Middle-class woes

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The US Census Bureau released new figures yesterday (hat tip to Think Progress) concerning income in America (also see the Carpetbagger Report). I�ve uploaded a copy of the report (PDF) if you’d care to see the data yourself. Kevin Drum offers the most succinct analysis I’ve seen thus far:

The good news is that women are now making 77% as much as men, slightly higher than last year. The bad news is that this is only because the median income of women fell at a slightly lower rate (-1.3%) than the median income of men (-1.8%). Yipee.

Needless to say, per capita income increased by 1.5%. In other words, the total money income of the United States increased last year by more than $100 billion, and yet the incomes of the average worker went down. So where do you think that $100 billion went?
(emphasis mine)

I’ve blogged about income inequality before, but the news yesterday was hard to stomach because of context — I first saw the figures during a break at the NM Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee meeting. Their topic for the morning: hunger and food insecurity. Representatives from various agencies and organizations gathered at Western New Mexico University to speak on behalf of New Mexico’s Task Force to End Hunger, formed by Gov. Bill Richardson in 2003.

The committee saw data regarding New Mexico and its fight against hunger and food insecurity. Turns out, things like median income, affordable housing, utility costs and access to child care all play a role in the number of people in this state who go hungry. And it’s a big number. According to a February 2006 report on hunger (PDF), some 237,900 New Mexicans received emergency food from food banks in 2005, a 38% increase since 2001. Some other highlights:

  • 41% reported having to choose between food and utilities or heat in their homes
  • 32% chose between food and paying for rent or their mortgage
  • 28% had to decide whether to eat or pay for medicine or medical care

The biggest increases came from children and seniors seeking assistance. They said that 9% of those served by the food banks were seniors, most of who are on fixed incomes. For this group, factors like increasing utility costs become a burden quickly. One in three people served by the food banks — 81,000 New Mexicans — were children. One in six of those children went hungry regularly.

Members of the Task Force were quick to point out that the situation is not limited to victims trying to live off handouts. More than half of the people served are families with at least one employed adult. In addition, among families, half owned their homes, while another 38% rented.

All of this is to show how our economy, while great for the rich, is still pretty bad for the poor and middle-class families of America. Corporations continue to make record profits, but workers don�t share in the good fortune, nor, as the census figures show, do workers even manage to keep up.

And, as evidenced by the hunger statistics, all of the major social issues are intertwined. For more on the complexity of these issues in the age of Wal-Mart, I’d check out Ezra:

Rather, Wal-Mart is setting the norms and standards for the coming service economy. Where GM and Ford played this role for the manufacturing sector — and the unions forced them to use their power to create the American middle class — Wal-Mart is assuming primacy for manufacturing’s successor, and doing so without the union involvement or commitment to high wages that their predecessors exhibited.

He also has some nuggets on poverty in America:

And let’s make this very clear: 2001-2005 was an expansionary period. The economy was getting better, growth roaring forward, conditions easing. And yet, during that time, millions of Americans fell into ever-more severe impoverishment.

This has never happened before. A few years ago, economists marveled at the first time a three-year expansion had seen three straight increases in poverty. A year later, they wondered how it had happened for a fourth time. We’d never seen three — much less four! — years of expansion coincide with straight increases in the poverty rate. In the past, rising economic tides had lifted all boats. Now, the poor are capsizing.

Sorry for the long post, but, as several people stated yesterday during committee testimony, hunger is not a visible problem. It deserves your time, and mine.

Please check out this aftenoon’s edition of the Silver City Daily Press for more information on the committee hearing, including descriptions of existing programs and highlights of proposed solutions for hunger and food insecurity.

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