Whoever the next president turns out to be, the critical issues he’ll face over the next four years will make this year’s “issues” seem smaller than a hanging chad. And, without a doubt, one of those issues will be the deteriorating state of America’s working poor, especially since that Campaign 2000 unmentionable–an economic downturn–appears imminent.
I hate to rain on either man’s dubiously gained victory parade, but the storm clouds are gathering: Savings are down, personal debt is way up, and Americans have borrowed a quarter of a trillion dollars on margin to play markets that are dropping faster than Dr. Laura’s ratings. Maybe the winner should demand a re-re-recount.
“It’s shameful,” Deborah Leff, president of America’s Second Harvest, the country’s largest domestic hunger relief group, told me. “There was an 18 percent increase in those needing emergency assistance last year, and we had to turn away a million people–and that’s with a full-employment economy. Millions of Americans with jobs are still going hungry. So, I can only shudder at what it’s going to be like when the economy plummets.”
According to Second Harvest, the biggest increase in hunger over the last 10 years has been among the working poor. Of the 21 million people who sought emergency food assistance in 1999, nearly 40 percent lived in households with at least one working adult, while a stereotype-busting 70 percent of poor families with children included someone who works. In boom-time America, 8.6 million kids live in working-poor families–a one-third increase since 1990. But all we heard from Al Gore and George W. Bush was how to “continue the prosperity.” How about starting it for the working poor before we think about continuing it for the rest?
“The boosterism of the great economy,” says Harvey Robins of New York’s Children’s Aid Society, “deflects everyone from recognizing what is actually happening in people’s daily lives.” As a result, the hungry remain largely hidden. Which is why Second Harvest’s latest ad campaign features the message: “The sooner you believe it, the sooner we can end it.”
But before we can believe something, we need to know about it. And our national conversation has not exactly bubbled over with concern for the plight of the working poor. President Clinton made an exception for about four minutes in his weekly radio address earlier this month, announcing “new steps” to help families on food stamps. But why did he have to wait until the waning days of his Dow Jones presidency to propose such common-sense changes as allowing food stamp recipients to own a reliable car or cutting down on the paperwork necessary to receive the benefits? Where were simple ideas like these when the government was being “reinvented”?
After all, for years now most states have required food stamp recipients to fill out forms more complicated than the ones needed to obtain a federal firearms permit, a federal home loan or a school bus driver’s license. And they have included such intrusive, irrelevant and inane questions as “Do you own a burial plot?” and “Do you sell your blood?”
Nor does the ludicrousness end there. Incredible though it may seem, taxpayers earning less than $25,000 a year are more likely to be audited by the Internal Revenue Service than those making over $100,000. (Quick trivia question: Guess which of those groups contributes most to politicians?) And woe to the struggling small businessman. Those with less than $25,000 in sales are investigated twice as often as those taking in six figures. I guess the IRS missed that part in the Bible about “From whom much is given, from him that much more shall be expected.”
In his radio address, the president took credit for having “put the American family back on top again, with 22 million new jobs.” But how many of those jobs offer enough to pay the rent? According to a study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a combination of low wages and increasing rents has made it next to impossible for working families all across the country to afford decent housing.
In Los Angeles, for instance, rent on a two-bedroom apartment averages $900 a month–which means that a minimum-wage worker would have to put in close to 120 hours a week to afford this rent and still have enough left over for other essentials. Like eating. In Boston, the housing crunch is even worse, with rent on a one-bedroom apartment averaging $1,100 a month. The perverse result: One out of five residents in the city’s homeless shelters has a job.
So while our presidents-elect scrounge every courthouse, canvassing board and ballot for possible votes, America’s working poor are scrounging to make ends meet.
Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist.