Diedre Melson, John Cox and Pamela Thatcher. Credit: Don Mathis.
Yesterday, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) got off to an auspicious start as chair of the Banking Subcommittee on Economic Policy by doing something that is all too novel—inviting people with the most at stake in economic policy decisions to testify in Congress.
Three Oregonians featured in the HBO documentary American Winter joined four public policy experts at the subcommittee’s first hearing, entitled “The State of the American Dream—Economic Policy and the Future of the Middle Class.”
Senator Merkley set the context with some powerful and totally depressing statistics, including that between 1989–2010, hourly productivity grew more than three times as fast as wages did during that time; the bottom 20 percent of wage earners saw their average hourly wages decline by thirty cents; the next lowest 20 percent saw their earnings decline by 4.3 percent. In contrast, over that same period, the top 20 percent of workers enjoyed a nearly 30 percent increase in earnings.
And while middle-class earnings have declined, Senator Merkley noted that “the costs of basic features of the middle class such as public college, rent and utilities, and health expenditures have increased between 41 and 80 percent between 1970 and 2009.”
“The data seems to suggest that ordinary families have been slowly hurting for a while, the financial crisis and recession nearly crushed them and our budget austerity policies are making it even worse,” said the Senator.
Certainly the witnesses from American Winter agreed with his analysis.
Diedre Melson started working at age thirteen and, after graduating high school, enrolled in college. But after two and a half years she could no longer afford it, and so she transferred to “a career school” where she was certified as a medical assistant, cardiac technician and phlebotomist.
She obtained a good job at the Alpha Plasma Clinic but was laid off along with 1,500 other workers when it was shut down during the recession. She was unemployed for two years before finding minimum wage work, and she received SNAP (food stamps) and housing assistance. But even with this assistance, she needed to sell scrap metal—as well as her plasma once or twice a week—to support her four children, two of whom are in college. She now works full-time for the 211info social services hotline and earns $13.50 an hour, but she still must turn to SNAP assistance to feed her family.
Melson said she is frustrated with media that “exploit” instances of abuse of the safety net rather than showing the vast majority of people who turn to it in the midst of a financial crisis.
“[We] are not the people we see in the media—people taking advantage of the system—we‘re the working poor,” she said. “We’re people who get up every day, and try to pay our fair share, and try to pay our dues. But despite our efforts, we’re sinking.”