On Monday, at an event marking the release of the Half in Ten campaign’s new report—“The Right Choices to Cut Poverty and Restore Shared Prosperity”—Angela Sutton, a Witness to Hunger in Philadelphia, talked about why it’s so critical to protect investments in low-income families during the upcoming deficit debate.
Sutton was shot at age 14, raped twice (including by her father), didn’t graduate high school and was homeless at 16.
“For two years, I slept in an abandoned car, slept in the snow, ate out of trashcans,” she said. “I was supposed to be a statistic, left for dead.”
Sutton said a Section 8 voucher and food stamps helped her find stability. She graduated from Drexel University with an associate’s degree and is now working towards her bachelor’s.
“We need to keep fighting for people that want the American Dream,” she said. “We don’t want a handout, we want to be able to help each other.”
Half in Ten’s second annual report tracks economic and social indicators of progress between 2010 and 2011 towards the campaign’s overall goal of cutting poverty by half within ten years. It flies in the face of the myth that “we don’t know what to do about poverty.”
“The big takeaway from the report is that we can cut poverty and also cut our long-term deficit—it’s all about the choices that we make,” Melissa Boteach, director of Half in Ten, told me.
One of the report’s most striking findings is that although the poverty rate didn’t change in 2011—thanks in large part to antipoverty programs that too many in Congress would like to slash—income inequality continued to grow. The top 20 percent of Americans took home more than half of all income in the US (51 percent), while the bottom 40 percent earned just over 11 percent. The wealthiest 5 percent enjoyed over one-fifth of the nation’s income.
The report attributes widening inequality to the proliferation of low-wage jobs—particularly in the service sector—and a stagnant minimum wage that isn’t indexed to inflation. A federal minimum wage job historically could lift a family of three above the poverty line, about $17,900 today. But it’s been raised only three times in the past thirty years and stands at 7.25 an hour (and just $2.13 for tipped workers), so a full-time worker earning the minimum wage is paid only $15,080.
“This is the context in which Congress and the President are debating deficit reduction,” said Boteach. “Will they do it in a way that exacerbates poverty and inequality? Or make the investments we need to make in order to support working families and grow our economy?”