P.S. Poverty Remains a Pressing Problem
By Jenice R. Robinson
Depending on which headline you read, the Nov. 2 election outcome was a rejection of incumbents, a backlash against policies of the past two years, a vote for divided government, a mandate for a more conservative agenda, and even a harbinger for the 2012 election cycle.
Regardless of what the pundits read in the tea leaves, federal lawmakers owe it to the public to govern and develop viable policy solutions that will address the concerns of ordinary Americans. According to exit polls, the overwhelming majority of voters are concerned about the economy. It's no wonder feelings of financial insecurity are rampant given the persistently high unemployment rate, stagnating wages and increasing poverty.
Bureau of Labor Statistics data released Nov.5 reveal that the national unemployment rate remains high at 9.6 percent. That's 14.8 million people actively looking for work who can't find a job. And if you factor in the number of people who are involuntarily working part-time, the combined number of unemployed and underemployed people soars to 24 million.
Data show that many Americans are worse off today than they were a year ago. David Cay Johnston, writing in an Oct. 25 piece for tax.com, noted that in 2009 average and median wages both declined.
"For those who did find work in 2009, the average wage slipped to $39,269, down $243 or 0.6 percent, compared with the previous year in 2009 dollars. The median wage declined by the same ratio, down $159 to $26,261, meaning half of all workers made $505 a week or less. Significantly, the 2009 median wage was $37 less than in 2000," he wrote.
Meanwhile, poverty is increasing and economic inequality is growing. According to U.S. Census data released in September, 43.6 million people - a record number - live in poverty. Yet what's more telling is income distribution. Last year, households earning more than $100,000 per year, or the top 20 percent, received 49.4 percent of all household income. The bottom 20 percent, or those living in poverty and earning less than $20,000, received 3.4 percent. The top earners' share is up from 49 percent in 2008, while the bottom earners' share fell from 3.6 percent.
Further evidence that many Americans are struggling is the number of people meeting their nutritional needs with Food Stamps (SNAP or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), a safety net program that has adequately responded to the economic downturn. More than 42 million people are in families receiving SNAP benefits, an increase of nearly 13 million people since June 2008.
All of these facts provide the perfect storm of financial insecurity for many Americans. Yet it seems poverty has become a dirty word and calling for bold solutions to address it passé. But until we can start talking about it with a greater level of candor, the real needs of a bulk of the American people will never be addressed in a meaningful way that will get this country back on a track that provides opportunity for the masses.
Earlier this week, Sen. Mitch McConnell speaking at the Heritage Foundation outlined his party's primary legislative goals as "repeal and replace the health spending, to end the bailouts, cut spending and shrink the size and scope of government." And today, Democrats said when they begin negotiations over the Bush-era tax cuts during the lame duck session, they are willing to define middle class as up to $1 million.
It's nice that policymakers are publicly discussing their desire to get to work now that the election season is over. Missing in their declarations, however, is a sense of outrage that in this country of plenty, more than 43 million people meet the federal definition of poverty and millions more are low-income and one job loss or one unforeseen financial setback from poverty, not to mention the 24 million who are unemployed or underemployed. Tuesday's election and the changing of the guard in the House haven't changed any of these troublesome truths. The question for all lawmakers is what policies are you going to pursue to address this?
CLASP policy experts are currently crafting policy recommendations for the 112th Congress. In the meantime, read our 2010 policy recommendations, which outline a broad vision of the types of policy solutions the nation needs to strengthen children, youth and families, create pathways to jobs and opportunity, and promote equal justice.