Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual report on poverty, income and insurance coverage in this country. For the last decade the media has responded to the release of the census data with a predictable pattern of outrage and concern for a day, followed by ignorance and silence the rest of the year. And it looks like this year will be no different. Last Tuesday and Wednesday the news blared about the poverty rate being “the Highest Since 1993,” but those headlines have come and gone. Google searches and news stories on poverty are now back to the normal pattern of avoiding the issue (as predicted).
No matter how the media decides to cover the economic crisis, we must not ignore the fact of increasing poverty and hardship in America.
There were 46.2 million people living below the poverty line, which the government set at $17,568 for a single mom with two kids. And the official poverty numbers will probably be even worse next year, especially if negotiations in Congress continue to break down the way they did with the debt ceiling debate this summer and the tax cut deal last December.
One of this fall’s tests of Congress’ ability to do something good for people will be the debate over whether to extend unemployment benefits for people who are still looking for work but have exhausted the regular number of weeks on UI. When Congress debated extending unemployment benefits last year, we heard conservative law-makers call the unemployed hobos and claim that the UI system was a drain on the economy. The facts, however, are that every dollar spent on UI creates between $1.61 and $2.10 in economic activity, and that UI kept 3.2 million people out of poverty. But those facts and last week’s headlines probably aren’t enough to make those lawmakers change their tune about poor people and the unemployed.
Regardless of the politicians, the poverty data has to make regular folks start talking to each other about the real economy that’s screwing them. It may not change the debate in Washington overnight, but if people start talking with their friends and neighbors about the economy, it will be a start. Once those conversations start, more and more people will start paying attention and really engage in the debate over the policies that affect our lives. And once more people are engaged, action can’t be far behind.
But for the friend or neighbor who you’ve let be apolitical and sit on the side-lines, the first step is joining the conversation. For help starting a discussion with your friends and neighbors, check out our Go Local page for House Meetings and Discussion Guides on the economy.