America is rich. Just one of our states--California--has an economy larger than the vast majority of countries in the world, and no country comes close to the economic domination that the United States enjoys. It's not just money that makes us rich. We have abundant natural resources, more food than we know what to do with, and a rich and diverse population. In almost every way, we are the envy of the world.
Note that I said, "almost every way."
I felt ashamed the other day when I read an article about children who are so poor, they need schools to provide them with backpacks of food so they don't go hungry over the weekend ("Schools give hungry children backpacks filled with food to help them get through weekend," April 15, 2004). Well, actually, I felt a surge of pride for the people involved in sponsoring this program; my shame was for our nation and our government, and for the fact that we allow this sort of thing to continue, even at the height of our wealth and power.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 12.1 percent of the American population live in poverty. Worse, 34.2 percent--fully a third of the entire populac--experience poverty for at least two months out of the year. The Census Bureau uses a tight definition of poverty, too, one that might shock you: if you live in a family of five--two parents and three children--you need only make more than $21,540 a year to be considered above the poverty line. You'll be hard pressed to feed, clothe and shelter three children for $24,000 or so! In fact, if each parent was working a full-time, minimum wage job, they'd only make $21,424 a year, before taxes!
That's the real rub: the minimum wage is no longer a livable wage, by any definition. Fully a third of the people defined as living in poverty held a job during 2002 (the most recent year for these statistics) and still could not afford sufficient housing or food. Even some holding full-time jobs, like in the example above, fell short of the poverty line, and if anyone thinks that that line represents a fair living wage, you're wrong. The minimum wage is a sick joke.
Nearly 40 million Americans live in a state officially called "food insecurity;" this is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as insufficient food for basic nourishment. Maybe this is a contributing factor in recent studies showing that Americans are no longer growing taller; Europeans now, on average, are several inches taller; height is generally considered a good indicator of the quality of diet. Malnutrition and hunger, like poverty, are on the rise in the United States: from 1999 to 2002, an additional 3.9 million people were added to this category, over a million of them children.
So, what is the answer? Programs like the one run by America's Second Harvest are wonderful, and schools are a great way for the government to help children who are in need. No less needy, however, are the adults, who often have as little or even less than their children. We could help them with more government hand-outs, but the real problem is that they have no incentive to leave the government fold, not if their prospects are literally worse if they find a job.
The most important change we could make is to correct the minimum wage, so it is no longer the equivalent of indentured servitude. At the very least, the minimum should always result in a wage that is higher than the poverty line. In truth, this line is too low to really correct the problems of poverty and hunger in this country, but it is a step in the right direction. No one should have to work two or even more jobs just to feed their family.
A large increase in the minimum wage would be a considerable burden on the employers who would be forced to increase their payrolls. No doubt many will argue that they will simply cut jobs instead of raising the wage for everyone. Some of the companies will do just that. I would encourage everyone to boycott such companies, people who are unwilling to provide the simplest of benefits to their employees, who are unwilling to pay enough so that their workers can eat. That's what we're talking about here--don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Will this be an easy transition? No. Some small businesses especially will find difficulties. This is the appropriate time and place for the government to step in with federal assistance. Here's something else to think about: If my small business employs ten people at minimum wage, and the increase means I can only keep seven of them, then three have lost their jobs. The other seven, however, will no longer need government assistance just to keep their children from going hungry, freeing up significant funds for the other three to be supported until they find a new job.
This, or something close to it, is the right thing to do. We should never have to read about children in America going hungry, nor adults. We have the ability to stop this; I hope we will all feel ashamed if we instead stand aside and do nothing.