By Mary deWolf
Forty-five years ago this month Martin Luther King Jr. was visiting our state to help “working poor” people, the Memphis sanitation workers. Despite long hours at jobs nobody else wanted, they couldn’t earn a wage that allowed them to support their families. Two of them died due to negligence.
Dr. King marched with the workers. He was slain for his efforts. Stand on the balcony by Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. The feeling is profound.
A year earlier Dr. King stated, “There are literally two Americas… people who have food and material necessities… culture and education for their minds… The other America has …poor by the millions… perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
He wasn’t talking about racism alone; he was talking about the poor among us. The same words apply 45 years later.
46.2 million Americans live in families that work, often full-time, and still earn less than the poverty line. They are trying. They aren’t the GOP’s “takers.” If we add those who cannot afford basic needs of food, housing and transportation, 146 million Americans are in the poor-but-working middle class. Nearly half of these families are white. But poverty afflicts African-American and Latino populations disproportionately.
Why does such meanness persist?
The income gap has widened. CEO pay has grown 127 times faster than that of average workers over the last 30 years. One out of every four Americans earns less than $10/hour.
Educational opportunities that might lead to better jobs are out of reach for working folks in communities and states that are hacking away at school finance. Those who do earn a high school diploma will earn $12,000 less annually than the average grad in 1980. College costs keep that opportunity available for only 30 percent of Americans.
How about increasing the minimum wage? The knee-jerk conservative response is that it would “kill” job growth. Tennessee Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn whines that it would prevent teenagers from getting jobs and learning responsibility, like she did in the late ‘60’s. At that time the minimum wage was around $2.15/hour. In today’s economy that would be around $13/hour, not the current $7.25.
Respected economists have found that increasing the minimum wage to just $10.10 by July 2015, would increase the GDP by $32.6 billion and create 140,000 jobs. And it would certainly offer relief to working poor families.
Apparently it’s easy to be mean. The South has a higher number of struggling families, yet both Blackburn and our own Congresswoman Diane Black have earned an F- for their voting record on poverty. Our beloved Tennessee legislature is planning to “fix” things by cutting benefits to families whose children fail a grade. This “Starve our Children” plan is supported by our own Representative Sexton. Talk about blaming the victim!
Poverty among us is bad for everyone. One study finds that U.S. taxpayers already pay more than $1 billion annually helping working poor employees at Walmart. Increased productivity won’t improve our economy when wages haven’t kept pace. Who can buy the stuff being produced?
Let’s take back the argument from the Ayn Rand devotees with their irrational disgust for the poor and model this country on the words and actions of Reverend King.