Archives for posts with tag: poverty

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In March, I started volunteering for the Raise Up Washington campaign by becoming a signature collector for Initiative 1433, which would help over one million Washingtonians by gradually increasing the minimum wage statewide and providing them with paid sick and safe leave.

Some of you might ask: didn’t we just raise the minimum wage in Washington?

No, not in the entire state. We only raised the minimum wage in Seattle and SeaTac to $15/hour. The rest of our state – from Olympia to Yakima and Bellingham to Vancouver – is still stuck with a dismal $9.47 minimum wage. This is hardly a livable income workers who are struggling to support themselves and their families.

I-1433 raises the minimum wage gradually over the next four years to $13.50 for all Washington workers. It also mandates that workers receive seven paid sick or safe days per calendar year (which equates to one hour of paid sick or safe leave per 40 hours worked).

For people who sometimes get sick or have to take care of sick loved ones (i.e., everyone), paid sick days are a lifesaver. Many of us take our sick days for granted, but 1 million Washington workers receive zero paid sick leave. Imagine being a single parent working a minimum wage job who has an ailing child and cannot afford childcare. This parent must make a ridiculous choice – do they leave the sick kid to fend for themselves in order to make ends meet? Or risk their job and lose vital income to stay home and care for their family?

No one should have to make this choice. And yet, people are forced to do so every day in this state. Because we simply don’t offer a living minimum wage to Washington workers.

Let’s talk about the incredible benefit that low-wage workers would receive with a minimum wage bump. For a family of three, the poverty wage is $9.65/hour. That’s 18 cents more than what we are paying the low wage workers in our state. Yikes! And without a living wage, these workers are sinking further and further away from the American dream (and the middle class).

But this is not only a class issue – it is a race and gender issue as well. Over 40% of Black and Latinx workers earn less than $13.50 an hour, and far more female workers than males earn minimum wage.

What about small business? Cries the voices from the back. Well, that’s a legitimate question with a (somewhat) simple answer. Research has proven that raising the minimum wage has NO discernible impact on employment levels – which means that employers are not forced to fire their workers because of a raised wage. This is the case because of a number of other means by which small employers can compensate for paying high wages – and yes, that often includes a minuscule increase (about 0.4%) in prices. But what you probably don’t know is that these same employers often enjoy the benefits of lower turnover rates and greater worker satisfaction because of a wage bump.

Safe leave is the least discussed component of I-1433, but is vitally important. Safe leave means paid time off for workers who are suffering from domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. They can use this time to move out of an abuser’s house, attend to issues in court, file restraining orders, work with law enforcement, to find a safe house, and much more – without losing work that they desperately need. The fact that we are not already providing these services to Washington state DV and rape victims appalls me.

When I was assaulted by my ex, I had to take time off from work because of physical and emotional trauma, to move out of my abuser’s home, and to go to court. I didn’t receive any pay for this time. It was only by the grace of my deeply generous family that I stayed afloat financially.

For many survivors of DV and rape, I-1433 could mean a real chance of escaping their abuser and/or getting justice. In this way, a vote for paid safe days is a bonafide lifesaver.

I commend the Raise Up Washington campaign, and I urge you to sign I-1433, so that the measure will appear on the ballot this fall. We need at least 250,000 signatures to qualify.

Look for volunteers all over the state collecting signatures, visit the Raise Up Washington headquarters, or get in touch with me directly – I’ll bring you the petition to sign! And come November, make your vote count by voting for working families.

For more, check out this KIRO news story about the campaign featuring yours truly. 😉

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Cross-posted from my article in Everyday Feminism

In 2012, women were statistically much poorer than men. And women that were already poor in 2011 stayed that way.

Wait a minute – you say – I’m always hearing that women make up over half of the nation’s workforce and are increasingly becoming the primary (or sole) breadwinner in families with children! Plus, isn’t the Recession over? Shouldn’t people be getting out of poverty by now?

While it’s true that our nation is in “recovery,” that’s not the whole story.

A lot of Americans are still struggling with extreme poverty – and women are getting the short end of the stick on pretty much all fronts.

Every year, the United States Census Bureau releases their findings about poverty, health insurance, and much more in September.

This year, the Census data revealed that one in seven women live in poverty. One in seven. That’s almost 17.8 million women – or 14.5% of the female population. For men, this percentage is lower, at 11%.

These crazy-high numbers of poor American women are nothing new – they are almost identical to the 2011 figures. But they’re still unacceptable.

And certain groups of women are having an even harder time than the rest.

