In these last couple days, I’ve been blogging about the shameful fact that America’s minimum wage hasn’t risen since 1997 and, adjusted for inflation, is at its lowest since 1956. That means millions of Americans cannot meet their bills even working 2-3 jobs.
If you want to read a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking article about the human face of growing poverty in this rich country, read Paul Harris’s dispatch in The Guardian. Harris reports from the hills of Kentucky, Detroit’s streets, the Deep South of Louisiana and the heartland of Oklahoma. What he finds is not the failure of the poor, but the failure of our system.
The next time some morally obtuse politician starts talking YOYO language–"You’re On Your Own"–or preaches the need to take personal responsibility and pulls out that bootstrap stuff, make them read this article. It is a stark reminder that, as Harris reports, "even families with two working parents are often one slice of good luck–a medical bill or a factory closure–away from disaster."
These are times when the gap between the haves and have-nots in America has widened, when 37 million of our fellow citizens live in poverty (that’s 12.7% of population–the highest percentage in the developed world), and each year more are added to the poverty rolls. (Under Bush, an additional 5.4 million have slipped below the poverty line.)
Yet, poverty is, for all essential purposes, off the radar of America’s political landscape. Maybe it’s because there are too many outrages to wake up to every morning? Maybe it’s because the poor have no lobbyists and don’t have the money to make campaign donations?
During the 2004 elections, as The Guardian article reminds, John Edwards raised poverty to a presidential-level conversation for the first time in forty years. And even then, he had to mute his passion and words once he became the vice-presidential candidate. So it’s heartening that Edwards, in these last months, has retrieved his focus and passion and launched a campaign to "eradicate poverty in America." (For more, check out Bob Moser’s fine Nation profile) He’s created a think tank at the University of North Carolina, The Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity," designed to tackle the nation’s deep and abiding economic and racial inequities, and taken his antipoverty crusade to more than thirty states.
Edwards isn’t alone. There are movements which continue to work hard, with too little support or attention; there are also less prominent political figures. But what we need is a critical mass of elected representatives, at all levels. Make this issue a campaign. Don’t just talk the talk, but really work to fulfill the oft-proclaimed promise of America as a land of opportunity for all. Begin by fighting tooth and nail to increase the minimum wage. Shame on those who refuse to pass it. And then let’s support the successful living wage movement, and the anti-poverty movements and coalitions working in our communities and nation-wide.
These are just a few things that could be done. I am sure others have better ideas and a clearer understanding of political strategy. What is clear is that addressing the deep and growing poverty in this nation may be the greatest moral-values issue of our time.