Monica Potts is a senior writer for The American Prospect and a fellow with the New America Foundation Asset Building Program. Her work has appeared in TheNew York Times, the Connecticut Post and the Stamford Advocate. She also blogs at PostBourgie.
Though we’ve technically been recovering from the Great Recession since late 2009, the poverty rate in the United States has been stuck at about 15 percent since 2010. New data released yesterday from the Census Bureau showed that last year wasn’t much better. Poverty rates are stuck at the highest levels in a generation. Median incomes have fallen in the last ten years by more than 11 percent. Coupled with recent studies showing that most of the recovery’s gains have gone to the top 1 percent of income earners, the data on poverty confirms what many already knew: Inequality is growing, and the middle class is dying. That’s especially true when you examine the status of women and racial minorities.
On the night of May 23, 2012, which turned out to be the last of her life, Crystal Wilson baby-sat her infant granddaughter, Kelly. It was how she would have preferred to spend every night. Crystal had joined Facebook the previous year, and the picture of her daughter cradling the newborn in the hospital bed substituted for a picture of herself. Crystal’s entire wall was a catalog of visits from her nieces, nephews, cousins’ kids, and, more recently, the days she baby-sat Kelly. She was a mother hen, people said of Crystal. She’d wanted a house full of children, but she’d only had one.
Jesse Bonds graduated from high school in 2002 in Clinton, Arkansas, a town of 2,600 people on the southern edge of the Ozarks. He tried college for half a semester, but found the computer-programming courses he enrolled in too advanced. After that, he worked for the state’s power utility for about six months building substations, but his crew was laid off once the work was complete. He was looking for a new career when he was hired as an electrician at a new hospital being built in 2003, and when the work was done he realized he wanted to continue working as an electrician. He decided to enroll in ITT Technical Institute to get a two-year degree in electronics engineering. “I saw all the commercials and stuff,” he says. “And I got into the admissions office and they’re like, ‘Oh you scored the highest of anybody that’s come through here on this test in the last couple of years. You’ll be perfect for this program.’” In retrospect, Bonds realizes they were doing a hard sell on the program, but at the time he decided it was a chance to go back to college and make it on his own. “That turned out to be a disaster.”
In his campaign to drum up public support for a post-recess budget deal with Congress, President Barack Obama has repeated a call he first made in his 2013 State of the Union speech: an increase in the federal minimum wage. This past January, he called for a $9 minimum wage, up from the $7.25 rate that has remained unchanged the past four years. This week, at an Amazon packaging facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee, he said: “[B]ecause no one who works full-time in America should have to live in poverty, I will keep making the case that we need to raise a minimum wage that in real terms is lower than it was when Ronald Reagan took office. That means more money in consumers’ pockets, and more business for companies like Amazon.”
A $9 federal minimum wage is higher than any current state’s minimum wage except Washington’s.