By Sister Simone Campbell
Through NETWORK’s Nuns on the Bus, I have gotten to know entirely too many people like Carmen who, along with her husband, worked a near-minimum-wage job. When we met, President Barack Obama had just signed an Executive Order mandating federal contractors pay their workers a minimum of $12 per hour (an increase of $4.75 per hour). Carmen was one of those workers. When the new contract took effect, she was going to get a raise! I asked her what it would mean for her and her family. She told me it would allow her husband to quit his third job and spend a little bit of time with her and their young child.
This made me want to weep. Carmen and her husband both work full time, and her husband has 2 more part time jobs to try to make ends meet. Carmen’s mother-in-law lives with the family in a one-bedroom apartment in the Washington D.C. area and provides childcare for their son.
This is the story of 21st century poverty and the challenges our families face. Salaries have not kept pace with the cost of living. Workers have to cobble together a variety of jobs to make ends meet. Even with a modest increase in pay, low income families still struggle. At the same time, the GOP Tax Law gives breaks to big corporations and wealthy individuals while creating debt that will be paid for with cuts to vital anti-poverty programs.
I met Aundrea in Seattle at an IHOP (International House of Pancakes) restaurant where she was the manager of the front of the house. Seattle has made headlines for raising their minimum wage to $15 per hour over three years, so I was curious about how that had impacted Aundrea and her family. She said the change in the law had been a help because she was making more money and could pay for the basic needs of her two children and herself. But, unexpected bills were a problem. She told me that recently one of her boys had needed unexpected dental work. She didn’t have the savings to pay for this.
I asked her how she handled it. What she had reluctantly done was pawn their most prized possession: the computer. She hated to do it because her children needed the computer for school, but it was the only way to pay the bill.
These two families lead us at NETWORK to know that the reality of 21st century poverty is driven by low wages and worry. If we are to address the needs of our time, therefore, we must struggle to raise wages so that all workers and their families can live in dignity.
We realized that if we are going to mend the gap in income and wealth in our nation, we need to create “living wages” that take into consideration what it costs to live in a region. We must also tell the truth about Members of Congress who give tax breaks to the wealthiest among us and create debt that they will pay down with cuts to the very programs that hard-working families rely on.
We need to hold members of Congress accountable for their choices that stop families from living vibrant lives. We need to protect successful anti-poverty programs that Congress aims to cut. Carmen needs to know her family can live in dignity. Aundrea needs to be able to care for her boys without having to pawn their only access to the internet. We desperately need a faithful response to an economy that too often exploits our families living in poverty.
Sister Simone Campbell is the executive director of NETWORK, the Catholic social justice lobby in Washington D.C. She is a member of The PuLSE Institute’s National Advisory Panel.