Black, Latina, and Native American women are disproportionately poor, as are women who are the primary breadwinners in a household. And shockingly, women 65 years of age and older got drastically poorer in 2012.

In order to understand why this is happening, let’s first look at these statistics in greater detail – and at what else the newest Census data has to tell us about these different groups of women and how the post-Recession recovery period is treating them.

Women of Color Have Exceedingly High Poverty Rates

Women of Color have not prospered during the economic recovery.

The Census data shows that Black women have a whopping poverty rate of 25.1%, and Latina women come in right below them at 24.8%. Even more drastic is the plight of Native American women – one in three Native women were poor in 2012.

Poverty disproportionately affects all People of Color – not just women. Non-white children and men also suffer from poverty disproportionately across the board. As I explained in this article about American poverty, this inequality is a product of a longstanding structure of racial oppression that refuses to go away despite civil rights advances.

Poor Women Heading Households Are Getting Poorer

Studies show that in today’s working economy, four in ten households with kids under 18 years of age have a woman as the chief (or only) breadwinner.

While that fact is exciting in the sense that women are truly viable players in the workforce and completely capable of providing for their families, it doesn’t negate the fact that almost 41% of the women heading these households were poor in 2012.

Not only that, but this poverty isn’t just affecting the women themselves – it’s hurting their children.

A stunning 56% of poor kids live in families in which a woman is the main wage-earner. We’ll get to just why this is later.

Elderly Women Are Suffering More Than Before

Getting older isn’t easy on anyone, and definitely not on poor women.

Health problems become more numerous and costly, menopause changes the body dramatically, and just getting around becomes more difficult. Andeverything costs.

Luckily, many of us have spent a lifetime saving up for retirement to protect ourselves financially in the face of illness or other issues.

We’ve saved a bit from each paycheck, contributed to a 401K retirement plan, or made investments that will (hopefully) help see us through our old age. And ideally, we have family to back us up and take care of us as well.

But what about women who didn’t have the financial flexibility to save for retirement while they were working – or had to use their savings to help another family member in a time of need?

What about the grandmas who are still helping their children and grandchildren get by because those children are struggling with poverty themselves?

A staggering amount of elderly women are poor – and things only got worse in 2012.

According to the United States Census, the number of women 65 years or older living in extreme poverty increased by 23% last year.

That’s unacceptable. After a lifetime of contributing to our economy and society, our grandmothers should not have to worry about how they are going to afford food.

“Why is this happening?” you are probably asking yourself.

Well, there are plenty of reasons why an unequal number of women are poor.

The Wage Gap Is Partially to Blame

The ever-looming gender wage gap is one big reason.

Thanks to the Census, we know that – just like in 2011 – women who work full-time, year-round are only paid 77 cents on the dollar compared to their male coworkers – and that’s only in reference to white folk.

If you are thinking that a few cents doesn’t make much of a difference, think again.

Let’s look at what that wage gap translates into over the course of a year: Over $11k less in yearly earnings. And thus, a much smaller economic safety net. For a woman struggling with poverty, that $11 thousand could make a world of difference.

These numbers get a lot worse when you’re talking about Women of Color. Black and Latina women earn, respectively, 64 cents and 54 cents on the dollar compared to White, non-Latino men.

This inequality is a heinous relic of an oppressive, racist culture that seems to be hanging on for far too long – and yet it seems like no one is even talking about it.

The GOP is Waging a War on Safety Net Programs That Help Women

Republicans and Tea Party members in Congress and in-state chambers across the nation have their sights set on dismantling the programs that provide government assistance to needy women and families.

Nutrition aide for babies and pregnant or nursing mothers in the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is on the chopping block.

So are early learning programs for kids and desperately needed food assistance for poor families.

Nothing is actually safe when it comes to the safety net – no matter how many times these programs are proven to lift millions of people out of poverty and save lives.

When these programs are cut, women and their families take the hit.

Pregnant women who lose their WIC benefits don’t get the proper help they need. Single mothers with hungry children have their food taken away from them. Mothers who rely on childcare assistance to be able to work and earn money for their families are forced to stay home.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, is a prime example.

The Census data revealed that SNAP helped 4 million people out of poverty and reduced hardship for millions of others in 2012 alone. Simply put, it is a highly effective program that made tens of millions of people less poor last year, as it does every year.

Despite these proven benefits of the program, all SNAP recipients will lose about $30 from their monthly food allotment starting November 1, 2013.

This decrease comes on top of many other cuts to the program driven by government sequestration and the threat of a $40 billion cut in the House’s proposed farm bill legislation.

