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Do We Need a Poor People's Coming-Out Movement? | The Nation

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Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders

Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.

Do We Need a Poor People's Coming-Out Movement?

Governor Andrew Cuomo says raising the minimum wage in New York is harder than passing marriage equality. Is that true? Is it spin? If we were to say it’s true—is it all about money, or could it be that there’s something we need, namely a coming-out movement about poverty in America? Democrats in the New York State Assembly have passed a bill to raise the minimum wage from the federal $7.25 to $8.50 an hour.

Last week, during a Capitol press conference, the governor said this is probably where the bill is stuck at least for this session. There’s likely to be no passing a minimum wage hike through the Republican-controlled Senate, the issue’s just too divisive, said the governor. Isn’t this the same savvy politician who last year convinced four Senate Republicans to pass a bill legalizing same-sex marriage? Cuomo insisted that this time it’s different. “This is broader and a deeper divide,” Cuomo said. “Marriage, in some ways, was more of a personal judgment for people on their personal values.

There’s certainly a case to be made that the governor could apply himself more forcefully to the task of raising the wage. (Although the speaker wouldn’t like it, he could for example, hike the wage by order of the state Labor Department.) It’s also true that where politics is concerned, deeply held beliefs are usually less relevant than deep pockets. Most LGBT activists aren’t well-to-do—but some are, and they knew how to use it. The wage-raisers, by contrast, may have the popular will on their side, but they’re up against an entire Chamber of Commerce–funded army of opinion shapers, propagandists and paid-off politicians who argue that living wages lead to dead business. They’re up against the well financed spin, and they’re up against the already freaked-out business owners who believe it.

All that having been said, can we talk for a moment about the words “personal” and “poverty”? “Silence=Death,” said the movement against AIDS. “Come Out! Come Out!” said the gay liberation movement. The movement for LGBT equality pushed itself from the margins to the mainstream against a tide of powerful politicians and a whole host of big-mouth churches with one simple message: we are your sisters and your brothers. Hollywood and TV helped, but making LGBT lives real took real, personal, coming out: at work, in schools and, yes, in Washington and in state politics.

In the United States today, some 103 million Americans live in or near poverty. Over half of all the jobs in our country pay $34,000 per year or less (barely twice the poverty line for a family of three). While the rich have become super-rich, 6 million Americans are living on an income of only food stamps. It’s incredible that we tolerate for a minute the reality of 6 million of us living on food stamps alone. Yet we do, says Peter Edelman—a former senior staffer for Robert F. Kennedy who served in the Clinton administration until he resigned to protest welfare reform. He believes we tolerate it largely because the poor tend to blame themselves or believe they’re alone. I suspect it’s because we’re experiencing a new kind of segregation. Somehow, neither policy makers nor opinion makers seem to know enough poor people well enough to feel them, living and breathing.

A working-class coming-out movement: do you think it’s possible? I had a chance to interview Edelman, on May 22 at the Soros Foundation, about his new book, So Rich So Poor, Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America. A video of our entire conversation appears at GRITtv.org.

Laura Flanders: What is the most striking aspect of today’s economy to you?

 

Peter Edelman: There are two statistics that everyone should have in mind. One is that there are twenty million people in America today with incomes below half the poverty line. That includes six million people whose only income is food stamps – that’s a third of the poverty line.  The second statistic is that we have 103 million people -- that’s one third of our population -- who have low wage jobs [on which they are just getting by with no idea how their next bills will be paid.]  I don’t think people are aware of this. We’re just not paying enough attention to how many low wage jobs there are in America.

 

Did poverty alleviation programs just not work?

 

Poverty alleviation programs work. Ronald Reagan said we fought a war against poverty and poverty won. That’s absolutely not true. The poverty programs we have put in place – the Food Stamp program, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Social Security and so on, are keeping forty million people out of poverty who would otherwise be poor today. We already have forty-six million people who are poor, but we’d have forty million more than that. These programs work.

 

The problem is there are too many low wage jobs and too many moms with kids who are by themselves in this world, and who can’t make it on one job in the household. That’s the problem.

 

When did things change?

