Is it Impossible to Make it Here Anymore?
By Vicki Choitz, Helly Lee, and Jodie Levin-Epstein
Some have maxed out all their credit cards
Some are working two jobs and living in cars
Minimum wage won't pay for a roof, won't pay for a drink
If you gotta have proof just try it yourself Mr. CEO
See how far 7.25 an hour will go
Take a part time job at one of your stores
Bet you can't make it here anymore
CLASP is well-known for high-quality policy analyses and serious policy wonks. But as a few of us policy wonks were reminded at an evening concert a few weekends ago, even the best policy brief won’t move the soul like a passionate song can. When we heard these lyrics to James McMurtry’s 2004 song “We Can’t Make it Here”, it was as if he’d written a theme song for CLASP and our allies working to promote economic security and mobility.
The fact is, McMurty’s song reveals a tough reality – not only is it getting harder for many families to make ends meet each and every day, but the ability to achieve the American dream is slipping further away too. Working hard just isn’t enough anymore.
At the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, full time, an individual earns $15,080 annually, which is below the poverty line for all family sizes. A recent report from the Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce provides more data to match the lyrics. Individuals with a high school diploma or less lost 5.6 million jobs during the Great Recession, compared to associate degree holders and those with some college education who lost 1.75 million jobs. Those with bachelor’s degrees actually gained 187,000 jobs during this period.
Since the recovery started in January 2010, those with a high school diploma or less have continued to lose jobs –an additional 230,000 jobs between January 2010 and February 2012. Those with an associate degree or some college education gained 1.6 million jobs and bachelor’s degree holders gained 2 million jobs in the recovery. Clearly those with the least education can’t make it here anymore and it continues to get worse even as the economy slowly picks up.
The gap in jobs mirrors the widening gap in income inequality, and low-income individuals and families need support more than ever. But many federal programs to help them meet basic needs and gain the skills needed to advance in the workforce face drastic cuts. Earlier this summer, the Senate passed a Farm Bill that would cut $4.5 billion out of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called Food Stamps), one of the nation’s largest anti-hunger programs, which served 44.7 million individuals in an average month in 2011. On the House side, the Agriculture Committee passed a Farm Bill that would cut $16 billion from SNAP, more than triple the cuts made in the Senate (it hasn’t been voted on by the full House yet).
Workforce, adult education, and student aid programs that help lower-skilled workers increase their skills, earn postsecondary credentials, and get good jobs have been cut and continue to face even deeper cuts with sequestration on the horizon and future budget battles looming.
These cuts are counter-productive. When the country invests in its workforce and families, we’re stronger for it. Smart public policy can help more families reach and stay in the middle class and keep the economy competitive. It’s time to re-double efforts to protect vital programs helping vulnerable workers and families – not slash them.
Mr. McMurtry’s lyrics are a vivid reminder of the struggles felt on the ground and reinvigorate us to continue the good fight in these difficult economic and budget times. We hope they do the same for you – take a listen.