Time to Declare a New War on Poverty
What can we say about a country in which nearly one of every six citizens is forced to live in poverty despite the country's great, unmatched wealth? Despite the huge, ever–growing incomes of U.S. corporations and their executives?
The least we can say – and what we must say – is stop it! And here's the latest reason why: A new Census Bureau report showing that the country's poverty rate jumped to 15 percent in 2010. Which means that a record 46 million Americans – 46 million! – are living in poverty, including 20 percent of all American children.
There's more, too much more. For example, median family income was lower in 2010 than it was in 1997. As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says, "The typical American family has experienced no real improvement in income in the last 14 years . . . during a period of productivity growth, technology innovation, and rapid global economic integration."
Meanwhile, corporate incomes continue to escalate rapidly. CEO pay, for instance, skyrocketed by 27 percent in 2010.
So, what to do? Certainly not more of the same.
"For a generation," notes Trumka, "we were told that if taxes on the wealthy were lowered and government rules and regulations were dismantled, there'd be more and better jobs for everyone." We also were told that "trade deals like NAFTA would create jobs and increase wealth for workers."
It's not surprising that those promises were never realized. That was not the purpose of the policies. Their purpose was to make the rich richer. But naturally, Republicans and others on the greedy political right try to hide that with nonsensical – but dangerous – blather about helping all "hard-working Americans."
We know better. Of course, it's not working people the blathering greedheads are trying to help. Their aid is being lavished on those with high incomes who are eager to spend lots of money on the election campaigns and other activities of politicians who naturally will do their bidding.
They're the politicians who have the colossal political nerve to call for more of the policies that brought us severe economic distress: "Even more tax cuts for the rich, even fewer rules to constrain corporate America, and more flawed trade deals."
The nation, adds Trumka, "needs to return to the principles that led to increased economic security for all and a growing middle class … family-sustaining jobs, more investments in our future, and fair taxation."
We obviously should heed Trumka, as well as pay close attention to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. He describes the rising poverty rate reported in the Census Bureau report as "one of the great moral and economic issues facing our country" – but one that gets only slight attention in Congress and elsewhere.
Sanders cites the report's finding that nearly 50 million Americans lack health insurance, an increase of more than 13 million since 2000. He cites another study showing that the United States has the highest overall poverty rate and the highest childhood poverty rate of any major industrialized country.
That's happening at a time when the nation "has the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country." As Sanders notes, the top one percent of Americans now earn more than the bottom 50 percent.
The senator is especially disturbed over the findings of poverty among U.S. children. No other industrialized country has anything even remotely close to the 20 percent U.S. rate.
And who are the adults mired in poverty? They are, as Sanders says, people who may be homeless or living in substandard and overcrowded homes, who often go hungry and "may not know how they are going to feed themselves or their kids tomorrow."
They are people who can't buy fuel to keep warm during harsh winter months. People who can't afford health insurance or medical care, who can't afford a car or public transportation to get to their jobs or the grocery store. They are seniors who have to choose between buying needed prescription drugs or buying an adequate food supply.
What's more, notes Sanders, poverty can lead to premature death. Poverty, he says, "is a death sentence for tens and tens of thousands of our people." Sanders cites, for example, a Harvard Medical School study showing that nearly 45,000 people who die prematurely each year – one every 12 minutes – lack health insurance and cannot afford good care. Poor Americans generally live 6 ½ years less than wealthy or upper middle-class Americans.
Unless action is taken soon, there's certain to be thousands more unnecessary deaths due to poverty. And it's certain that the other poverty-based miseries will increase, unless we act forcefully to pull millions of our fellow citizens out of the quicksand of poverty.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based journalist who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.