“I got a 50-cent raise, and bread went up 49 cents. What am I supposed to do?”
— Charmain, a working single mother.
A prevailing attitude among Americans is that the poor can work their way out of poverty. Poverty in America is viewed as a personal failure rather than a collective failure of our society and government to ensure equal outcomes.
More than 37 million Americans live below the federal poverty line of $21,000 for a family of four. Americans are working more and making less. Today a loaf of bread can cost as much as a gallon of gas, and many families have to choose between food on the table and gas to get to work. Many families go to bed at night without food or a roof over their head, while others struggle to hold on to their piece of the American dream – their home.
America’s families are at a tipping point. They can no longer survive on piecemeal solutions. Therefore, it’s encouraging to see poverty being discussed at the highest policy-making levels. No less than former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and current Speaker Nancy Pelosi are among those who have offered suggestions to address poverty in our country.
Last year, Marguerite Casey Foundation launched the Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign — a campaign designed to hear directly from families about the challenges they face. More than 10,000 families attended Equal Voice townhall meetings across the country, answering questions such as “What is important to you and your family?” and “What policy changes would most help your family?”
Whether it was a young woman in Chicago having to choose between heat for her apartment or gas to get to her job because she could not afford both; a mother in New Orleans struggling to keep her family housed as rents spiraled up, or a family of farm workers in South Florida working without benefits or healthcare, the stories we heard illustrated the commonality of the struggles families are facing, regardless of their background, location or ethnicity. Almost every family attending was holding down one or more jobs to try to make ends meet.
At each townhall meeting, families conveyed not only a sense of urgency but also their desire to be part of the solution — to be drivers of change. They were inspired, engaged and motivated. They defined poverty as lack of access to living-wage jobs, affordable housing and quality healthcare and education. Families let us know that their well-being is not tied to a single issue; a family making a living income but with no healthcare benefits may experience as much stress as a family that is surviving on wages just above the poverty level but has Medicaid coverage. The challenges families face must be addressed comprehensively not issue by issue.
On September 6, 2008, at a multi-city convention of 10,000 families in Birmingham, Chicago and Los Angeles, we will release the Equal Voice for America’s Families platform and call on the country, lawmakers and the next president of the United States to adopt a national family platform. I strongly encourage everyone to read the National Family Platform when it becomes available and support its adoption by local and state policy makers as well as national policy makers. You can sign up for an electronic version on the Equal Voice Web site, www.equalvoice2008.org.
Throughout the campaign, families have crossed historical lines of separation to work on social changes that will benefit all families. Groups that had been divided, such as Latinos and African Americans, have united for their common good. Why, then, have politicians been unable to come together to support families, the most fundamental unit of society?
Given the renewed interest of policy makers in Washington, D.C., in addressing poverty and given the 10,000 families calling for change through the Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign, the time seems right for a conversation on poverty. Here are some questions to get the dialogue started:
- What can we — as individuals and as a nation — learn from listening to and heeding the experiences of those living in poverty?
- Would we be better served as a country if we strived for equal outcomes rather than equal opportunity?
- Is it time to call for the adoption of a national platform to comprehensively address the challenges families face?
It’s truly exciting to me that so many on both sides of the wealth gap are interested in ending poverty. Imagine the type of society we would have if we truly put all families first. Let us come together to ensure that America’s families thrive and that the American dream does not become extinct.
Viewpoints in this section solely represent the authors’ opinions and not the opinions of "Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity."