Clare Higgins: Headlines portray an America that has abandoned working people
NORTHAMPTON — Here are some real headlines this month: “Poor in America: A record 46.5 million below poverty line; rate remains stuck at 15 percent” (Washington Post). “ ‘Selective Recovery’: Census data show no sign of economic rebound for many in U.S.” (Santa Fe New Mexican). “Jobs Gap between the Rich and Poor Expands” (Boston Globe). “Women Waiting Tables Provide Most of Female Job Gains” (Long Beach Press Telegram). “Child Poverty Remains at Record High Levels” (Market Watch).
And of course there is: “House GOP Raises Stakes in Debt-Ceiling Fight” (New York Times). And “House GOP Launches Shutdown Battle By Voting to Defund Obamacare” (CNN).
These headlines tell a story. Our economy collapsed five years ago. While things have gotten much better for those at the top of the income pyramid, the middle class and the poor have fallen behind. The poverty rate has stayed the same for six straight years while the stock market has risen to a higher level than it was before the recession. The median net worth of households was lower in 2011 than it was in 2000. And the median income (adjusted for inflation) for all Americans is less than it was in 1990.
The overall unemployment rate has dropped, but the rate for families earning less than $20,000 per year is over 21 percent, approaching the rate for all workers during the Great Depression. Higher-income workers, on the other hand, are experiencing a 3.2 percent unemployment rate. Jobs paying middle-class wages are vanishing, which means that formerly middle-income earners are being pushed into lower-paying jobs and low-income workers are being pushed out of the job market entirely.
Here are some more headlines. “Hedge Fund Manager: Fed Robbing Poor to Pay Rich” (USA Today). “5 Years after Crash, Wealthy Are Better Off” (San Francisco Gate). “Good Times at the Top” (New York Times).
The Federal Reserve continues to prop up Wall Street investors while wage earners struggle to stay afloat. An astonishing 95 percent of the income gains generated between 2009 and 2012 went to the top 1 percent (families making more than $394,000 a year). The rest of us have had average income growth of 1 percent over the same period.
I would have hoped to see headlines that said; “Congress Commits to an Infrastructure Investment Program,” “Minimum Wage Allows Workers to Support a Family,” or “U.S. is Global Leader in Early Education.” But I know better than that.
Instead, we saw these kinds of stories: “Food Stamp Rise Belies Economic Recovery” (USA Today). “Republicans Are Trying To Reduce Food Aid to the Poor” (The Economist). And my favorite, “Cruz reads Green Eggs and Ham in Anti-Obamacare speech” (BBC News).
In Congress, some House members think it makes sense to cut food aid to the poorest people among us (the ones with an unemployment rate of 21 percent). They quote the Bible, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” from Thessalonians. They find a few people that have misused the program and use them to justify the cut. They create a list of demands supposedly to reduce the size of the federal government.
In reality, the cuts dismantle the social safety net and environmental protections and continue the upward redistribution of the wealth of our nation while House members decry class warfare.
And if they don’t get their way, well then they are willing to shut the government down. And Senator Cruz reads “Green Eggs and Ham” into the Senate record during a 21-hour speech that, in the words of Shakespeare, was; “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Don’t we deserve better than this?
Where is the debate about the rising income inequality in our country? Where is there any discussion of creating jobs that pay enough for people to live on? The rise in food stamp use stems from high unemployment, not the other way around. About 60 percent of the increase in employment for women from 2009 to 2012 was in jobs that pay less than $10.10 an hour. That’s what causes an increase in food stamp demand. That’s why one fifth of the poor in this country are children under 18.
That’s why 25 percent of children under 5 live in poverty.
Right now I’m fighting for headlines that read, “Compromise Reached on Debt Ceiling,” “Food Stamp Cut Restored” and “Fewer Children Living in Poverty.” We deserve better.
Clare Higgins of Northampton, the city’s former mayor, is executive director of the nonprofit Community Action! of the Franklin, Hampshire and North Quabbin Regions. She writes a monthly column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.