With the new session of congress just beginning there is much talk in the media about taxes, cutting our spending, and how to make a dent in the huge deficits most states and our federal government are facing. My concern is that when there is talk of cuts in the government, more often that not programs that assist the vulnerable and impoverished are almost always targeted, such as social security, Medicaid, food stamps, etc. I heard something recently that caught my attention, which was that now over half the kids that attend our elementary school (Heart of the Lakes) qualify for free and reduced lunch. I was shocked by that but then thought, "What does that mean when a kid receives a reduced priced lunch?" What I discovered is that it means that kid comes from a family that does not have enough money to meet their basic needs. Here's the math behind it:
For a family of four to qualify for reduced lunch in Minnesota, the household income has to be $40,793 a year or less. To qualify for free lunch that income guideline is far less, but for this example I considered the best case scenario. Now that sounds like a pretty decent income. Seems like a family should be able to make ends meet with $40,000 a year. However, Dr. Amy Glasmeier, a geography professor from Penn State University, conducted research to find out what is the wage needed to meet the basic needs of a four-person family. Her research was very specific and broke down the figures by county throughout the country, as obviously the living wage for Ottertail County would be far different than that of say San Francisco, CA. So for Ottertail County she calculated the living wage to be $23.72 per hour. That would be about $3,800 a month or a little over $45,000 a year. So for a family of four to meet their barebones, basic needs (housing, food, childcare, medical expenses, and transportation) that family needs an annual income of $45,000. Anything less and they will live in poverty.
It wasn't long ago that a person could graduate high school, get a job, and live a decent life. You'd work in the local industry, put in your 40 hours a week, and you'd be able to afford a decent house and have food on the table for the kids. And this was with just one wage-earner in the household. Today, it is possible that both parents are working 40 hours a week or more, making $10-$12 an hour and they still won't be able to afford a decent house and have food on the table for the kids. In fact, the numbers are telling us that over half the families that send their children to our elementary school are in this exact situation. There is a prevailing notion that the poor are lazy, that they just need to work harder and pull themselves up by the bootstraps. When it requires 80-100 hours of labor per week just for your family to scrap by, I believe it has nothing to do with laziness but injustice. And this doesn't even address the increase in poverty among our elderly, who have no means to increase their income, but are reliant on a fixed income that loses value as the cost of goods and services increase year after year.
Ask any economist and they will tell you that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The numbers show this adage to be true, as the wealth in our country is being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. I encourage our elected leaders as well as our business leaders to pray and think about this reality as decisions are made in the upcoming year. Call me old fashioned, but I believe that people who work full-time should not be confined to a life of poverty. In addition, I believe as Christians we have a call to speak out against the injustice of poverty and to help give a voice to the voiceless. Let us take the words of the prophet Isaiah to heart: "Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?" In this New Year, I pray that those with wealth and power choose to fast, to sacrifice, to live on less, so that the yoke of poverty can be broken for those people who experience that burden day after day.