There were two great speeches at the 2004 Democratic Convention — and, in a way, they complemented each other. The first, by a young state senator from Illinois, rejected the notion that America is hopelessly divided politically into blue states and red states: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America,” declared Barack Obama, “there is the United States of America.”
The second, by the party’s vice-presidential nominee, lamented the fact that America is, however, badly divided in a different way: “The truth is,” John Edwards told delegates, “we still live in a country where there are two different Americas: one, for all of those people who have lived the American dream and don’t have to worry; and another for most Americans, everybody else who struggle to make ends meet every single day.”
We could argue whether Barack Obama’s dream of a politically united country still rings true. But there’s no doubt that John Edwards’ warning about “two Americas” was right on the money. And, as this week’s report from the Census Bureau confirms, it’s only gotten worse.
You could be forgiven for thinking things were getting better. After all, the stock market this week soared to record highs. Unemployment’s at its lowest rate since December 2008. In August, permits for future housing construction hit a five-year high. The economy’s definitely improving. Americans across the board are getting a lift. Right? No. Wrong!
The Census Bureau reports that, despite an improving economy, 15 percent of Americans are still living in poverty. In fact, the number of Americans living in poverty increased last year, from 46.2 million in 2011 to 46.5 million in 2012 — including 3.9 million seniors and 16.1 million children. Think about that: In 2013, in the richest country on the planet, 16 million children live in poverty and go to bed hungry every night. Shame!
Putting that in context, the poverty rate is defined today as $23,492 per year — for a family of four. Try living on that. We’re talking less than $2,000 a month for everything: shelter, food, clothing, medicine and transportation. For four people? That’s worse than poverty. That’s utter destitution.
As bad as they are for the poor, things are not much better for the middle class. The Census Bureau also reports that the average American family today is actually making less than that same family did 25 years ago. In 1989, adjusted for inflation, the median American household income was $51,681; today, it’s $51,107.
So there you have it: 46.5 million Americans living in poverty, and what’s the response of Republicans in Congress? They want to make lives of the poor even more miserable. House Republicans propose cutting $40 billion out of food stamps, or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) — which, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, would eliminate 2 million people from the program, most of them children and older people, while adding 4 million people to the poverty rolls. Their answer to helping the poor, in other words, is to create even more of them.
Republican opposition to food stamps is so mean-spirited, it’s difficult to comprehend. In many ways, the program works the way government benefits should. When the economy goes south, the number of people on food stamps increases; when the economy improves, the number goes down. And we’re not talking a lot of money. On average, a person on food stamps received $133.41 per month in 2012. Assuming three meals a day, that’s less than $1.50 per meal, per person, not exactly living high on the hog.
It’s also hard to understand how Republicans can oppose food stamps and yet still call themselves Christians. Take Tennessee Congressman Stephen Fincher. In debate on the floor, he quoted Matthew 26 to justify his opposition to food stamps: “The poor you will always have with you.” Maybe Fincher should also read Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink.” Or maybe he thinks Jesus was just kidding.
At the same time, by the way, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Fincher and his family have received $8.9 million in government subsidies for cotton over the last decade. The average monthly food stamp benefit is $287. Quick: Which one is the biggest freeloader?