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Poverty and the pursuit of happiness

September 16, 2011 |  1:48 pm

Job seekers

News from the Census Bureau on Tuesday that a staggering 46 million Americans are living below the poverty line was just more proof that, as the editorial board wrote, "The economy is in terrible shape, and the federal government can't afford to do much to help."

For some, this was another sign that Barack Obama will go down in history as a one-term president; for others, it was Obama's latest scheme to make the American people feel beholden to him. How, exactly?

"Wealth is a state of mind," writes Kevin Jackson of Human Events. Jackson reasons that poverty "allows [Obama] to implement his redistribution of wealth and have the statistics to back it up, at least with a stupid populace. Poverty allows Obama to say we should be grateful to him. Without Obama imagine where the real poverty line would be? Who knows what America's poor might have had to give up, had Obama not been at the helm.  I'd hate to see America's poor give up their manicures or flat-screens, and what poor person should have to survive without an Xbox?"

Just a quick look at the stories in my RSS reader betrays Jackson's theory that Americans aren't in dire straits. The Atlantic has a piece by a guy about opening his last unemployment check. The Washington Post has something about experience working against job candidates. The Weekly Standard alarms: "There's no job security with Obama’s plan." CNN's GPS has this latest fact: Median household income down over $3,000 in three years. And Rachel Maddow's charts documenting the shrinking middle class are enough to make one give up hope.

Even if many of today's poor people seem better off than they were 52 years ago because they enjoy some of the same amenities as the wealthy, as Slate's Brian Palmer explains, the poor (and, frankly, much of the middle class as well) are living in fear. Maybe it's not the type of fear of being unable to eat, but in some ways the feelings are more consequential: Air conditioning, two TVs and a microwave don't make up for the worry over medical bills, mounting tuition for public universities and the very idea that the American dream is no longer attainable.

But maybe there is something to Jackson's point about mind over matter, even if he is a jerk about it. I don't necessarily agree that "wealth is a state of mind" for many suffering Americans, but I do think that one's outlook has a lot do with how one does -- or doesn't -- enjoy life, and that "the pursuit of happiness" is as much a part of the American dream as its rewards.

Plus: Happiness is good for the economy.  


Identifying the job killers

Let's talk Depression, even if the politicians won't

iPads at restaurants: Can we have a side order of jobs?

Interactive: Americans living in poverty, state by state

-- Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: Job seekers wait in line to meet with recruiters at a job fair hosted by Illinois state Sen. Dan Kotowski and the Illinois Department of Employment Security this week. Credit: Scott Olson / Getty Images

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