It’s been a half century since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “war on poverty.” Fifty years later, the income inequality in the United States is much worse. Poverty in other countries is obvious: we see films of people with no food living in cardboard boxes. But in the United States, many people think that the only reason for poverty is laziness. There’s a resentment that people in poverty still have cell phones and television sets. There’s the feeling, especially among conservatives, that truly poor people would be those in the cardboard boxes without food or possessions.
As the recession kept wages down and the middle-class shrinking during the past half decade, the people of the nation are going downward, making less and less while the wealthy have a rapidly increasing upward trajectory. Poverty in our country is malnutrition that leads to poor health with the effects passed on from one generation to the next. Poverty is losing a job and then a home so that they had to declare bankruptcy and move in with friends or relatives.
Greg Haufmann has found solutions from activists around the country:
Sister Simone Campbell, leader of “nuns on the bus” and anathema to Catholic Church directors who want her to concentrate on fighting abortion and marriage equality instead of helping the poor: “Support an increase in the minimum wage to more than $11 per hour.” Of people below the poverty line, 57 percent of individuals and family members either worked or lived with a working family member in 2011. Walmart could pay its workers $12 an hour by raising its prices just 1 percent. That would cost each shopper an average of $12.50 for an entire year. year.
Coalition of Immokalee Workers: “Help end sexual harassment, wage theft, and forced labor in the fields—join the Fair Food Program today.” In the past, countless workers in Florida’s fields growing and harvesting oranges and tomatoes suffered daily humiliation and abuse ranging from wage theft to sexual harassment and even forced labor. A new program has set the highest human rights standards in fields today, working to stop its slavery in the 21st century. Publix Super Markets, a large supermarket chain across six Southern states, refuses to support the program. Almost 100,000 people have asked CEO William Crenshaw to join the program to end slavery in Florida.
Ralph da Costa Nunez, president and CEO, Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness: “Make a Personal Commitment to Helping Homeless Families.” Over one-third–over 500,000—of people living in the U.S. in shelters are parents and their children. Family homelessness has increased by more than 13 percent in the past five years.
Dr. Deborah Frank, founder and principal investigator, Children’s Healthwatch: “Fund the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) at the maximum authorized level.” Insufficient heating and cooling is responsible for poor health, increased hospitalizations, and developmental delays in young children. Although current funding at $4.7 billion in 2014 won’t meet all the needs of people in poverty, it can help.
Sarita Gupta, executive director, Jobs with Justice/American Rights at Work and Co-Director, Caring Across Generations: “Support of a living wage and basic labor protections for home care workers.” Homecare workers compose one of the largest occupations in the nation, but many of them make below minimum wage. The “companionship exemption” excluded most homecare workers from basic labor protections for almost all other workers in the U.S. Two years after President Obama promised federal minimum wage and overtime protections for most homecare workers—and a year after the public comment period closed—there is still no new rule.
Judith Lichtman, senior adviser, National Partnership for Women & Families: “Urge Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1286/S.631) and a national paid leave program.” More than 40 million workers in this country—and more than 80 percent of the lowest-wage workers—cannot earn a single paid sick day to use when they get the flu or other common illnesses. Millions more cannot earn paid sick days to use when a child is sick. For the average worker, taking off 3.5 unpaid days is equivalent to a month’s worth of groceries for the family. Because they do not have sick leave, they may be communicating contagious germs to everyone who comes in contact with the same items as the sick person—creating a chain of illness.
Tiffany Loftin, president, United States Student Association (USSA): “Increase regulation of private student loans and hold Sallie Mae accountable for its role in the student debt crisis.” Student debt was the only type of household debt that grew during the last five years. Each student owes an average of $27,000 by graduation. Sallie Mae, the largest private student lender, has high interest rates. The company fails to give borrowers their repayment options, promoting defaults on loans, and lends money at between 3.5 percent and 5 percent higher than it borrows.
Elizabeth Lower-Basch, policy coordinator, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP): “Support Pathways Back to Work.” Subsidized and transitional jobs are the best way to give unemployed workers the opportunity to earn wages, build skills, and connect to the labor market, while also giving businesses an incentive to hire new employees when they might not be able to do so otherwise.
Marci Phillips, director of public policy and advocacy, National Council on Aging: “Invest in the Older Americans Act.” This proposed bill includes a number of programs that keep seniors healthy and independent in their own homes instead of in expensive institutions. Services include healthy meals, in-home care, transportation, benefits access, caregiver support, chronic disease self-management, job training and placement and elder abuse prevention, but funding has not kept up with the need, especially after the sequester.
Rebecca Vallas, staff attorney/policy advocate, Community Legal Services: “Tell Congress no cuts to Social Security and SSI through the Chained CPI.” The two-year budget didn’t touch these programs, but fight is not over. The debt ceiling crisis comes in January, very likely complete with extortion. Although Social Security now matches inflation, the method of determining cost of living is highly inaccurate for seniors. Those on low-income won’t be buying new houses and cars, measures that keep inflation down. Their money goes for food, utilities, and drugs—items that are more rapidly increasing in cost than the other items that lower inflation. In just one example, my water bill has gone up an average of 5 percent every year for the past 20 years, and the city plans on an increase of 50 percent in the next five years.
Jim Weill, President, Food Research and Action Center: “Tell Congress: Increase, Don’t Cut SNAP (Food Stamp) Benefits.” House GOP members who tried to pass a farm bill without any food stamps ignored the fact that most people in the country understand the importance of this program: 73 percent of voters believe the program is important to the country; 70 percent say cutting it is the wrong way to reduce government spending; and 77 percent say the government should be spending more (43 percent) or the same (34 percent) on SNAP. This support crosses parties, demographic groups, and rural, urban and suburban lines.
Debbie Weinstein, executive director, Coalition on Human Needs: “Tell Congress to stop harmful cuts to anti-poverty programs now.” Sequestration cut education, food programs, jobs, housing, and clothing programs. They keep people poor, cost jobs and stall economic growth for everyone.
Johnson’s attempts to alleviate poverty worked for almost two decades until Ronald Reagan became president. During this two terms, the country quickly began to lose the painful gains of the century: increased productivity benefited only the wealthy, poverty concentrated in inner cities with chronic joblessness and racial segregation, and trade union membership plummeted along with pensions. The U.S. led the industrialized world in child poverty and incarceration. The value of the minimum wage eroded. Conservatives blamed the resulting problems on Johnson’s Great Society and began its three-decade war on social spending.
The above solutions may sound complicated, but a letter to today’s Oregonian from Rex Burkholder simplified several solutions. He makes a lot of sense to me.
“Here are a few ideas I’d like to see Oregon’s business community get behind in their effort to end poverty:
- Decriminalize drugs. Addicts are ill and need help, not incarceration.
- Shut down lottery and video poker, poor returns on investment.
- Treat the mentally ill instead of putting them on the streets.
- Raise the minimum wage to its 1970s equivalent, about $15 an hour in today’s dollars.
- Spend our public infrastructure funds through a Civilian Conservation Corps-type program instead of using out-of-state contractors.
- Put shop class back into every high school. We still need carpenters, plumbers and other tradespeople.
“How to fund it? Legalize and tax marijuana. Less damage than tobacco or alcohol and lots of demand.”