Women and children will directly suffer from these cuts to SNAP. If pursued to fruition, it is very likely that next year’s Census data will disclose even more severe poverty rates for women.

With so many politicians seemingly working to keep low-income women and families in poverty – and so many other factors negatively affecting low-income women – what can be done?

Educate, Proliferate, Infiltrate!

For starters, you can share this information with everyone that you know.

I truly believe that a big reason that people vote for politicians who want to cut government assistance to the poor is that they just don’t have the facts.

If they knew who they were taking food, education, and medical services from –infants, young children, struggling families, seniors – I have a hard time believing that so many people would still agree with stripping the safety net bare.

Also, remember that the poverty data revealed by the Census is proof that low-income women are struggling – and that things are not getting much better as the economic recovery continues.

When naysayers try to tell you that the government can’t give any more money to food stamps because there are more people enrolled in the program than ever before, remind them that this is the direct result of the Great Recession.

It’s simple when you think about it.

More people fell into poverty because of a recession = more people were hungry = more people became eligible (and signed up for) nutrition assistance programs.

And since we haven’t fully “recovered” as a nation, these numbers have yet to drop back down.

Back up your arguments with facts and people will have a much harder time shooting you down.

Educate your community.

Post about these important poverty statistics on social media, e-mail articles about the Census findings to your family and friends, tweet at your members of Congress asking them to support safety net programs, or write an op-ed for your local newspaper. The Op Ed Project has some great guidelines to get you started on writing your first article.

Volunteering at community organizations that work to secure funding for low-income women is another good way to combat women’s poverty.

Look at a comprehensive volunteer site like VolunteerMatch.org to find opportunities in mentoring, educational services and much more across the country. You can also check out your local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) for more ways to get involved in supporting anti-poverty measures for women.

You have the facts. Now go out there and do something about this inequality, with the whole force of the Census data backing you up.

Don’t let partisan politicians take necessary assistance away those who need it most.

Show them that you will fight to protect needy children, mothers, and grandmothers from falling deeper into poverty.

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Cross-posted from my article in Everyday Feminism

Most of us have had a shitty job or two.

Maybe it was a job that barely paid, where the managers acted like tyrants, and the hours were inconvenient and unforgiving. Maybe in high school, we had to work at the local Gap to save up for gas money or after college, we waited tables to pay off student debt.

But how many of us have actually had to support ourselves fully – let alone support a family – on a job like this?

There are a lot of people out there who have to do just that.

They earn the minimum wage at a thankless job that is their only form of income.

And that income is extremely low.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour. That means $15,080 per year for a full-time worker.

Minimum wage varies depending on the state you live in, but most states have chosen to remain at the bottom of the wage scale.

Simply put, the minimum wage is too low and has been that way for far too long.

Why Is the Minimum Wage So Low?

In 2007, the federal minimum wage was raised for the first time after a full decade of stagnancy.

This increase was modest at best, and was completely incapable of measuring up to the intense increases in energy and food prices over that same ten years.

And since then?

The wage has remained fixed at this low rate.

Many workers employed at restaurants, nail salons, car washes, and other service jobs are even worse off.

Employers are allowed to legally pay these workers only the tipped minimum wage – a ridiculous sum of $2.13/hour. This wage has not been raised in twenty-two years.

Granted, the Fair Standards Labor Act (FSLA) mandates that if a worker’s total wages (tips plus the hourly $2.13) do not add up to the federal minimum, the employer must make up the difference.

But this is small consolation when all of the worker’s tip money has been used to close that gap.

Who Is a Typical Minimum Wage Worker?

The typical minimum wage worker is not who you’d think.

They are not, in fact, the stoner high school student looking to make extra cash or the aspiring post-grad working on their acting career.

They are the average low-income working adult, struggling to get by and provide for a family on a wage that is simply not high enough to pay for the expenses of modern day life.

In fact, 88% of minimum wage workers are over the age of 20, and astoundingly, more than one third are older than 40.

Sadder yet, these workers’ minimum wage salaries account for half of their total family income, on average. These are not side jobs used to earn vacation money. They are jobs that adult workers are trying to build their lives around.

Check out this infographic from the Economic Policy Institute for a visual portrayal of myths versus reality about minimum wage workers:

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How Challenging Is it to “Make It” on the Minimum Wage?

Let’s take that average full-time minimum wage worker income of $15k/year and $7.25/hour and dissect it a little bit.

Living in the most expensive US state, Hawaii, you would have to work 175 hours per week to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment on the minimum wage.

However, this a legitimate impossibility, as one week contains a total of only 168 hours.

Even in the much cheaper housing markets like Illinois – where the minimum wage is higher, at $8.25/hour, and the rents are lower – you’d have to work for a whopping 82 hours per week to be able to rent a two-bedroom.

So if you can’t house yourself, can you at least afford food?

According to the USDA, the cost of a healthy diet for a family of four ranges from $146-$289 per week. But even that lowest sum means buying the cheapest fruits and vegetables and doing considerable weekly planning as well as at-home preparation.

Many low-income working families do not have the luxury of free time to do these things.

And if both parents are working, who will take care of children? Daycare probably isn’t an option if you are living on a minimum wage salary.

Forget trying to raise a family, sending your kids to get an education with clothes that fit and supplies to do their homework. Forget living in a safe neighborhood with good schools. Forget fresh, healthy food.

Not to mention, minimum wage jobs almost never provide the necessary living wage benefits such as paid sick days, health care benefits, and retirement packages.

Make Minimum Wage? You Probably Need Welfare

For a minimum wage worker, it’s almost impossible to make it without relying on the assistance of federal programs.

When people use the age-old adage about how “lazy welfare recipients need to get a job,” they seem to forget the fact that many people who receive some form of government assistance are employed – but that the wages that they make are simply not sufficient to get by.

They are not “living wages.”

Huge corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s pay such low wages that their full-time workers live in poverty and are eligible to receive food assistance through SNAP, the program formerly known as food stamps.

What criticizers of welfare don’t (or pretend not to) realize is that the most effective way to reduce government spending on food stamps would be – you guessed it! – to raise the minimum wage.

If we want low-income people to work and be able to provide for themselves and their families without government assistance, we absolutely have to pay them a living wage.

Has the Minimum Wage Increased Appropriately Along with Inflation?

This is a simple answer: No.

In the year 1968, the minimum wage of $1.60/hour was substantial enough to lift a family of three out of poverty – even a family with only one income.

If the minimum wage had risen according to inflation over the years, it would be over $10 today.

And yet it remains stuck at a pitiful $7.25.

While the price of basic necessities like food and fuel has skyrocketed in recent years, minimum wage workers are trapped earning a wage that would have only been suitable decades ago.

Legislation on the Federal Minimum Wage

The Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 would raise the nationwide mandated wage to $10.10/hour by the year 2015, by way of three separate 95 cent increases. It would also increase the tipped minimum wage to 70% of the full rate.

Starting in 2016, the wage would also be “indexed” for inflation – meaning that it would rise according to how much the cost of living increases in the years to come.

The act would give 30 million workers a much-needed raise. Fifty-six percent of these are low-income women and almost half are workers of color. It would also mean a substantial income increase for the parents of over 17 million children.

Additionally, increasing the tipped federal minimum wage would mean a substantial step forward in women’s pay equity, as 71% of tipped wage workers are female. This makes raising the minimum wage a feminist issue as well as a labor and poverty issue.

In short, passing the Fair Minimum Wage Act would create a substantially better chance for working families to actually support themselves on a minimum wage salary.

How to Help Raise the Minimum Wage

If you think this is a good idea, you aren’t alone.

Recent polls show that two thirds of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $10 and indexing it so that it increases with the cost of living.

Call your elected officials in Congress and ask them to support the Fair Minimum Wage Act.

Join the email listservs and campaigns of pro-worker groups like the National Employment Law Project , NELP’s Raise the Minimum Wage campaign, the Economic Policy Institute or the National Women’s Law Center, who focus attention on raising the federal minimum wage and addressing pay inequity.

And get active on Twitter using the hashtag #RaisetheWage to spread awareness.

How Much Political Support for Exists for the Minimum Wage?

Slowly but surely, things are beginning to change – whether it be extending the minimum wage to those who do not currently have it or enacting higher state wages across the country – but there are still many who oppose a minimum wage raise with hellfire, claiming that there are “better ways to help the poor” because of the assertion that a raise will hurt small businesses, lead to further unemployment and cause economic downturn.

Economic studies show that these assumptions are wrong.

By a 4-to-1 marginlead economists agree that raising the minimum wage does not reduce employment and that the economic benefit of doing so outweighs the cost.

Furthermore, more than two-thirds of small business owners support an increase of the minimum wage as well as indexing it for inflation.

In recent months, some strides forward have been made.

On September 17 of this year, the US Department of Labor announced the extension of overtime protections and minimum wage laws to home care workers.

