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SPRIGGS: Working and Poor in America

William Spriggs, Special to The Informer | 3/24/2014, 1 p.m.
The furor has not died down over Rep. Paul Ryan's comments about inner-city men and poverty in America.
William Spriggs

The furor has not died down over Rep. Paul Ryan's comments about inner-city men and poverty in America. Ryan (R-Wis.) has agreed to talk with the Congressional Black Caucus about the racial overtones of the comments. Still, a troubling theme in America is the concept of the "deserving" poor. The problem with Ryan's statement and the current unwillingness to raise the minimum wage is a new sense among conservatives that there are no "deserving" poor.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told us in 1967: "In the simplistic thinking of [the early part of the 20th century] the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber. We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty."

Unfortunately we are back to Dr. King's square one discussing poverty. Being poor again means you are not industrious. The government that Ryan promotes is for the industrious company that ships American jobs overseas, gives tax breaks to the oil industry and farm subsidies to huge industrial agricultural firms. Ryan's government is not supposed to extend unemployment insurance benefits to support American families struggling to find work or help low-income children eat.

On these counts, too many are like Ryan. But, the reality is closer to Dr. King's assessment of the problem at hand. Let's lay out the facts. The majority of poor non-senior households in America have someone who works (62 percent) and yes, Ryan, this is also true for African Americans. Further, roughly one in five poor households has a full-time, year round worker; and yes, Ryan, this is also true for African Americans. Eighty percent of families with children receiving means-tested assistance for food, housing or health insurance have a worker in the family.

The new view is that the working poor are not "deserving" because times have changed, less educated workers are "too lazy" to have read the message and did not put in the effort in school they should have-they "deserve" low wages. But, since Dr. King's speech, the educational attainment of Americans has increased dramatically. So the poor cannot be simply those who dropped out of high school. Again, among families with children receiving means tested assistance, 40 percent have some college coursework, an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree or more.

Now, of course, a direct way to address this anomaly would be to at least return the minimum wage to the level when Dr. King shared these words. President Obama's proposal of $10.10 an hour would be a huge down payment toward doing that and would mean full-time, year round workers could lift a family of three out of poverty.