No doubt, some will always be wealthier than others. We wouldn’t want to live in a society that forced all to be equal. But poverty isn’t inevitable.
The 30 million people in America who lived in poverty even before the pandemic when unemployment was at record lows needn’t exist in that state.
Too many myths and lies cloud our understanding of the poor. Most poor people are not Black. More are White than Black, female than male, young than old. More have a high school education. Some graduate.
When the pandemic forced the economy to shut down, millions lost their jobs — and their health care at work, if they had any.
Over 30 million still draw unemployment, with over a million new applicants each week as companies continue to lay off workers. Many more children are hungry.
Public policy — the “stimulus checks,” the enhanced unemployment insurance, the expansion of food stamps (SNAP), the partial moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, the aid to businesses if they kept their employees on payroll — saved millions from poverty.
Now those benefits have expired, but the unemployment remains high. Many companies are declaring bankruptcy. Many are slashing payrolls with permanent, not temporary layoffs. Again, public policy could help.
The House passed another rescue package — the HEROES ACT — that would provide another round of stimulus checks, sustain enhanced unemployment benefits, continue the expanded food stamps, extend the payroll protection subsidies and provide aid to states and localities to avoid the layoffs of millions of public employees.
The Republican Senate refused to act — and refused to compromise.
Senate leader Mitch McConnell put together a $1 trillion alternative but didn’t even try to get his members to support it. Twenty Republican senators opposed doing anything.
The nonpartisan Urban Institute noted that a second round of stimulus checks alone would keep 8.3 million people out of poverty from August to December. The extension of enhanced unemployment benefits would keep 3.6 million out of poverty. The continuation of food stamp expansions would keep about 1.7 million out.
If all three were enacted, 12.2 million people would be kept out of poverty for the rest of the year. Mitch McConnell refused to act.
Donald Trump, the great “deal maker,” refused even to get involved.
Don’t be fooled
Let’s not fool ourselves. America has millions of people in poverty because Americans choose not to demand the policies that would lift them out of poverty. Because corporate CEOs choose profits and bonuses over fair pay for their workers.
Because small-minded legislators are more responsive to those who pay for their party than those who are in need. This isn’t complicated. The recent decision to block action on a second rescue package is a decision to increase the number of Americans in poverty, the number of children who go hungry.
The Bible teaches we will be judged by how we treat the “least of these.” We should shudder at that judgment.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. is president and CEO of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.