After almost four decades of injustice, this monumental step will extend this crucial law to the two million American workers who care for the elderly and disabled in their homes. This measure is timely and much-needed, as home care assistance is one of the fastest-growing industries in our nation.

In another recent leap forward, the state of California is on track to pass the highest state minimum wage yet – $10/hour by the year 2016 (at present, the highest state wage can be found in Washington state at $9.19/hour). If enacted, this important increase is likely to lead the way for many other states to raise their minimum wages as well.

Raising the minimum wage will help boost the economy.

It will help families in need making a living wage and protect their children.

It will help people earn enough to not need government assistance to get by.

And it will help women and people of color.

To me, it’s a no-brainer.

Let’s #RaisetheWage – and let’s do it now. It’s been a long time coming.

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It’s 10/10 and I support HR 1010 that will #RaisetheWage to $10.10 an hour. It’s #Timefor1010

Right now, the House is working on its version (HR 1010) of the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, an incredibly important piece of legislation that will raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 in three steps and then index it for inflation henceforth.

Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would help over 30 million Americans by boosting their paychecks and giving them the ability to spend during the holidays…thus contributing to and growing our continually-weak economy.

But will they REALLY help the economy? Think about it for a minute.

Low-income people don’t save their money. They use it in order to get by and provide for their families. They don’t hide their money in off-shore accounts in the Caymans to avoid taxation. They don’t put their money in safe deposit box for a gloomy day.

What DO they do? Why, they spend it. They contribute to the consumer-based economy by purchasing. And in doing so, they create the need for the more products and new jobs.

Call Congress and let them know that you want the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 to pass – and that supporting HR 1010 is incremental to that success. Remind them that our workers need a living wage – so that they can spend, and so that our economy can prosper.

Show your support. Today is October 10th… that’s also 10/10. The bill number in the House is HR 1010. Don’t you think it’s far past #Timefor1010?

For much more detail on the minimum wage, look for my new Everyday Feminism article on the minimum wage, coming out later this week!

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The actions of Jesus and the teachings of the Bible are constantly being used as justification for the beliefs and actions of people worldwide.

Great – except that sometimes people take them way, way out of context and decide to come up with their own version of what the Bible means. Take the debate over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps.

SNAP reauthorization has historically been included in the farm bill, a 5-year agriculture and nutrition package passed by Congress. But this year the House Republicans decided to split the agriculture programs off completely from the nutrition title, despite the opposition of over 500 food, farm and conservation groups, including the conservative Club for Growth and the very influential National Farm Bureau Federation. Oh, and basically every nutrition/anti-poverty group EVER!

By removing nutrition, House leadership was able to garner sufficient Republican support to pass the bill in the House and simultaneously make crop subsidies permanent  – and the most expensive that they have ever been. See more in this report from the Environmental Working Group.

But the Senate isn’t having that – and they’ve stated that they won’t pass a split farm bill. This means that getting it passed before the September 30th deadline is dubious – and that SNAP is at risk of being cut if it stays separated from agriculture programs in the bill. For a more wonky take on the matter, read my latest CHN article.

I’ve written a lot about SNAP in the past, but it never ceases to amaze me how many of our elected officials have little to no compassion for the hungry. And it REALLY gets me incensed when they try to use Christianity or Jesus’ teachings as justification for taking food away from struggling families.

Now, I’m not pretending to be an expert on Jesus, or Christianity in general for that matter. But I do know that one of the core tenants of Christianity is to help those in need. Just look at what most of the major Christian organizations in America do with their time: they lobby for low-income people in Congress by supporting safety net programs like low-income tax credits, housing vouchers, child care, and better nutrition. They support the welfare system as a means of lifting people out of poverty.

Simply put, they help poor people. I’m talking about Catholic Charities, the Sisters of Mercy, NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, the Sisters of the Presentation, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, and many, many more. The list includes groups from practically every Christian denomination, all of which vary in their beliefs and practices – and yet the one thing they have in common is a goal to aid the less fortunate among us – and to keep them from hunger by funding the SNAP program.

I certainly won’t argue that all Christian politicians diverge from this goal. For example, during a recent House Ag. Committee debate, Democratic California Representative Juan Vargas cited the Book of Matthew in support of SNAP, noting, “[Jesus] says how you treat the least among us, the least of our brothers, that’s how you treat him.” Vargas supports helping the least among us, which is why he supports a strong SNAP program.

Tennessean Republican Congressman Stephen Fincher has a different outlook on the situation.

Fincher took it upon himself to reply to Vargas’ quote with one of his own, from the Book of Thessalonians: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” He also made sure to point out that he believes that “The role of citizens, of Christians, of humanity is to take care of each other, but not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country.”

