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Breadline USA: Why People Are Going Hungry in the Land of Plenty

America's poor are being priced out of a market flush with excess eatables. It's an abomination we can fix.

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The U.S. government’s official poverty line in 2008 was $10,590 for a single person, $13,540 for a couple, $16,530 for a family of three, and $21,203 for a family of four. And the Census Bureau estimated that over 37 million Americans (including noncitizen residents) were living at or below these income levels. But that only hinted at the growing scale of American poverty. Economists such as Bob Pollin, codirector of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, believed many tens of million Americans more were living on incomes that, while they might meet a denuded government “minimum-wage” threshold, in reality couldn’t be expected to meet a family’s basic needs.

Pollin’s team calculated that a single person needed to earn ten dollars an hour to achieve even a semblance of economic security; and, as with the poverty line, so with this measure, which he called a “living wage,” the dollar amount would go up as the number of people in the family increased.

Guaranteeing a living wage was an ambitious goal, one that a number of localities had been trying to implement since the mid-1990s, when Baltimore’s city council passed a limited living-wage bill that impacted about fifteen hundred local workers employed by companies who did business with the city. And nowhere were such local measures more of a hot-button issue than in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

In the late winter of 2006, Santa Fe’s then-mayor David Coss sat behind his large desk discussing the city’s living wage, his long, wiry body draped in an expensive gray-brown linen suit, a cream shirt and dark-patterned tie, his hair neatly coiffed, his graying goatee smartly trimmed. A Georgia O’Keefe poster of a horned animal’s skull hung on the wall behind him. A second poster, in pastels, showed off a glorious Southwestern desert and mountain landscape— a world of swirling dreams and endless possibilities. Coss had a background as an environmental scientist and a union organizer; he had risen to power at City Hall at least in part because of his assertive championing of the most comprehensive living-wage statute in America.

Three years earlier, after a decade-long campaign by social justice activists, seven of the eight councilmen in the chic— and expensive— desert town voted to raise the city’s minimum wage to $8.50 an hour, with successive increases built in that would hike it up to $10.50 by 2008. In the years following, despite litigation from opponents of a living wage, the courts rejected challenges to the law, and public support for the change remained high— notwithstanding doom and gloom prognostications from the town’s tourism-dominated service industries. Santa Fe’s living wage was, Coss averred, “basic economic fairness in making the economy work for everyone and not just the people at the top.” When the chamber of commerce ran candidates against the four councillors most outspoken in their support of the living wage, the chamber’s candidates were all soundly beaten on Election Day.

In a town with a high percentage of practicing Catholics, the living wage in Santa Fe was pushed not just as a sensible economic move— as a way to stimulate spending and savings cycles along the bottom edge of the labor market— but as a moral imperative, reinforced by the authority of papal encyclicals dating back to Leo XIII at the tail end of the nineteenth century. “No one who works full time should have to live in poverty,” Monsignor Jerome Martinez stated. The monsignor was a middle-aged man with a shock of curly gray hair, a warm smile, and a deeply suntanned, slightly pocked face. He shared his cluttered office in an annex to the spectacular Cathedral of St. Francis with two large green cacti and several oil paintings of Jesus. “The dignity of the worker is more than just being a cog in the industrial machine. The Just Wage provides sustenance, housing, minimum health care, retirement benefits, and that the worker should have an opportunity to be generous. The ability to be generous is an important aspect of the church. It makes you feel more like a human being.” Smiling broadly, Martinez proudly recalled that, at a time when living-wage advocates dreamt of the $8.50 earnings floor, the church in Santa Fe paid none of its sixty-five employees less than $11.50 per hour.

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