Candidates are ignoring the struggles of the working poor

Two recent reports about poverty in the United States hit me hard. They also reminded me how gigantic a hole there is in our election debates today, not only at the presidential level but also in congressional, state and local races.We hear endlessly and perfectly justly about the problems of the middle class, but hardly anything about the plight of the millions of working Americans who live in poverty.

The first of the two reports is Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. It was produced by The United Way for Northern New Jersey and is an eye-opening study of the 1.1 million New Jersey working households who are “unable to afford life’s basic necessities.” The second was released by the Economic Research Service of the Department of Agriculture and reports on the state of hunger in the United States as of 2011.

Why do I cite a New Jersey report? Because it is current, because it includes incredible details about the extent of the problem and because its conclusions are no doubt applicable to the working poor in Delaware. ALICE was written by Wilmington Friends graduate Stephanie Hoopes Halpin, currently the director of the New Jersey Databank at Rutgers University. I recommend reading the total report or the summary at

ALICE is not about everyone in New Jersey who lives in poverty, just “the men and women of all ages and races who get up each day to go to work like you and me, but who aren’t sure if they’ll be able to put dinner on the table each night. They are our child care workers, our mechanics, our home health aides, store clerks and office assistants –all workers we cannot live without.”

One third of ALICE households are headed by those in their prime wage-earning 45 to 64 years. “Typically,” Hoopes Halpin writes, “the headline reads ‘N.J. household income ties for highest in country,’ ”yet “more than half of all jobs in the state pay less than $40,000 annually.” Maybe an individual can live on that, but try to support multiple dependents on it.

“There’s a stereotype of low-income people being lazy and milking the system,” Hoopes Halpin said in a recent New Jersey State Ledger interview. “From what we see there’s a lot of people who are working very hard –one or two jobs for not a lot of money and they don’t have a lot of savings. These families have no room to make a mistake.”

The Department of Agriculture reports that almost 18 million American households had difficulty at some time in 2011 providing enough food for all their members. Almost 7 million households had reduced food intake and their eating patterns were disrupted because of limited resources. Four million of those households included children.

The summary of this report is well worth reading at

If you are as appalled as I am by the reality of millions of children in this country going to bed hungry, you ought also to be outraged by the deafening silence about the problem in our discussions about balancing the budget. Our present safety net is frayed and inadequate, but it will get much worse in the next year no matter who wins the election. The president and Congress already have committed to cut domestic discretionary spending. That accounts for less than 20 percent of the federal budget but funds many of the programs for the poor. There’s no question Medicaid will be cut; the debate will be about how much. Meanwhile, some state governors are falling all over themselves to announce they will refuse whatever Medicaid funds they are allowed to refuse.

I’ve heard all the arguments that boil down to “Don’t worry, the churches and synagogues will take care of them.” The first to tell you that’s tragically wrong will be those private sector volunteers, whether religious or secular, who are doing an absolutely incredible job helping the poor with limited resources. Please, before you buy the “no government” argument talk to some of these people. Even operating with present federal government funding, they have been hit by a triple whammy since the great recession of 2008-2009: The number of people who need help has skyrocketed, state and local support has fallen and philanthropy is down across the board.

We have balanced budgets before without doing it on the backs of the poor. In the name of common decency, we can and must do it again.

Originally published 23 September 2012 on