Voices on US Poverty
On Friday July 12th, Oxfam America, a global organization dedicated to developing solutions for systemic poverty and inequality, hosted a panel discussion on domestic poverty issues as part of their Voices on US Poverty initiative. This initiative aims to begin a conversation among those with various perspectives on the domestic poverty crisis in order to find comprehensive solutions. What began as a collection of essays from experts ranging from economists to military and faith leaders has become a national campaign for social equality. The movement seeks to combine the efforts of many organizations such as Measure of America at the Social Science Research Council, National Domestic Workers Alliance, andNETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby to find long-term solutions to growing social justice issues in the United States.
From left: Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam, Sarah Burd-Sharps, director of Measure of America, Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Sr. Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, and Major General George Buskirk Jr. (Ret.) Photo: Laura Rusu / Oxfam
Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, began the discussion by highlighting the current and disturbing trend of growing poverty in America. This poverty, he believes, is about power and not scarcity. Oxfam America believes in order to eradicate poverty in America, it is crucial to minimize the wealth gap. Even though, according to a recent Oxfam poll, 84 percent of Americans believe that the federal government should prioritize the needs of the working poor, there is a lack of conversation about wealth inequality in politics.
Currently, America’s poverty rate is at its highest in two generations and no significant changes have been made to change this in the last 40 years, stated Sarah Burd-Sharps, director of Measure of America. 60 percent of Americans believe that the federal government has done more to increase the incomes of the wealthy rather than the working poor in recent years according to the recent Oxfam poll. The bottom 90% control just 23% of the nation’s wealth and from 1979 to 2007, the top 1% benefited from a 275% income increase after federal taxes. While other countries such as Brazil and Argentina are reducing their wealth gap, the United States ranks 10th out of 12 developed countries for the prospect of upward social mobility said Offenheiser.
On Thursday July 11th, the House of Representatives passed the first Farm bill in history with no money allocated for food stamps, which historically counted for about 80% of funding in the bill. The passing of this bill provides a concrete example of increasing apathy over growing poverty that is currently plaguing government. While House Democrats voted against the Farm Bill, Offenheiser feels that both parties do not make fixing the poverty crisis enough of a priority.
The lack of conversation and action to combat domestic poverty stems from a sense of hyper-individualism that Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of NETWORK, believes has grown drastically in recent years. The sense of solidarity that America had in the 1960’s and 1970’s is no longer prevalent in our society, she states, and therefore, aiding the nation’s poor is no longer a pressing issue for current politicians. However, Campbell feels strongly that the public have the ability to reverse this trend. As Americans took to the streets to advocate for same-sex marriage, the government responded with new marriage equality legislation and the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. Likewise, if Americas get involved in combatting wage inequality, the government will respond by putting domestic policy issues on the national agenda. The panel believes that the balance of power can be shifted back to the 99% through community movement and the will to change the status quo.
The discussion was a great first step in advocating for the importance of combating global poverty. While there is still much work to be done, bringing together leaders from various perspectives effectively united like-minded organizations towards a common goal. If these organizations are able to raise community awareness, the panelists believe that the American public will be able to use their collective political power to instigate long term solutions in domestic poverty issues.
-Elise Girard, Break the Chain Intern