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Poverty in America

/ 12:05 AM September 22, 2014

HONOLULU—My neighbor and I once went shopping at Walmart for groceries we needed for a picnic.

As we were chatting at the check-out line, a man appeared and asked how we would pay for our groceries. We said: By credit card, as everybody else does.

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He said that if we gave him cash for our bill, he would give us a 10-percent discount by using his credit card. My neighbor figured that the guy probably needed cash in a hurry, and promptly gave him the cash equivalent, minus the 10 percent.

Curiosity got the better of me and I asked the guy how one can get a credit card like his. Some banks even charge a small fee for credit card use.

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He looked at me and said, “Lady, you have to be poor!” And he promptly left, probably sensing that I would ask another uncomfortable question.

I called up a friend in the state’s Human Services and told her this “strange” story. Just as I thought, the “10-percenter” is just one of thousands of welfare recipients who are given “credit cards” for their benefits, but can only use these for food, not booze or tobacco.We had a good laugh. I just thought something didn’t add up. Our “10-percenter” probably bought himself a drink or some drug, which he couldn’t buy with his “credit card.”

The September issue of Time magazine, with its article on the class system in America today, from “the richest to the poorest” similar to our Philippine ABCDE system, reminded me of this incident.

The first and richest class (A) comprising 5 percent earns an average income of $332,960, which is 6.5 times the national median income of $51,371. It consists of households earning $200,000 and above. The prototype for this group is Eric Straus, 54, a New Yorker and serial entrepreneur.

The second class (B) of 17 percent earns an average income of $134,529, which is

2.6 times the median income. These are households earning $100,000-$199,000. The prototype for this group is Ayana

Hernandez, 38, college graduate and director of a university public relations program.

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The third class (C) consisting of 22 percent earns an average income of $77,158, 50 percent more than the median income. This class is typical of James Barath, 42, born in Seoul, South Korea, who works in a mortgage firm.

The fourth class (D) has for its average income $43,555, which is 20 percent below the national median norm. It comprises 26 percent of households earning $30,000-$59,000. This class is clearly below the poverty line. The prototype is Ashley Ahrens, 25, a “radiologic” technologist with a high school education

And the fifth class (E), the poorest, earns less than $29,000 and comprises 30 percent of the whole US population. Its average income is $16,095, less than one-third of the median income.

What struck me was the featured prototype of this poorest class—a Filipino woman, Rogiema Cabutotan Campos, 35, who came to the United States with her parents who became asparagus farm workers. Rogiema says regretfully, “I ran away when I was 18 and ended up in an emergency shelter. If I had listened to my parents, I wouldn’t be struggling.”

Rogiema is on welfare. “It is hard,” she continues. “After I pay my bills and take care of the kids, I save the rest.”

You better believe it. Poverty in America is more extensive than you think.

Even if one has no children to support, earning only $16,000 is really cutting it close to the bone. It’s no picnic.

Belinda A. Aquino is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii at Manoa where she was professor of political science and Asian studies and founding director of the Center for Philippine Studies.

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