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What do we learn from the poverty data?

By Julianne Malveaux
Trice Edney Newswire

When the poverty data was released on Sept. 17, comparing the poverty situation in 2011 to that in 2012, many hoped poverty levels would drop as an indication of economic good news. But while the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) has risen, and the wealthy are gaining income, those stuck at the bottom are still simply stuck.

Poverty rates in 2013, at more than 15 percent, are almost the same as they were last year.  Poverty in the African American community, at more than 27 percent has not improved. Similarly, Latinos experience an unemployment rate over 26 percent — again no improvement.

In the face of this data, Congress decided to cut food programs by $40 billion, which kicks between two and four million people out of the program. Additionally, there are work requirements now imposed on those who receive food stamps. With official unemployment rates exceeding seven percent, where are the poor supposed to find employment? It appears that this is a war, or at least a series of aggressive actions. Congressional stereotypes about the poor have driven their policy decisions to cut back programs like food stamps and to require work as a condition of receiving nutritional assistance.

The vote to eliminate nutritional assistance was achingly close, with a margin of about 10 votes separating those who decided to maintain food assistance and those who wanted to cut it. Every Democrat voted not to cut food assistance; some Republicans joined them. I guess those who voted to reduce these benefits have no hungry people in their districts.

The message of the poverty data is that our nation really does not care about poor people. We have seen that “trickle down” and other theories don’t work, and we have yet to implement a model that requires those who have gained economic expansion to share their gains with an economy that is faltering.

The poverty data, absent of action, suggests that some people think it will “work itself out” the way it has before. Those with that opinion are ignoring the fact that our economy is restructuring. It is easier to get a service job than a professional job and manufacturing jobs are disappearing. Cities have failed to provide economic development dollars to those who would bring jobs to their cities.

I’m not talking about any kind of jobs though. I’m talking about jobs that generate a living wage. In Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray vetoed legislation that would raise the wage for those who work in “big box” stores like Wal-Mart and Best Buy. He was stuck between the choice to create more jobs or to impose fair wages. He chose the former.

Mayors across the country are faced with these kinds of choices, so this can’t be local policy. It has to be national policy to raise the wages of those at the bottom. Sure, the business community will fight this, asserting that they won’t hire if wages rise. That’s not necessarily true. Higher wages may cut their profits just a bit, but shouldn’t employers be willing to see slightly lower profits in exchange for the economic survival of their workers?

Those who aren’t on the bottom now exhale and say this issue doesn’t matter to them. But the way we are going, the person who is living high on the hog today might be making low wages (or no wages) tomorrow. The low-wage issue is important to all of us.

This poverty issue affects us all, and we need to respond to the fact that too many of our brothers and sisters (of all ethnic/cultural groups) are poor and unemployed or under employed. Our indifference is a profound concurrence in the oppression of others.

Dr. Malveaux is an author and economist based in Washington, DC.

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