Some have called Fincher’s response to Vargas “nicely played.” I completely disagree. For so many reasons.

First, there’s the fact that only one in six SNAP household is a nonworking family without kids or an elderly or disabled family member  (read more in this USDA report).

Yep, you heard that right! Many, many people who receive SNAP are employed, sometimes at multiple jobs, and are just as hardworking as the rest of us. Now maybe if the minimum wage were raised to a livable standard, these people wouldn’t have to accept government benefits on top of their income in order to keep their families fed.

And yes, there’s no denying that there are also many SNAP recipients who are unemployed, underemployed or searching for work.

Now let’s take a look at WHY they those individuals are unemployed. Oh right, because we just had a giant recession and the economy is still struggling. Riiighhht…..

Second, in Fincher’s view of what the world should look like, government would not have a hand in supporting low-income people. The only “safety net” provided would be the generosity of selfless individuals and independent charities. This assumes that people will give of themselves in order to help the poor and create a more equal society. That they will give away enough money and time – completely unsolicited and uncompensated – to keep the nation’s 146 million impoverished people fed, clothed and housed.

It’s a lovely dream. But it’s just that – a dream. Would Fincher ever suggest that we should abolish the police department and criminal justice system and simply trust in the decency of human kind not to steal or murder? Once again, while it’s nice  to imagine a world without crime, it is absolutely and positively not realistic.

Sometimes I think many of our conservative politicians desire an anarchist state. And I don’t think that would sit well with most Americans. Or that it would be even slightly functional.

Oh, and there’s one other little thing about Fincher’s “pious” argument to cut food stamps out of the farm bill and move forward only on agriculture proposals (including those subsidies mentioned earlier).

SHOCKER ALERT: Fincher receives the second largest amount of money in farm subsidies in the whole country. So by cutting SNAP while “supporting a proposal to expand crop insurance by $9 billion over the next 10 years,” he’s doing more than merely making himself monumentally richer. He’s using the government to line his pockets with taxpayer dollars from crop subsidies.

But wait, I thought he wanted the gosh-darned government to stay out of people’s wallets?

I guess that’s only important when it comes to giving food to poor families.

But back to my point – I really don’t think that Jesus would appreciate everyone using him as an excuse to justify cutting food assistance to children, the elderly, disabled folks, low-income workers and the unemployed. The Jesus that I was taught about was kind, selfless, nonjudgmental and generous – not just to those who were among the chosen few, but to those in need as well.

#WhatWouldJesusNOTDo? Cut SNAP.

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Cross-posted from my article in Everyday Feminism

Image via Getty Images

“Why should I pay higher taxes so that some lazy poor person can pick up another unemployment check and then go back to sitting on the couch and spending my money?”

Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, most of us have heard this anti-welfare sentiment many times before, from sources both expected (a new Tea Party candidate) and surprising (a colleague or friend).

The most recent Census data shows that about 48.5 million people, or 16% of the population, are living in poverty.

This is the fourth consecutive year that the poverty rate has increased. The recession pushed millions of Americans into poverty, and although the economy is now improving, wages are still lagging, and people continue to struggle nationwide.

For many, the only recourse is to turn to safety net programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), child care assistance, TANF, and unemployment benefits, to name a few.

These government programs exist to help those in need – and they really work, lifting millions out of poverty every year.

Still, many Americans would rather pretend poverty isn’t an issue in our country.

Worse yet, they’d prefer to blame low-income people for their status while supporting plans to dismantle the safety net.

So, How Did We Get Here As a Nation?

Even the Middle Class Has Turned on the Poor

How did it come to pass that many Americans of average education and income rail against welfare and vote for politicians that promise to cut entitlement spending and lower taxes?

These same people don’t seem to notice that corporations like General Motors, Apple, and Verizon evade billions in taxes every year or that their monumentally rich CEO’s pay lower effective tax rates than their secretaries.

That’s billions of dollars in revenue that the government doesn’t get.

And this wealth just doesn’t trickle down the way some would have you believe.

Nor do critics of the safety net appear to consider the billions of dollars spent annually on defense or the often wasteful use of resources in the Pentagon budget. In 2012 alone, defense spending accounted for 19% of government expenditure.

And yet, these issues are not the problem, they say. It’s that 12% of government spending on safety net programs that will break the bank.

Racism, Class Privilege, and Society

Black and Hispanic people were hit hardest by the recession.

But these minority groups were already struggling long before the recession’s arrival and are historically more impoverished than Caucasians.

So why are people of color disproportionately poor?

Let me give you a hint: it has nothing to do with “laziness.”

Racial oppression has created a cycle of poverty so encompassing that it invariably affects all people of color, despite immense gains in civil rights over the last fifty years.

White privilege is not imaginary either.

And yet people born outside of the deeply powerful system of racial oppression are often happy to make wildly outrageous and untrue claims about the work ethic or morality of minorities.

How many of them have ever taken a minute to consider where they would be if they had been born into an entirely different socioeconomic status?

The “Pull Yourself Up by Your Bootstraps” Mantra Is Bullshit

Not everyone is born with equal opportunities.

Some people are born with a trust fund and a summer house in the Hamptons.

Some are born to a single-parent low-income family in a city slum.

I’d like someone to rationally explain to me how factors such as your family situation growing up, your level of education, the job opportunities you are handed, the rate of crime and drug use in your neighborhood – and so many other similar factors that shape our young lives – aren’t supposed to affect a child’s future.

How is a poor kid who has to drop out of high school to help care for her younger siblings supposed to “pull herself up by her bootstraps” when she lives in a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty that is nearly impossible to break out of?

Many Critics of Government Safety Net Spending Depend on Welfare Themselves

A New York Times piece that ran last year quoted a Minnesotan small business man named Ki Gulbranson who makes about $39,000 annually and is a strong opponent of the American safety net.

This same Mr. Gulbranson has depended on the federally-funded earned income tax credit (EITC) every year since 2009. His children receive government-subsidized free school meals and 88-year old mother has had two hip replacements on Medicare’s dime.

Despite rallying to cut government spending, he himself depends on the very welfare programs he despises.

Mr. Gulbranson’s dilemma helps illustrate the rapid decline of the middle class.

Tuesday, June 25 was the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act – but there wasn’t much to celebrate in terms of wages.

The minimum wage has been frozen at $7.25/hour and the tipped minimum wage has remained at $2.13/hour for over two decades.

As the cost in living increases and global changes make fuel and other necessities more expensive, the minimum wage has remained stagnant, pushing more and more middle class families towards poverty.

If the minimum wage were raised to a modest $10.10 as proposed in the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, almost six million workers would be lifted from poverty – and 60% of these would be people of color.

“Great! Let’s do it!” you say.

Except that before this can become a reality, we need the support in Congress and in the general populace.

And that means that people need to start acknowledging the problem and stop treating poverty like the elephant in the room.

Who Out There Is Talking About Poverty?

The President and Poverty

President Obama shocked some people when he mentioned poverty an unprecedented four times during his 2013 State of the Union speech.

That’s more times than in all of his other SOTU speeches combined.

If the Democratic President of our nation is barely willing to mention poverty, who out there will bring it to the national agenda?

Religion’s Complicated Relationship with Poverty

Ever heard of the Sisters of Mercy, NETWORK, or Bread for the World?

These are just a few of many powerful faith-based organizations that lobby tirelessly for the rights of low-income people in Congress.

Yet we have an increasing majority of conservative politicians in Congress who fight vehemently to strip safety net programs threadbare while citing religion as central to their belief system and their impetus to serve in public office.

How do they rationalize their desire to cut food assistance and basic needs from poor people when the faith community is dedicated to doing the opposite?

The Very Well-Respected “Let’s Blame Poor People” Foundation

Conservative groups like The Heritage Foundation are quick to follow up on Republican and Tea Party members’ suppositions that poor people are hoodwinking us all and taking our money.

A recent Heritage Foundation report cites the principal cause of the millions of children living in poverty as “the absence of married fathers in the home.”

According to the research of this well-respected and oft-quoted foundation, safety net programs like food stamps, income tax credits, and unemployment benefits are “disincentives to marriage.”

As if struggling impoverished single mothers are purposely not getting married in order to game the system.

Who out there is buying this baloney?

A lot of people, actually.

The Heritage Foundation runs on an operating budget of about $80 million and is funded primarily by donations from individuals, corporations, and other influential foundations such as that of the hyper-conservative billionaire Koch brothers. They have over 700,000 members.

What Can Be Done to Bring Poverty to the National Discussion and Change Policy?

Feeling a little hopeless after reading this?

Well, the fight’s not over.

There are many ways that everyday people can help change the way our society functions around the issue of poverty.

Educate and Disseminate Information

Sometimes the best thing you can do is try to sway the national conversation.

Study up on facts about the safety net and who it serves.

Speak out when you hear someone spouting out tired lines about lazy welfare bums.