 

Things started to change in a fundamental way in 1973, the year of the first oil shock. Up until that time, manufacturing jobs had started to disappear but somehow it all came together in 1973.  You had economic trends that ever since WW2 had all been upwards (including for African American men, who have had such a tough time in the last four decades….) That’s when the trouble started, that’s when you started seeing the flood of low wage jobs that took over the economy for the whole bottom half.

 

Now, half the jobs in the country pay less than $34,000; a quarter pay less than the poverty line for family of four – $22,000 -- and the wage has been absolutely flat for almost forty years, from 1973 to now. The wage of the median job went up by only seven percent.

 

Is this predominantly a problem for people of color?

 

It’s disproportionately a problem for people of color but the largest number of people who are poor in this country are white. We need to keep two stories in our mind. One: anything we do to raise incomes for people at the very bottom will help more white people than people of color.  Two: it’s shameful that there’s such disproportionate poverty among people of color and we have race and gender playing a part. [As to the latter,] we’re talking primarily about women of color. We are still not dealing fully with these problems of race.

 

Why are Americans generally unaware of the extent of low-wage work? Why isn't this better understood? The people who have low-wage jobs certainly know how hard their life is, but somehow – and I don’t honestly know exactly why – they don’t see themselves as being in the same boat with 103 million other people.  Many of them see themselves as having failed in an individual way rather than being one of millions caught in a structural failure, or they see themselves as part of a situation that no one can fix. They don’t see the big picture, or they have a sense of the big picture and think it’s insoluble.

 

What role does personal responsibility play in all this?

We all have to take responsibility for ourselves. That goes without saying. So that when right-wingers come along and say it’s all somebody’s fault, [we need to say] wait a minute. There are serious structural problems in the way our economy works, [how] our schools work, [and how] our criminal justice system works. But it’s also true that to blame it all on structural problems is incorrect. We’ve come to a point, just because there’s been so much damage in some communities and neighborhoods, that we have to make an extra effort to get to kids and say, you’ve got to take responsibility and take opportunities that are there for you and not listen to people on the street who say it’s not worth it.  At the end of the day nobody makes it who doesn’t take responsibility for themselves, but, to say it’s all on the individual, well, that’s just wrong

 

How important is having options?

 

It’s critically important to have options, to see a way to succeed. To see that there is opportunity. What’s going on now for literally millions of young people in this country (disproportionately people of color,) is that they don’t see that. So they start truanting, they drop out of school. School’s no bargain for them anyway -- it’s not really conveying anything. They don’t have enough people in their lives who send them a message that they can make it if they stick to it. In some areas we really have a generation-to-generation conveyance of poverty…

 

Wasn’t “welfare reform” supposed to stop that -- generational poverty?

 

Welfare reform was a bumper sticker. It is a bumper sticker. It said go and get a job. It didn’t say we’re going to give you supports. And it assumed a job was available when very often it wasn’t. It was really based on ordering people to behave in a different way.

 

The fact is, most people want to work. Most people want to have a chance to make enough money to support their children and lead a decent life. The way our economy is arranged, for too many people that doesn’t work. Particularly, now, we have so many people who get into trouble temporarily -- and we have TANF, which is supposed to be Temporary Assistance to Needy Families --- and people go to the welfare office, and it’s not even temporarily available.

 

We now have about 4 million people receiving TANF.  It was 14 million before the Personal Responsibility Act [welfare reform] was passed in 1996. In state after state in this country you just can’t get state assistance. In Wyoming just four percent of poor kids receive TANF. That’s kind of astonishing.

 

In your book you talk about income supports, meaning that the government helps those who are underpaid. If we do that, aren’t we simply using public dollars to subsidize private employers, many of whom are profiting hugely from paying low wages.

 

We don’t want income supports that bail out big corporations from taking responsibility for paying their workers a proper wage.  At the very least, the minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit need to be working in tandem.  The minimum wage should be as high as we can make it without starting to destroy jobs, or at least as high as we can make it politically, which is a much lower number – maybe $10 an hour now.  The EITC shouldn’t be taking the place of the minimum wage. 

 

And if unions were stronger, and we can hope that will happen over time, that would push wages up, too.  Nor should we forget that a proper investment in health care, housing, child care, and support for going to college has a monetary value that effectively adds to income.  But if we do all of those things, I think there will still be a gap, and so I think we have to talk about wage supplements.  I don’t especially like it, but I think it has to be on the table.

