We didn't need the Census poverty data released today to tell us what we already know: families are facing the highest rates of economic hardship in a generation. However, maybe such stark numbers can help increase the urgency around one of the most important issues of this moment and move us beyond the naysayers who attack every anti-poverty strategy, yet have nothing new to offer. While the crisis of poverty in our communities is not new, the recent spike is clearly the result of our current recession. What we can't forget is that this recession was triggered by reckless Wall Street schemes impacting a middle class already being squeezed away by 30 years of failed right-wing economic policy.
Right-wing commentators will use today's figures to argue for more of what got us here. Don't get me wrong, their policies have been successful. But they have only been successful at what they are designed to do: prioritize wealth creation for the rich, leaving barely a trickle for those below. Since the 1980s, the dominant economic policy has been a combination of tax cuts aimed at the rich and deregulation designed to maximize profits for the top 1%. Coupled with an any-job-is-good-enough approach to employment and a labor policy that has stripped away the foundation supporting middle class jobs, the result is an explosion of the working poor. The poverty rate for working age people between 18 and 64 rose to 12.9 percent last year, its highest in more than four decades.
The only way to reverse that trend is to create and sustain good jobs that pay enough to meet families' needs and lift them out of poverty. Without a focus on job quality, we can look forward to annual increases in poverty well into the future.
Disturbing as the numbers are--with 43.6 million U.S. residents officially suffering in poverty last year--the official figures underplay the true extent of economic hardship. The Federal poverty level, $11,161 for an individual or $21,756 for a family of four with two children, should more appropriately be defined as a measure of extreme poverty. A more accurate measure of poverty would be to set the bar at twice the Federal poverty level, $22,322 for an individual or $43,512 for a family of four. Below those income rates, getting by is still a significant struggle in the U.S. today--and yet this definition would include a third of all Americans, many of them working.
Unfortunately, the forecast for jobs is not good. We find ourselves in what has been called a jobless recovery, and the few jobs that the economy is creating merely perpetuate the cycle of working poverty. As a recent study from the National Employment Law Project shows, while job losses from the recession were spread across all income levels, job creation has been primarily in low-income industries. The top three occupations among industries that grew this year are retail salespersons, cashiers, and food preparation workers. These are among the lowest-paying jobs, with few benefits and minimal job security. The low-wage job trend is expected to continue, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting that the majority of the fastest-growing occupations over the next decade will be among the lowest-paying sectors. Clearly, the economy is not poised to create good jobs on its own.
However, while Republicans push to make permanent the Bush-era tax cuts for the top 1%--people who have thrived over the last thirty years--those of us concerned with real answers are mapping a better course. Promising strategies have been designed to maximize the good jobs that will actually reduce poverty, both by improving existing jobs and creating good new jobs.
In Los Angeles, a living wage policy covering hotels near the Los Angeles International Airport has improved pay in existing jobs and helped more than 5,000 workers and family members earn their way out of poverty. Studies have put the net benefit to the community from increased wages and spending at more than $23 million in the first four years, through wage increases combined with the economic boost as those families spend their new income in local stores and restaurants.
Other successes include the creation of quality new jobs, many harnessing stimulus money in combination with local workforce programs. Among other projects, we have helped enact construction career programs in Los Angeles that guarantee good jobs and direct them to local residents in low-income communities. Stimulus money has become a political football, but the reality is that the resources it provided have been instrumental in the creation of good jobs. The critical question is how local leaders use such resources.
The question the Census poverty data should push us to ask is simple: what kind of a recovery do we want? Do we want a recovery where the only jobs we create are at the bottom of the income ladder? Or do we want to leverage everything at our disposal--local programs, federal spending, and standards that will raise the bar for the quickly-vanishing American middle class? Following the right wing's narrow focus on profit at the top, even dressed up as anti-poverty policy, would continue to concentrate wealth and take us in the wrong direction. The only way to truly address poverty--and restore the middle class--is to embrace an economic strategy focused on the creation of good jobs.
By Madeline Janis
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