Tabitha and her husband are raising three sons — ages 8, 6 and 20 months — near Columbus, Ohio. They are both employed. Tabitha works the checkout line at Value City and her husband works at Subway.
Both earn the federal minimum wage, $5.15 an hour, for monthly earnings of $1,785. Their combined annual earnings of $21,424 still leave them below the poverty line of $22,543 for a family with two parents and three children.
Tabitha and her husband are among the 2 million Americans who know that the minimum wage isn't always a living wage. Throughout October, people are joining together across our country to hold Living Wage Days worship services and community events to bring attention to the plight of the working poor. These days of action were sponsored by the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign, a partnership of more than 80 faith, labor and community groups formed to mobilize support among Americans for raising the minimum wage at the state and federal levels.
Why does a living wage matter? Without it, too many Americans are finding that having a job and working hard are still not enough to keep them from being close to or in poverty. Poverty matters — deeply. Poverty kills. It also maims and stunts the growth and eclipses the dreams of hundreds of millions of children around the world.
Here at home, many Americans don't realize that America's poorest residents continue to be worse off than those of almost any other country in the industrialized world.
Poverty in America is a political problem, caused less by a lack of resources than by a failure to come to terms with reality and build the will to change it. It's universally understood that food, shelter, health care and other basics are crucial to the well-being of children and families. But what our leaders, the news media and the public largely ignore is that 2 million workers still lack adequate incomes to provide these basic necessities. As Let Justice Roll puts it, "A job should keep you out of poverty, not in it."
Wages are tied to workers, of course, but their children are always directly affected. A childhood spent in poverty can have negative impacts on an individual's entire life. The multiple barriers associated with poverty build on one another and unjustly deprive children of the opportunity to reach their full potential as parents, employees and citizens.
Children in families with annual incomes below $15,000 are 22 times more likely to be abused or neglected than children in families with annual incomes of $30,000 or more, and children in poor families are more likely than non-poor children to attend failing schools, get inadequate health care, live in unsafe housing and suffer from poor nutrition. Children who grow up in poverty are also more likely to become teen parents and, as adults, to earn less, to be unemployed more frequently and to raise their own children in poverty.
What can we do? One solution is to support policies that make work pay, including raising the minimum wage to help ensure that workers at the bottom of the earnings scale are not left behind and expanding the Earned Income and Child Tax credits — and making the latter fully refundable. And all poor working families need to be informed about and helped to get current tax refunds and benefits for which they are eligible.
I'm grateful for Let Justice Roll's Living Wage Campaign and others who are helping all Americans see the working parents who constitute the majority of the poor today.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund.