Really, really bad.
It's clear that the Great Recession battered those on the bottom most heavily, adding 6 million people to the ranks of the officially poor, defined as just $22,000 in annual income for a family of four. Forty-four million Americans -- one in seven citizens -- are now living below the poverty line, more than at any time since the Census Bureau began tracking poverty 51 years ago. Shamefully, that figure includes one in five children, more than one in four African Americans or Latinos, and over 51 percent of female-headed families with children under 6.
These numbers are bad enough. But dig deeper -- as Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman has been doing for nearly 50 years in his battle against poverty -- and the story told by these figures is even more staggering.
Edelman points out that 19 million people are now living in "extreme poverty," which is under 50 percent of the poverty line, or $11,000 for a family of four. "That means over 43 percent of the poor are extremely poor," said Edelman, who served as an aide to Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.) and in the Clinton administration before resigning in protest over welfare reform that shredded the safety net. "That's over 6 percent of the population, and that figure has just been climbing up and up."
Beyond what Congress can do immediately, it's clear that America needs a broader movement to create a more just and higher-wage economy. Edelman and other advocates say that we will need to push to make it easier for people to join labor unions through an Employee Free Choice Act or at least reduce legal barriers to organizing. The minimum wage should also be indexed to half the average wage.
"But you're still going to have a gap," said Edelman. "And you essentially have to invent some new idea of a wage supplement that starts from the premise that the so-called good jobs went away a long time ago and we've become a nation of low-wage work."
That's why 100 million people are struggling to make ends meet on less than $44,000 per year.
This devastating economic reality has the potential to create new political alliances -- and shape a 21st-century anti-poverty movement. Such a movement is urgently needed because the voices of the poor, of workers and of those struggling to get by are barely heard in the halls of power these days. Anti-poverty groups and advocates with ideas for a more equitable economy are often marginalized within even Democratic Party policy circles that seem hard-wired to reject them.
We know what needs to be done to reduce poverty. The question is who will fight that fight? And who will listen?
SOMEBODY HAS to do something about this, and the leftist journalist wants to know whom that will be.
Well, obviously not the leftists -- and note I don't use "leftist" as a perjorative; I tend to be one on many issues. That's because leftists like vanden Heuvel, back in 1972, blew up the broad-based, left-of-center Democratic coalition in favor of a purer, narrower radical coalition dedicated not to eliminating poverty and advancing social justice, but instead to promoting the sexual revolution and smashing the influence of social conservatives in the party.
That gave us a Democratic Party unable to beg, borrow or buy the kind of presidential and congressional clout it enjoyed before the "revolution." It gave us one contentious term for Jimmy Carter, while also giving us the reality of Reagan Democrats. Not to mention Ronald Reagan himself.
The libertine left also gave us the religious right.
And Bill Clinton surviving for two terms only by governing as a just-right-of-moderate Republican would have -- by gutting welfare (which vexes the left so) and giving Wall Street slicksters the keys to the candy store.
As we well know, this has led us to the fine mess we enjoy now, including those exploding rates of extreme poverty, as well as an anything-goes social and familial landscape of such chaos that it scarcely can deal with flush times, much less the Great Recession.
Thus, after much deliberation, more observation and ample aggravation, this New Deal-loving, old-time Catholic lefty has something to say to Ms. vanden Heuvel and her fellow secular, upper-crust, boutique lefties about the river they're crying on behalf of the impoverished abstractions they probably never encounter concretely:
I call bullshit.