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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Downwardly Mobile Nation

America's working class has been magically transformed into the working poor.
Work my butt off
Plain to see,
Bootstraps are
No help to me

Bridgeport — Connecticut’s largest city — is also my affluent state’s capital of poverty. Even though it’s part of the nation’s richest region, the rapidly rising number of children living in poverty in Bridgeport is already twice the state average.

Class segregation can help shield the elite from an uncomfortable set of facts. America’s median household income may have fallen sharply since the Great Recession began, but among the richest 5 percent, growth is back and robust.

While joblessness remains stubbornly high, poverty isn’t growing because of unemployment. Most low-income folks work one, two, or even three jobs. But with most new jobs paying between $7.69 and $13.83 per hour, as the National Employment Law Project has found, how can anyone survive or feed their family? This question gets harder to answer when so few new jobs include health care and other benefits.

Coupled with the growing number of states where unions have been declawed through so-called right-to-work laws, America’s working class has been magically transformed into the working poor.

Remember the budget showdown that made Congress ring in the New Year by squabbling over a last-minute fiscal deal? One of the things Republicans demanded was a cut in spending on food stamps. The final deal wound up only trimming federal spending for this important program by $110 million.

This is a symptom of Ebenezer Scrooge Syndrome. The Republicans afflicted with it celebrate their brand of Christmas all year round.

Meanwhile, the slow but inexorable growth of poverty is spreading across the nation and much of the world. Some European corporations have learned from American Scrooges how to pump up profits on the backs of employees, customers, borrowers, and compliant governments. Machines replace people, lower-skilled workers replace higher-skilled workers, unions are demolished, production is moved to the lowest wage lands, and benefits are trimmed to the meanest level allowed by law.

And now The New York Times has discovered a new category of poor Americans. These young folks are only in their 20s. They’ve got some commendable college or work experience, but don’t even earn enough to club up for an apartment. Worse, their parents are too poor to house them. Our modern economy has created a whole new class of homeless people.

This disturbing trend has already inspired a successful sitcom: 2 Broke Girls. Surely more are in the works.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.