"If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin." So wrote Charles Darwin in 1839.
Well over a century later, author-political activist Michael Harrington's "The Other America" revealed pervasive poverty in the United States, and today we are again witnessing its increase throughout the country.
Harrington's book was a catalyst in inspiring President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty program during the 1960s. Although derided then and afterwards by conservative critics, the nation's poverty rate dropped dramatically over the next 10 years, falling from 22.4 percent to 11.1 percent by 1973. According to later studies, the decline leveled off to a low of 10 percent by 1980.
Poverty has drastically increased since the Reagan Era, however, and child poverty is now higher in the U.S. than in any other rich nation. According to the World Hunger Education service, close to 50 million Americans are "food insecure," meaning they often have inadequate income to buy sufficient food. A similar finding reports that one out of four children in this country go to bed hungry every night.
As numerous scholarly articles and books have starkly revealed, the policies of the so-called New Economy of the past three decades has not only hollowed out the American middle class but also greatly diminished living conditions of the nation's underclass.
In his comprehensive study of the working poor a decade ago, scholar and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David K. Shipler described the difficulty in overcoming poverty. Shipler cited what academics have termed the culture of poverty. He observed that individuals sometimes land jobs which temporarily enable them to rise above the poverty line, "only to discover that student loans, car payments, and exorbitant charges on old credit card balances consume so much of their cash that they live no better than before."
Shipler's research emphasized that for nearly every family poverty is "partly financial, part psychological, part personal, part societal, and also a combination of both past and present circumstances." Such an economic situation inevitably results in a generational cycle of poverty leading to behavior patterns characterized by bad choices "related to the inherited conditions of being poorly parented, poorly educated, and poorly housed in neighborhoods from which no distant horizon of possibility can be seen."
These people live on the margins of society as virtual second-class economic citizens in what has long ceased to be the land of unlimited opportunity and upward mobility. Recent studies confirm that there is less chance of the present generation of American youth achieving a comparable life style to that of their parents than in any other advanced industrial nation.
The economic meltdown of 2007-08 caused millions of additional Americans to plummet from middle class status to the edge of poverty and the conditions of those already poor worsened. A shocking third of the population is experiencing some degree of poverty.
Three years ago the Census Bureau, by factoring in previously ignored expenses, including health care, utilities, rent, taxes, commuting, and child care, determined that 49.1 million were below the federal poverty line. This definition of "poor" means individuals surviving on $11,000 or less a year, $15,000 for a single mother with one child, and $23,000 for a family of four.
These are grim statistics, but the overall picture is even more distressing considering that another 51 million people are classified as "near poor." Workers at this level are struggling to get by in low-wage jobs and earning between $11,000 to $17,000 a year. Nearly half the workers of this income range had previously been earning middle class incomes a decade or less ago.
Over 47 million - one in seven people, one in four children - receive food stamps. These are record numbers because there are record numbers of Americans in poverty.
The Misery Index of the poor, however, is seldom of enduring concern and this issue is routinely relegated to the back-burner of political discourse.
A higher federal minimum wage would lessen poverty in the United States. Although conservative economists continue to argue that any increase leads to further unemployment and hinders job creation, the opposite is true.
Nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute economist Heidi Shierhols is one of over a hundred in her profession who project that tens of thousands of jobs would be created through an increase in the minimum wage by automatically triggering more spending to stimulate economic growth.
In July Congressman Alan Grayson of Florida introduced a bill calling for an increase of the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.50 an hour, which would bring it to the level of the 1967 rate in actual purchasing power adjusted for inflation.
Recently, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts testified that $22 an hour would be a more realistic figure considering the increased productivity of the American worker over the past several decades.
Although her suggestion of nearly tripling the present minimum wage seemed shocking to many, it's merely an extension of a "living wage" concept that has been adopted by over one hundred communities nationwide. As economist Robert Pollin states, "an acceptable living wage can easily be double the present federal minimum wage."
Radical as the concept of a "living wage" might appear, it is not a recent idea. During the 1920s Secretary of Labor James J. Davis, who served under presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, advocated a similar economic philosophy called the "saving wage." During the early part of that decade Davis marshaled social, economic and humane justification to support his view. When asked to define how much constituted a "saving wage," he invariably cited a speech of Harding's in which the president remarked that "the worker's lowest wage must be enough for comfort, enough to make his house a home, and enough to insure that the struggle for existence shall not crowd out the things worth existing for." Davis shrugged off skeptics, calling his idea "historically inevitable."
It's interesting that these words of a Republican secretary of labor and president sound exactly like the arguments used by contemporary champions of the "living wage" but differ so markedly from the view on raising the federal minimum wage held by the GOP in 2013.
Despite Davis's rhetorical empathy for the working classes, wages during his era did not keep up with productivity and, much like the Great Recession of our time, a severe economic collapse beginning at the end of that decade brought hardship and suffering to the poorest Americans of that generation.
Unfortunately, given the present political climate in Washington the chance of a minimum wage increase this year is slim.
As Michael Harrington once observed, "in the halls of Congress in times of slow change or stalemate, it is always the poor who are expendable." True then and truer now.
Bruce Dudley lives in McColloms.
Bartlett Donald L. and Steele, James B., "The Betrayal of the American Dream"
Dudley, John B., "James J. Davis: Secretary of Labor Under Three Presidents, 1921-1930"
Edelman, Peter, "So Rich, So Poor: Why Its So Hard to End Poverty in America"
"Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and Its Poisonous Consequences," ed. James Lardner and David A. Smith
Levinson, Mark, "Measuring Poverty and It's Consequences," "The American Prospect," July/August 2012
Packer, George, "The Unwinding"
Shipler, David K., "The Working Poor: Invisible in America"