We got trouble. Unemployment is rising. Factories are closing. Construction is shutting down. Stores are laying off folks at the height of the holiday season. Food kitchens are overwhelmed. No one doubts now that the US is headed into a severe downturn, one likely to be the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
In hard times, our worries get very concrete. Will my job go? Will my daughter lose her health care? Can I keep my child in college? I can't afford to sell my house and can't afford to live in it. The troubles are real, hard and widespread.
But it is in these times that we must remember the "least of these," for it is the poorest Americans who are greatest at risk. That will be particularly true in this recession because over the last thirty years the nation has unraveled much of what used to be known as the "safety net."
As unemployment rises, so does poverty. Goldman Sachs now projects unemployment will soar above 9% over the next year. That means roughly another 7 to 10 million Americans in poverty, another 3 million children in poverty–and at the edge of survival, an increase of 2 million children in "deep poverty," living in families with incomes less than one-half the poverty line. These are families struggling to find food to eat, and shelter from the cold. Every religious tradition teaches that we will be judged by how we treat those most in need.
And if nothing is done, the answer is far worse than we once did, even when this country was far less wealthy than it is today.
Unemployment among workers without a high school diploma–the poorest workers–has already soared to over 10%. These workers are the least likely to be eligible for unemployment insurance, which in many states excludes part-time workers or workers who don't earn enough to qualify–the very ones who need help the most.
Worse, basic cash assistance reaches far fewer people in distress than it did in the last major recession in 1980. Today, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, only about 40% of families eligible for aid under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program actually receive it. Welfare as we knew it was severely restricted at the federal level under the Reagan and Clinton Administrations.
Worse, those who are impoverished but no longer raising children increasingly get no cash assistance of any kind. State general assistance programs were largely eliminated in the 1980s and early 1990s. Many of these folks–poor workers now laid off–aren't even eligible for food stamps. This is the very population that will soar in the next few months.
The states that are the worst off tend to be states that did not vote for Obama or for Democrats generally–Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas. All the more reason for Obama to act boldly to rebuild a solid floor under all Americans.
Aiding the poor should be a central part of the stimulus program now being put together by the administration. Increase food stamp benefits, to insure that hunger and malnutrition do not go up. Add money for assistance to needy families in states. Expand and extend unemployment benefits to cover low wage and part time workers. Increase benefit levels. Increase support for public housing and housing vouchers. The government should be turning suitable foreclosed homes into public housing. Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit that provides low wage workers with actual supplement to their incomes. Raise the minimum wage to insure that workers gain in the supplements provided.
Special consideration should be given to the elderly who are now watching their pensions (if they had one) or their savings and investments decimated by the crisis. Even middle class retirees who carefully planned their investments are hard pressed. Obama might be wise to increase Social Security benefits to middle and low income recipients, while lowering the employee share of payroll tax on low wage workers.
People say it is politically risky to be concerned about the poor when the middle class feels insecure. But it is in times like these, when virtually every working family is taking a hit or worried about taking one, that we should attend to the weakest and most vulnerable among us. If we are one people, we must turn to each other, not on each other.
Let us insure that the most vulnerable are not treated as an afterthought but as a centerpiece of the rescue plans that are constructed. It is time to rebuild America from the bottom up, not the top down.
Reverend Jackson can be contacted by e-mail at JJackson@rainbowpush.org