Who says there are no slaves in America? The greatest domestic issue facing President-elect Obama is not the bailout of the bankers and insurers but the task of lifting tens of millions of hard-working American wage-slaves out of dire poverty. These are the folks who hold one, and sometimes two or even three low-paying jobs, work their tails off 60 hours or more a week, and are still stuck in poverty on payday with no hope of climbing out.
Indeed, if enough workers were getting paid a living wage Wall Street and Detroit would not find themselves begging Washington for billions. Homeowners would have enough money to pay their mortgages and buy new cars. Today's crisis is the bitter payback for decades of corporate greed. As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has written, "Most of what's been earned in America" in the past 35 years "has gone to the richest 5 percent."
Result: 37 million Americans are said officially to live in poverty but Catholic Charities of Saint Paul-Minneapolis notes a more realistic accounting puts the poor at 50 million.
During the Bush regime, five million more Americans slid into poverty, and the unemployment figure, officially put at 6.5% (but actually much higher counting discouraged workers,) hit a 14-year high in October. And at least five million people are working part-time because they can't find full-time jobs. What's more, those fully employed have seen their overtime pay disappear and their working hours shrink as demand tanks for their goods and services. Each day, thousands of pink slips are being handed out.
Poverty is so virulent, there are 18,000 children sleeping in homeless shelters in New York City every night and 1.7-million New Yorkers are eligible for food stamps. "Twenty-five percent of all families with children in New York City---that's 1.5 million New Yorkers---are trying to make it on incomes that are below the poverty threshold established by the federal government," writes Bob Herbert of The New York Times. In Albuquerque, N.M., the Democratic Party is asking for 2,500 coats for public school children sleeping in cars or under bridges. Nationally, 21 percent of U.S. Hispanics and 24 per cent of African-Americans subsist in poverty.
The great slide into poverty and ruin has long been underway. "The underlying problem has been building for decades," Reich says. "America's median hourly wage is barely higher than it was 35 years ago, adjusted for inflation. The income of a man in his 30s is now 12 percent below that of a man his age three decades ago."Indeed, USA employs millions of wage slaves, whether illegal immigrants in the vegetable fields of Florida or native-born serfs in the needle trades of Los Angeles (currently reviving as their substandard wages are now comparable to what coolies earn in Chinese factories.) Few alien toilers, who are blatantly exploited and work under the sword of deportation, dare to protest their plight to Labor Department authorities that, under the Bush regime, are deliberately understaffed and commonly indifferent to workers' complaints.
As the New York Times editorialized, the Labor Department "has tilted toward employers and failed to properly enforce labor laws." The Government Accounting Office found Labor's Wage and Hour Division "failed to adequately investigate complaints that workers were not paid the minimum wage, were denied mandatory overtime or were not paid their last paychecks," the editorial said. Labor unions today can claim only 10 million members, a tiny fraction of the work force, and multitudes of workers have swallowed corporate propaganda that unions are bad for them even though union workers typically get paid 30 percent more!
Ever more Americans--- as mounting credit card debt figures reveal --- are unable to make ends meet at their minimum-wage jobs, and are, in fact, wage slaves drowning in a rising sea of red ink, with no prospect of good union jobs to rescue them. Organized labor has been trampled nearly to death on a rigged playing field that denies unions a fair chance to organize. The quickest way to get fired is to ask one of your co-workers to vote in a union. Tens of thousands have enlisted for the military sign-up bonus and job training because it's the only job and training package they can find. Military recruiters know of their plight and unashamedly concentrate their activities on the children of the poor, according to an ACLU report.
Far from evincing a drop of "compassion," the AFL-CIO said the Bush 2008 fiscal budget "cuts more than one billion ($)in job training and employment programs," this "just a week after he (Bush) talked about the need for better training and assistance to help America's workers compete in a global economy." It noted, too, the Bush budget "eliminates current job training for unemployed adults and at-risk youths." This has had particularly tragic consequences for African-American youth, pushing their jobless rate up in some cities up to about 50 percent. And let's not kid ourselves: a disproportionate number of the 2.3 million souls' in America's expanding prisons are African-American precisely because when people can't earn income they'll steal. As Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in The Progressive magazine, "We are fast reaching the point, if we have not passed it already, where the largest public housing program in America will be our penitentiary system."
Over two thousand years ago Aristotle said "Poverty is the parent of crime and revolution" and that's still true today. In 1962, the National Urban League's Whitney Young called for a "Domestic Marshall Plan." It was a very good idea then but needs to be expanded to meet today's national emergency. Last January, economist Joseph Stiglitz said the downturn could be stopped in part by strengthening the unemployment insurance system, and that surely needs to be done.
The focus must not be on bailing out the fat cats at the top but on making jobs and providing income for those whom FDR called the forgotten men and women at the base of the economic pyramid. And a good place to begin is to slash Pentagon spending for its morbid weapons system development and its endless wars. Imagine what might have been achieved here at home with the trillion bucks lavished on the illegal war in Iraq! (And the total bill may yet be $3 trillion!)
Urgently needed is a public-private sector partnership to refurbish our infrastructure, expand our moderate- and low-income housing supply, (renewing our inner cities, old-line suburbs and failing small towns,) to reinvigorate our mass transit, to retrain the unskilled, to tutor the unlettered, and to make college or vocational training available to every citizen. Let's put an end to wage slavery once and for all. If the Obama administration will only concentrate on nurturing the grass roots, every aspect of American life might one day bloom as a garden.
(Sherwood Ross, formerly a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and talk show host at WOL Radio, Washington, currently directs a public relations firm for non-profit organizations. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org)