Almost sixty years ago for a brief period–during Lyndon Johnson’s term as President– the issues of race and poverty were headline news. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a huge leap forward in abolishing Jim Crow and statutory segregation, and a start in trying to level the playing field based on the color of one’s skin. The War on Poverty and the Great Society programs were big deals that captured the imagination of a lot of young people, including me and addressed poverty as well as racism. Embry and I worked in Head Start for one summer when we worked in the Civil Rights Movement with SNCC in Southwest Georgia in 1966. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 followed a few years later, and there was even considerable talk about a “guaranteed annual income” to bridge the wage and wealth gaps. Unions were strong, and there were even a handful of “progressives” in the Republican Party like Everett Dirksen and Nelson Rockefeller permitting occasional bipartisan progressive legislation. Though far from perfect, those days were a time for optimism and hope. Are we now approaching a time when some of the same issues are starting to bubble up to the top again?
I am about half way through reading Poverty By America, a new book and number one on the New York Times Best Seller List by Mathew Desmond, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Evicted (also a book about poverty). I am also “auditing” on line Robert Reich’s class at UC Berkely called “Wealth and Poverty.” (YouTube videos every Friday morning.) I highly recommend both. The message of both Desmond’s book and Reich’s class is that while we have made progress in some areas, we still have a long way to go, and actually the income and wealth gaps are much more extreme now than they were sixty years ago. They argue that this accounts for much of the alienation and malaise of the White working class and helps explain the Trump phenomenon.
What is going on and what can we do about it?
The poverty experience in our country became evident to me this year in our work with an Afghan refugee family. Embry and I are part of a task force representing three Episcopal parishes in helping this refugee family of five get a start in the U.S. After a year of financial support from the churches, however, they now have to try to make it on their own. The father has a job as a security guard at a local hospital, which pays $16/hour. This is close to the defacto minimum wage in the Washington metro area right now and is what many in the health care, hospitality, services, and restaurant sectors are making, even though the statutory minimum wage is lower. So how does a family live on a $16/hour, full-time job, earning about $32,500/year? Do the arithmetic:
- Their rent for their modest two-bedroom unit is $2,000/month or $24,000/year.
- Utilities add another $200/month or $2,400/year.
- The federal minimum standard for the cost of food is $4.00/day per person or $20/day for the refugee family amounting to $7,300/year.
- The cost of rent, utilities and food comes to $33,700. This leaves no room for paying taxes or for transportation costs like getting to and from work and shopping for groceries, the cost of clothing, health care, or anything else. There are various “standards” as to how much it costs to live in various states and cities in the U.S. For a family of five in the DC metro area the estimate is a family needs over $50,000/year minimum, just to get by. (Median living expenditures for all households in the Washington metro area were slightly above $70,000 in 2022.). The “survival budget” has no frills. No movies or dinners out at Denny’s. No vacations or trips. No money for birthday presents or religious holidays and assumes low rents. Yet a huge number of full time jobs in the DC area pay only $33,700, some even less. And most of these jobs involve hard work.
What is wrong with this picture? In 2023 in the United States of America you can work full time in a demanding job and still not make enough money to cover the costs of barebones living. Note that over a third of the households in the United States made less than $55,000 in 2022, which puts them in the category of struggling to make ends meet. At the same time the top one percent of households, and especially the top one tenth of one percent are getting richer and richer. This is a rerun of the Age of the Robber Barons but this time on steroids.
But, you point out, surely I am crying wolf. Families are not starving all over the place. So they must be getting by somehow. How do they do it?
It makes a huge difference if both parents are able to work, but this is not possible for a family with three kids under six. Also a large number of poor families are single parent households. It is true that in the U.S. we do have a social safety net, which varies by jurisdiction, since it is part federal, part state and part local. In my view it is far from being as good as it should be, very costly to administer, difficult for poor people to access, and not the same for everyone. In the case of our refugee family, representatives from the three churches were able to help them access food stamps (now called “SNAP,” the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), which made a huge difference in their food budget. We were able to get them enrolled in the Medicaid program, and we initially paid the rent on their apartment for about a year. When that money ran out, we were able to help them get a Housing Voucher from their jurisdiction, which provides $475 toward the $2,000 rent. Not enough in my view, but every penny counts. They probably will be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Fortunately, the schools and social services are very strong where they live, so, yes, they will be able to survive. But what if the three parishes had not been able to help? How could they have managed to figure out all this on their own? How could anyone? If you think being poor does not require extraordinary expertise in navigating through the social service labyrinth, think again. I observed this when we lived on “Clay Street” in 1970, and I wrote a book about it (Hard Living on Clay Street, still in print). For some people life is very, very hard. It was hard then. It is probably harder now. In addition to trying to access social safety net programs, many will work as much overtime as they can, take on an additional part time job and maybe even try to work two full time jobs. And yet the attitude of many of us privileged folks is to look down on those who do the work no one else wants to do and get paid very little for it. Some suspect they are lazy or lack ambition and conclude it is their own fault that they are where they are.
So, yes, it is long overdue to focus on income disparities due to economic, class and race issues. It is reassuring that Poverty By America has received such a strong initial response. But is there any chance of a meaningful conversation given the strong divisions in Congress and in our country where the worlds of Red and the worlds of Blue seem to be drifting more apart than coming closer together?
My belief is that if we can’t figure out how to fix this situation and start to level the playing field on the issue of wealth and poverty, the problems of unrest and anger will only get worse.
More to follow. Stay tuned.