My plan for my May column was to focus on the question of minimum wage.
Minnesota is set to increase its minimum wage to $9.50 per hour in 2016, and start indexing to inflation in 2018. But some people are saying that’s not enough for people to survive on, instead lobbying for wages of $10 or even $15 per hour for jobs as simple as flipping burgers.
According to the Pew Research Center, about 3.3 million people are working at or below minimum wage—which is about 4.3 percent of the country’s hourly-paid workforce. A full-time job paying minimum wage will bring in about $15,000 per year. That’s right about at the poverty level for a family of two. A family of four needs to make more than $24,250 to be above the poverty line.
Researching more about poverty in our country, and especially our state, is when I decided to change topics.
There’s no doubt that poverty affects thousands of people in the U.S. In Minnesota alone, more than 175,000 children live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s about 15 percent of all Minnesotan kids—a percentage that has been increasing in recent years. Minnesota’s overall poverty rate is about 11 percent. Nationwide, about one in 7 people—15 percent, give or take—live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census.
That’s not a very good number, especially since we launched the “War on Poverty” more than 50 years ago. Over the past five decades, we’ve funneled trillions of dollars into programs designed to reduce or eliminate poverty. Yet the official poverty rate has dropped a measly 4 percent since when President Lyndon B. Johnson started his campaign in 1964.
Politicians approach these statistics in different ways. Democrats push for a higher minimum wage, an extension of long-term unemployment benefits and a narrowing of the nation’s income gap between “rich” and “poor.” Meanwhile, Republicans want to reduce or dismantle many of the safety-net programs Johnson began, saying they pile on debt and discourage people from working themselves out of poverty.
But here’s the big question: Just what is real poverty?
We know how the federal government defines poverty. It compares pre-tax income against a threshold that is set at three times the cost of a minimum food diet in 1963, updated for inflation using the Consumer Price Index.
Yet according to research done by the Heritage Center, the average household defined as poor by the U.S. government still had a car, air conditioning, two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a washer, a dryer and a coffee maker.
That’s hardly the picture of a family living in dire need, fearful of not having enough food to go around or enough money to pay their heating bills.
I’m not saying families in America don’t struggle, because they do. But when it comes down to a family in Minnesota that can’t afford an X-box or a family in Africa whose kids are literally eating dirt to ease their hunger pains, I think it’s clear where the true need lies.
While American families are labeled “poor” if they’re under that $24,000 threshold, nearly half of the world’s population—more than three billion people—are living on less than $2.50 a day, or barely more than $910 a year. About 80 percent of people worldwide live on less than $10 a day, or $3,650 a year.
More than 22,000 children die every day due to poverty, according to UNICEF, while 805 million people worldwide don’t have enough food to eat and 750 million lack adequate access to clean drinking water.
The World Food Programme reports that hunger is the No. 1 cause of death in the world, killing more people than HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.
I saw this poverty up close when I went on a mission trip to Colombia in 2005. We carried bags of groceries to families living on the outskirts of Bogotá, up in the Andes Mountains. These people lived in one-room shacks made of old metal scraps, with dirt floors and no doors or electricity. Sometimes, an entire village shared one cell phone, pitching in to pay the monthly bills. They drank dangerously dirty water. They didn’t all have shoes.
Colombia was my first real glimpse into true poverty, and it shocked me. Since then, I’ve seen the same hopeless need in Mexico and Ecuador, too—little kids selling paper flowers at markets and mothers begging for change at bus stops.
Does this mean that we should totally neglect American families and only look to kids who are literally starving to death? No.
We can help both. In fact, I believe we’re called to help both.
And that’s where it gets tricky, because the question arises: What’s the best way to help those who are suffering and in true need? Should we shuffle them off onto the federal and state governments through entitlement programs such as Medicaid and SNAP, which are continually growing in scope? Or should we dig into our wallets and give voluntarily?
To be brutally honest, I don’t believe it’s the government’s business to redistribute wealth by taking it from those who have more and giving it to those who have less. I contend that’s an overreach of federal power as outlined in the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states that all authority not given specifically to the federal government is reserved for the states. The federal government can tax for things like creating roads, maintaining a military and paying its debts. If you want to argue for state entitlement programs, that’s a whole different ballgame.
But instead of diving into state programs, let’s look at something infinitely more difficult: donating money yourself.
The average American household contributed about $1,800 to charities in 2012, according to Creditloan.com, while Philanthropy.com reported that Minnesotan households donated about 2.7 percent of their discretionary income—not even triple what they spent on alcohol over the year (1 percent).
Creditloan.com numbers show that’s less than we spent on entertainment. To use an even clearer example, a recent report came out showing that Americans spend an average of $1,100 every year on coffee, according to ABC News.
If that money were given to programs like Feed My Starving Children instead, it would pay for 5,000 meals for needy kids.
When people are spending almost as much on coffee as they are on helping other people in need, you know something’s seriously wrong.
Shame on us.