Most of them will not have a defense ready when you confront them with the facts and tell them who they are really talking about.

No one wants to feel responsible for taking food away from poor children.

Write to Your Members of Congress

Advocacy groups are constantly providing us with opportunities to write to Congress through email-able letters and social media campaigns.

Visit the websites of some of the major organizations that work on combatting poverty. The Half in Ten Campaign, Center for American Progress, Food Research and Action Center, and the National Women’s Law Center are great places to start.

Also make sure to follow these organizations (as well as your members of Congress) on Facebook and Twitter for more opportunities to take action.

Sending emails and tweeting at our elected officials actually works, when done strategically and at a high volume.

Support Low-Income People in Whatever Way You Can, Big or Small

Volunteer at the local food bank. Donate to organizations that advocate for low-income people. Participate in a campaign to support a safety net program in your state.

Just doing something that you believe in makes a difference!

Whether you advocate through Facebook from the comfort of your home or go out in the community to do anti-poverty work, your efforts will help.

Poverty isn’t going away.

But with better education to combat racist, old-fashioned stereotypes about low-income people – and more folks joining the fight to protect the safety net – there is hope for positive change in the future.

Sequestering the Future?

On my way back from Colorado recently, my flight was delayed and I got stuck in Chicago overnight. Annoying? Yes. Life-damaging? Most certainly not.

On the other hand, losing access to Head Start (a national anti-poverty program that provides comprehensive child development services to disadvantaged three and four-year olds)? That could really have a damaging impact on a young person’s life. A California study cited by the National Head Start Association shows that society receives nearly $9 in benefits for every $1 invested in Head Start for a child. These benefits include increased future earnings, employment, and family stability for the child along with decreased dependance on welfare, crime, grade repetition, and special education needs.

So what would you suffer through to give these children back their Head Start program? I for one would gladly spend a night stranded in a strange city if that meant that a low-income child would continue to receive these benefits, even for a week.

But that’s ridiculous! You say. No one is making a choice between one or the other. Well, that’s not necessarily true.

Last Friday, Congress approved a bill to end sequestration-caused furloughs of air traffic controllers in hopes of getting flights back on track nationwide – and then they flew home for a week-long recess. This was a great move for people waiting in long lines at airports – but not so great for the millions of vulnerable people suffering deeply because of  sequestration cuts – all of whom Congress ignored on their way out of the office.

So who are these suffering people again? Along with those disadvantaged kids trying to get an education, they are the long-term unemployed, seniors trying to get home care and meal services, and low-income people on the verge of homelessness – just to name a few.
A few quick facts about how sequestration is affecting our most vulnerable in various places around the country:

  • In Florida, approximately 2,000 kids will be turned away from Head Start and Early Head Start next year.
  • 80,000 long-term unemployed in Illinois will see their unemployment benefits reduced by 16.8 percent as of May 27.
  • Wisconsin’s La Crosse County will start serving 6,000 fewer meals to home-bound seniors because of sequestration cuts. For some seniors, this meal is the only one they get in an entire day.
  • A $1 million sequestration cut to the Salt Lake County Housing Authority will deny rental assistance to about 112 homeless/housing endangered families.

So why is ending tiresome airport lines more pressing than helping a child get a good education or getting a poor family into a home that they can afford? Simply put: M-O-N-E-Y. Airlines are big money power players, and the travel sector was losing millions of dollars for each day of continued furloughs. Airline execs were chomping at the bit to get these pesky sequestration furloughs fixed before the summer travel season. “That’s a critical time for our industry,” says Erik Hansen, director of domestic policy for the U.S. Travel Association.  He fears that the delays may have kept some international travelers from booking trips to the US.

Of course, travel and tourism are good for the economy – and everyone wants to see the economy continue to improve. But keep one thing in mind: helping vulnerable people become active participants in the economy is crucial to recovery as well. Making sure that kids receive a good education and are put on the path to college early in life makes it much more likely that they will get well-paying jobs and contribute to the economy in a positive way. Keeping families off of the street enables parents to hold down jobs and kids to stay in school. Helping seniors stay healthy means less of an economic strain from emergency room visits. The list goes on and on.

Do I have the answer to fixing all of the problems presented by sequestration while working to reduce the deficit? No. But I know that continuing to ignore the devastating problems it is creating for low-income people nationwide is not okay. I hope that our elected officials in Congress get their priorities straight upon returning from recess.

To ask Congress to protect important programs for low-income populations, take action with the National Education Association’s Ed Flight Campaign or send this emailable letter from the Coalition on Human Needs.