Most of those I see are men who are unable to work due to mental illness or addiction. Most of the ones I don't see are the ones who are unable to work because they are too crippled or too feeble to work.

The typical homeless person is a middle aged man, who is the sole member of his household. Next time you see or hear someone advocating helping the poor, ask yourself "How does this person intend to help the wino down the street?" Because that is the face of true poverty in America. And I have yet to hear any real solutions for helping those who will not help themselves.

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