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The poor you shall always have with you

Bill Press laments 'shocking' new stats showing 1 in 6 Americans lives in poverty

John Edwards may have turned out to be a scoundrel. But, back when he was a candidate for vice president, he articulated better than anyone else one of the most serious problems facing this country.

“The truth is, we still live in a country where there are two different Americas,” Edwards told the 2004 Democratic National Convention, “one for all of those people who have lived the American Dream and don’t have to worry, and another for most Americans, everybody else, who struggle to make ends meet every single day.”

Since that time, as we learned this week, the gap between those at the very top and those at the very bottom has only gotten wider. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 46.2 million Americans were living in poverty in 2010 – up from 43.6 million in 2009. It’s the largest number of Americans in poverty in the 52 years the Census Bureau has been tracking the poor.

Think about it. Here in the wealthiest nation on the planet, 15.1 percent of us – almost one in every six Americans – are living on less than $22,314 a year for a family of four. That’s $429 a week for food, gas, rent, utilities, clothing and any other necessary expenses. Try it.

The poverty rate’s even more severe among minorities and children: 27.4 percent for blacks; 26.6 percent for Hispanics; 22 percent among all children; and a staggering 40 percent for black children.

Now, for a glimpse at today’s widening income gap, contrast those shocking poverty statistics with results of a survey issued last month on executive compensation. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, 25 of America’s top 100 CEO’s took home an average $16.7 million last year, a 27.8 increase over 2009. Over all, as Sen. Bernie Sanders points out, today the wealthiest 400 Americans own more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans combined. And, as reported by the IRS, the top 1 percent of taxpayers earns more income than the bottom 50 percent.

We are two Americas, indeed: the very rich and the very poor, with an ever-shrinking middle class stuck in the middle. Wages for the middle class, in fact, have been stagnant for at least a generation. In 1988, according to IRS data, “the income of an average American taxpayer was $33,400, adjusted for inflation.” In 2008, it was $33,000. The top 1 percent of taxpayers, meanwhile, saw their income soar 33 percent.

Shocking? Yes. And here’s what I find more shocking: Even though 15 percent of Americans are already living in poverty, nobody talks about it. When’s the last time you heard a politician talk about the shocking level of poverty in this country? Not since Bobby Kennedy? When’s the last time congressional hearings were held on how to help families lift themselves out of poverty?

The truth is, except for the rare few like Bernie Sanders, politicians ignore the poor. For one simple reason: They don’t vote. Therefore, they don’t count. And if poor people did vote, Republicans fear, they’d probably vote Democratic. So why bother? The poor today are on nobody’s political agenda.

But it’s worse than that. The current Republican leadership doesn’t just ignore the poor. Their policies would actually make things worse. They would increase the number of poor – by destroying the very government safety nets that keep millions of Americans from falling below the poverty line. An additional 14 million seniors would be living in poverty today, according to the Census Bureau, if they didn’t have the protection of Social Security.

Yet the entire Republican agenda today is to destroy Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and repeal universal health care – making it harder for poor families to survive, while making life even easier for CEOs, hedge fund managers, oil companies, millionaires and billionaires. They’ve got it backward. They should be looking for ways to help the poor and middle-class Americans who are still struggling, not how to pamper those living high on the hog.

There’s a much more important dimension to this issue, of course: the moral imperative. Isn’t it clear? Read the Gospels. If there’s one thing Jesus taught us, by both his work and his words, it’s our special obligation to help the poor.

And one thing’s for sure. When he told us “the poor you will always have with you,” he wasn’t suggesting we should try to create even more of them.

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