State of Poverty in the Union
President Barack Obama opened his State of the Union address on Tuesday of last week with an elegiac description of our country’s income distribution.
“Over more than three decades, even before the Great Recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs, and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on.
Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”
Sobering (depressing?) findings released by PEW this week show that “despite recovery,” fewer Americans are self-identifying as “middle class” (9 percent less), while more (15 percent more) are identifying as lower or lower-middle class. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones expressed his shock at these findings, writing, “I'm going to repeat that: A third of the people who identified as middle class in 2008 now identify as lower middle or lower class. And that happened in a mere six years.”
Economic data backs up our perceptions. The wealthiest 1 percent have captured fully 95 percent of the recent economic recovery, leaving little for the rest of us. In part, identifying as middle class is about identifying with the American Dream: If you work hard, you can pull yourself up by your proverbial bootstraps.
This dream is becoming more and more elusive. My father, a carpenter in a small Ohio town, was sure his status as a skilled tradesperson would keep his family solidly middle class. He gradually worked his way into homeownership and moved us to the suburbs, but the last decade has not been kind to my father or millions of Americans like him; they feel the squeeze of income stagnation. If my brothers choose to follow in my dad’s footsteps, learning to turn indifferent wood and metal into homes that shelter our neighbors, I fear the American Dream will forever be out of their reach.
Jobs in traditional skilled trades like carpentry, machine operation, farming and iron work suffered a downturn in the Great Recession, and the pay scale for these “middle class” jobs of yesteryear is declining. But a new class of skilled trade jobs, ones that use technology but cannot be outsourced, can help address the shrinking middle class. The President mentioned solar panel installation, and clerical workers, customer service reps and IT technicians like those trained at Per Scholas are other jobs that are hard to outsource.
A key feature of the President’s response to rising income inequality is to raise the minimum wage, which is laudable, but his executive order only covers government contractors. Legislation to raise the federal minimum wage appears to be stalled in Congress.
Raising the incomes of the poor and working class through an increased minimum wage and stronger safety net programs — which have already reduced today’s poverty rate by nearly half — will really change things. Poverty hurts our brains, leads to poor decision-making and makes us unhealthy; more household income is a crucial step toward increasing opportunity and improving quality of life.
However, to address the related obstacles blocking pathways out of poverty, we have to be creative and bold. The ZeroDivide team is excited to be working with OCLC, our partners on Health Happens in Libraries, to explore the ways in which public access to technology through community anchor institutions like libraries can help turn the tide in underserved communities by being hubs of opportunity. Technology-driven workforce training programs, youth media projects, tech-enabled health care enrollment and management, online communities of practice and other efforts can be woven into existing place-based strategies to help turn the tide of poverty in a community.
Robust initiatives like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the federal Promise Neighborhoods program, which take a holistic view of community development, have had promising educational, social and well-being outcomes. ZeroDivide wants to ensure that future efforts integrate technology more thoughtfully to save time and resources, improve collaboration, reduce duplication of effort, increase information sharing, connect community members with one another and those outside the community, and deliver new learning opportunities to youth and families. Over the next several months, you’ll be hearing more about our research in this area.
President Obama ended his State of the Union address by asking the American people to believe in an America “where prosperity is widely shared and opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us.” I really want to believe in that, and I see technology as a tool to make these dreams a reality.