As we mark 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson committed our nation to ending poverty in our country, President Obama is once again calling upon us to overcome “the defining challenge of our time.”
All of us are being affected, he observed, by “the dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain – that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.”
Accomplishments of America’s “War on Poverty”
If we are to meet this challenge, we must first lay to rest the myth that America’s anti-poverty programs have not worked. Even those who are concerned about the role of government in our lives should recognize that programs like Social Security and food stamps (SNAP) have lifted millions of American families out of lives of poverty.
According to recent Columbia University research, “because we have strengthened our safety net and expanded pro-work and pro-family tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit, the poverty rate has fallen by 40 percent since the 1960s.”
Without these anti-poverty programs, researchers have concluded, the poverty rate in our country would be nearly twice what it is now. More than 40 million people – including 9 million children – would have been abandoned to lives of poverty without our collective efforts to help them lift themselves up in life.
This success has been especially evident in the lives of our senior citizens.
Without Social Security, nearly one-half of all seniors would be living in poverty. Instead, fewer than one in seven seniors must continue to be counted among the poor.
Before Medicare, only one-half of seniors had some form of health insurance. Today, virtually all do – and, as of Jan. 1, millions of younger Americans who lacked healthcare can finally access quality, affordable health coverage that will keep them out of poverty.
These examples are powerful evidence that President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” has been far more successful than critics assert. Now, our generation is being called upon to finish the job of ending poverty in our time.
As President Obama reminded us during his Dec. 4 speech on economic inequality, “These endeavors didn’t just make us a better country; they reaffirmed that we are a great country.”
Tragically, too many of my colleagues in the House of Representatives disagree.
Instead of seeking to slash these safety-net and pro-work programs and sending millions of people back into poverty – as many of my Republican colleagues propose – the Congress should take immediate action to stem the growing inequality that threatens our way of life.
We know that properly educating all Americans to succeed in our global economy is the longer-term answer to economic inequality. However, our first order of business must be to raise our nation’s minimum wage to a livable wage and extend unemployment benefits to those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.
Increasing the Minimum Wage
In March of last year, I was proud to become an original co-sponsor of California Rep. George Miller’s proposal to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour over three years - and to adjust that basic wage level for future increases in the cost of living [H.R. 1010].
New polling last week from Quinnipiac University shows that 71 percent of American voters support our efforts to raise the minimum wage, including a clear majority of Republican voters. Yet, although 166 House Members have now joined our effort, the Republican leadership has not yet brought our bill to a full House vote.
Most Americans agree that now is the time to do what is fair and good for our economy, delivering a pay increase for 30 million hard working Americans. Now is the time to lift another 4.5 million Americans out of poverty.
Extending Emergency Unemployment Benefits
Second, due to congressional inaction, millions of Americans are reeling from losing the lifeline of emergency unemployment insurance, including many who live in Republican congressional districts.
The House Republican majority continues to demand even more tax breaks for the most affluent and large corporations before it will agree to help the 1.4 million Americans thrown off emergency unemployment insurance.
An additional 72,000 Americans will lose their unemployment insurance each week until the Congress takes action. We all have a stake in correcting this failure.
If the Republicans continue to block emergency unemployment insurance, that obstinacy will cost our economy 240,000 jobs this year, slowing our economy and making it harder for all Americans to find work.
By a margin of 58 to 37 percent, voters in a recent national poll have concluded that benefits should be extended for another three months. The Congress should listen to the American people and act.
We have been blessed with a President who is determined to correct the inequities in our economy. In this election year, we have the opportunity to choose a new Congress that will become a true partner in achieving that historic transformation.
“We the People” have the power to decide the defining issue of our time.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.