The Anti-Poverty Soldier
Clarence Hightower, Ph.D.
Today in United States more than 46 million people are living in poverty, an increase of nearly 10 million impoverished Americans since 2007. This includes nearly 20 million people who live in extreme poverty, meaning that their household income is less than 50 percent of the federal poverty line. As a 2015 story from The Washington Post notes, for the first time since the War on Poverty was declared in 1964, the majority of America’s public schools students from pre-K through the 12th Grade are eligible for free or reduce-priced lunches.
Of course these figures do not account for the tens of millions more in America classified as economically insecure that are in essence, one unfortunate circumstance away from falling into the ranks of the poor.
For years scholars have addressed the cycle of poverty or what they have come to refer to as generational poverty. Likewise, experts have debated situational poverty, which best describes the increasing number of people who have come to be known in recent years as the “new poor.” These are generally former middle-class families who fell below the poverty line as the result of a calamitous event such as a death in the family, serious illness, job loss, foreclosure or divorce.
Regardless of how one comes to experience poverty, that experience alone is devastating and the obstacles to overcome poverty are both numerous and steep. Fundamentally, “poverty is quicksand.” This is the title of a recent article by Peter A. Georgescu, Chairman Emeritus of the marketing communications company Young & Rubicam.
In his Huffington Post essay, Georgescu immediately admonishes those who disparage the poor and advance erroneous narratives about how government benefits inspire indolence by declaring “the reality is that poverty, especially now, is more like quicksand. Once you fall into it, it’s harder and harder to get out. Opportunity to improve one’s life has disappeared for most Americans, especially those who are poor.”
Georgescu’s essay builds off of another recent piece by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, who summons the famous words of James Baldwin and offers a litany of insights on just “how expensive it is to be poor” in America. Among the most critical barriers to overcoming poverty is the exorbitant percentage of income that many working class households spend on housing and transportation costs. Blow cites a 2015 report that reveals the poorest 20% of Americans will pay roughly twice as much of their total household income in state and local taxes as compared to the richest one percent.
In considering the aforementioned examples as well as all of the other hurdles families must clear in order to escape poverty, the metaphor “poverty is quicksand” is apropos. Poverty sucks people in and pulls them down. But what if poverty was not quicksand?
What if it was easier for a poor family to acquire a fixed-rate low-interest loan as opposed to yet another credit card or predatory loan? What if more money were made available through matched savings programs such as FAIM (Family Assets for Independence in Minnesota) that enable the working poor to set a course toward financial independence by helping them advance their education, purchase a home, or start a small business?
What if promising college bound students from low and moderate income families were not forced into substantial debt through student loans? As Charles M. Blow observes in his New York Times column poor students that receive Pell Grants are still forced to supplement that aid with additional loans. Today, 40 million Americans have over $1 trillion in student loans making it the number one debt in the nation. In fact, the amount of student loan debt has nearly doubled in less than a decade.
Finally, what if the limits of the current minimum wage structure did not keep millions of hard working Americans living in poverty? During his 2014 State of the Union, President Obama recognized John Sorrano and John Puckett, owners of Punch Neapolitan Pizza, who instituted a minimum wage of $10.00 at each of their nine Twin Cities locations. Nationally, a push to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour has increasing support among policy makers and the public.
Recent data suggests an increase to $10.10 per hour would pull 4.5 million people out of poverty. Still, many question whether that is enough and some politicians have considered increasing the proposal to $12 per hour. Seattle has implemented a $15 per hour plan for certain industries and nationally, fast food employees have demanded the same while recently holding a one-day strike in 150 American cities.
Increases to $10 or even $15 per hour will help millions break free from the shackles of poverty and yet, one still must wonder if such a wage is still fair. John Schmitt of the Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that if the minimum wage kept pace with productivity over the last 44 years, it would be closer to $22 per hour. Whether or not it is realistic to consider a minimum wage of $22, it is clear that a wage increase along with a number of other appropriate (and achievable) measures can lift millions of Americans out of the quicksand that is poverty.
Clarence Hightower is the Executive Director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University (Mississippi).