‘One out of two’ or ‘one for all’?

Last week the news broke that nearly one out of every two Americans is poor or low income.

According to a new study by the Census Bureau, 49.1 million people in the United States are below the poverty line, while another 97.3 million are “low-income” (gauged by a new “supplemental measure” devised by the bureau to provide a more accurate picture of poverty) for a total of 146.4 million, or a whopping 48 percent of the U.S. population.

There has been some back-peddling on these findings from the Census Bureau since the original story was published by the Associated Press, but its explanations—which focus on a lack of clarity about the new supplemental measure—seem to raise more questions than they answer, especially since it has now shied away from defining “low-income.”  (The confusion deepens in light of the fact that its past definition—which one news report says is still operative—was, indeed, anyone making less than 200 percent of the poverty level.)

However this definitional skirmish plays out, it is a safe bet that this somber assessment is more or less accurate.  If this is the case—that nearly half the 99% is poor or low-income—the crisis that has borne down on us for the past four years is deepening.

While the Census Bureau has backed away from typifying what this might mean (“We’re not characterizing what it’s like to be below 200 percent of the poverty line.  We don’t have any information to characterize what that would be like, ” Kathleen Short, the bureau economist who directed the report in question, told the press) millions know exactly what it signifies in light of the job losses, foreclosures, and spiraling cost of health care they have suffered.

It is unconscionable that nearly 50 million people in this country are poor and that tens of millions more are doing just a bit better.  “Scraping by” seems more than an apt description.

Statistics like these, dramatizing the economic struggle for survival millions are facing at this moment, can grab our attention. (They can be as riveting as the fact that 1 of 3 people in the US doesn’t have health insurance and nearly 1 of 3 people in the US will be arrested by age 23.)  But they also risk becoming the new normal—the sense that the financial catastrophe has kicked the struts out from under the economy and therefore we have to settle for scraps as well as for scraping by.

We cannot settle for this disparity.  This historical moment—sharpened by the Occupy movement and the renewed awakening for economic justice and equality—invites each of us to respond with powerful nonviolent action and solidarity to build a world where poverty and depressed wages are rightly perceived as human rights violations.

Transforming rampant poverty will depend less on charity and more on structural change and job creation. Law professor and long-time defender of human rights, Bill Quigley, published a book a few years ago whose title says it all: Ending Poverty As We Know It: Guaranteeing A Right to A Job At A Living Wage.  

Here’s a clear example of what Bill is talking about.

DePaul University in Chicago, where I teach part-time, had a problem for years.  Its food service workers, who put food on the table at the largest Catholic university in the nation, barely were able to put food on the table for their families at home.  They were making as little as $9.25 an hour with no health benefits.

From September 2009 through October 2010, DePaul students joined the workers, members of UNITE HERE Local 1, in carrying out a powerful, creative, and nonviolent campaign for change.  They alerted, educated, and mobilize the larger university community of students and faculty through grassroots organizing to support this vibrant Living Wage campaign.  They organized a campus-wide petition, a student-worker concert and rally, and engaged the school board of trustees.

After thirteen months of administration resistance, the university finally shifted its position and, siding with the workers, worked with its contractor Chartwells to meet the demands of the Living Wage campaign.  Together they achieved:

  • Minimum wages of between $11.80 and $14.30 per hour (depending on job classification) for presently employed workers by the end of the contract;
  • Single-coverage health plan for 80 full-time workers by the end of the contract, and only $85 per month for full family coverage; and
  • Detailed and concrete language in the contract that protects immigrants from employer abuse.

After this agreement was reached, the workers and students celebrated with a rally and barbecue—see a powerful video here.

Some of my students were part of this campaign, as well as a similar effort at Loyola University Chicago.  They were imaginative, relentlessly persistent, and committed to the principles and tactics of liberating nonviolence.  They discovered that, in the face of the implacable resistance of the status quo, change is possible.  Like them, each of us can be part of local, national and international movements for economic justice.

More than ever, as the struggle for economic equality and financial security heats up in our communities and around the world, all we need to do is to look around—and join in.

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