 

Is this low wage, low employment economy a temporary blip?

 

I’m afraid low wage work is here to stay in large amounts. I can’t predict the future many decades from now, But this is a global economy and we are not situated well vis a vis emerging economies in India and China. Manufacturing is weak. To the extent that it’s coming back, the wages are coming back much lower than they were when they went away three to four years ago. We really need to face up to the fact that there’s so much low wage work, we need to take action, we need to increase the minimum wage, we need to get the kind of work supports – health care, childcare, housing -- that make a difference; and I think we need to talk about how are we going to add to incomes so they come up to a level that people can live on.

 

A loud chorus will say to that income supports are European, even socialist….

 

[To] people who say that providing support for wages or a decent safety net for people who’ve lost their jobs is somehow adopting some sort of a European answer, [I say,]  if you run an economy in which people who are doing their very best cannot make enough money to live on, we should help. I don’t know how else to talk about it, except to talk about justice.

 

What is the American tradition when it comes to helping our brothers and sisters?

The American tradition is kind of ambivalent when it comes to helping those who are in need.  Our history, up until the New Deal, is largely one of private charity and limited state help. We started to take a different view in the New Deal and we’ve done much better since then. So I think we’re kind of ambivalent.

 

There are certainly those who take the position that anyone who has a problem, it’s their own fault. On the other hand, we’ve enacted all these great programs from Social Security through Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and many more. Those were voted on by people who were elected by the American people.  So I think we are responsive, but I think we have to continue to tell the truth about why people have problems, and what the issues are, and so much of it is beyond anything [these] people did wrong.

 

How much of a difference did the popular movements of the 1960s make to your ability in that era to develop some of those program you’re talking about?

 


The 1960s certainly were an unusual decade in our country, as were the 1930s for different reasons. With Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Great Depression, the country was ready to respond.  In the 1960s, the civil rights movement made a huge difference. To put it simply, there was a kind of national realization that just because you had a right to eat at the lunch counter didn’t mean you had enough money to buy a meal. President Johnson felt very strongly that we ought to attack poverty. We can have whatever views about the war in Vietnam (I think of him as two different presidents,) but in terms of civil rights and poverty, he was a great president.

 

[Just as] important, the Civil Rights movement did open people’s eyes and make them supportive. There was a popular sense that if people were hungry we needed to get food to them.  And we did a pretty good job, through the Nixon period too. He signed into law housing vouchers and SSI insurance for the elderly and disabled and Pell grants among other things. Things started to change with Reagan and we’ve been kind of fighting an up and down battle since then.

 

How would you assess the state of our movements today?

 

I was excited about Occupy.  I thought that we were finally seeing people who were getting off their behinds and calling us all out and there was a tremendous national response to that. The word “inequality” was out there in the media in exponential ways compared to where it had been before.

 

If people will come together and keep at it, and if there is an institutional partnership with labor, with the SEIU and faith groups and so on, perhaps we can sustain a movement. There has to be a coming together of people. Maybe if things don’t improve in the economy and there’s a continuing and increased sense that people at the top just have too much, maybe that will change the politics. Right now the politics are not helpful to say the least.

 

What’s happened to the word poverty? Where is it? Barack Obama was the first president in years not to use it in a State of the Union address.

 

I really don’t like this exclusive emphasis on the middle class. Not that I’m against help for people wherever they’re hurting, but we should be talking about inclusion -- everybody who’s in need now. Barack Obama has done a lot about poverty. Sixteen million people were added to Medicaid in the Affordable Care Act. [There is] Race to The Top, [about which] you can have some policy differences, but it’s about education for low-income children. Well over $150 billion in the Recovery Act [was] for low income people. The record is there, it’s good, but we’ve got to get the “P” word back into the conversation. 



 

What’s at stake?

 


I think what’s at stake is our future in very fundamental ways. I don’t see how a democracy can function and remain a democracy in all the meanings of that word, if there are millions of people who are not included, who are not participating. It erodes the moral basis of country and it perpetuates the power of wealthy and corporate interests in ways that are just corrosive. I think a lot is at stake.

 

 

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