The Millions Left Out
By BOB HERBERT
Published: May 12, 2007
The United States may be the richest country in the
world, but there are many millions -- tens of millions
-- who are not sharing in that prosperity.
According to the most recent government figures, 37
million Americans are living below the official poverty
threshold, which is $19,971 a year for a family of
four. That's one out of every eight Americans, and many
of them are children.
More than 90 million Americans, close to a third of the
entire population, are struggling to make ends meet on
incomes that are less than twice the official poverty
line. In my book, they're poor.
We don't see poor people on television or in the
advertising that surrounds us like a second atmosphere.
We don't pay much attention to the millions of men and
women who are changing bedpans, or flipping burgers for
the minimum wage, or vacuuming the halls of office
buildings at all hours of the night. But they're there,
working hard and getting very little in return.
The number of poor people in America has increased by
five million over the past six years, and the gap
between rich and poor has grown to historic
proportions. The richest one percent of Americans got
nearly 20 percent of the nation's income in 2005, while
the poorest 20 percent could collectively garner only a
measly 3.4 percent.
A new report from a highly respected task force on
poverty put together by the Center for American
Progress tells us, "It does not have to be this way."
The task force has made several policy recommendations,
and said that if all were adopted poverty in the U.S.
could be cut in half over the next decade.
The tremendous number of people in poverty is an
enormous drag on the U.S. economy. And one of the
biggest problems is the simple fact that so many jobs
pay so little that even fulltime, year-round employment
is not enough to raise a family out of poverty. One-
fifth of the working men in America and 29 percent of
working women are in such jobs.
Peter Edelman, a Georgetown law professor who was a co-
chairman of the task force, said, "An astonishing
number of people are working as hard as they possibly
can but are still in poverty or have incomes that are
not much above the poverty line."
So the starting point for lifting people out of poverty
should be to see that men and women who are working are
adequately compensated for their labor. The task force
recommended that the federal minimum wage, now $5.15 an
hour, be raised to half the average hourly wage in the
U.S., which would bring it to $8.40.
The earned-income tax credit, which has proved very
successful in supplementing the earnings of low-wage
working families, should be expanded to cover more
workers, the task force said. It also recommended
expanded coverage of the federal child care tax credit,
which is currently $1,000 per child for up to three
A crucial component to raising workers out of poverty
would be an all-out effort to ensure that workers are
allowed to form unions and bargain collectively. As the
task force noted, "Among workers in similar jobs,
unionized workers have higher pay, higher rates of
health coverage, and better benefits than do
In a recent interview about poverty, former Senator
John Edwards told me: "Organizing is so important. We
have 50 million service economy jobs and we'll probably
have 10 or 15 million more over the next decade. If
those jobs are union jobs, they'll be middle-class
families. If not, they're more likely to live in
poverty. It's that strong."
The task force made several other recommendations,
including proposals to ease access to higher education
for poor youngsters, to help former prisoners find
employment, to develop a more equitable unemployment
compensation system, and to establish housing policies
that would make it easier for poor people to move from
neighborhoods of concentrated poverty to areas with
better employment opportunities and higher-quality
Mr. Edelman, an adviser on social policy in the Clinton
administration, stressed that there is no one answer to
the problem of poverty, and that in addition to public
policy initiatives, it's important to address the
"things people have to do within their own communities
to take responsibility for themselves and for each
But he added, "It is unacceptable for this country,
which is so wealthy, to have this many people who are