They are here among us. They live next door; family members, friends and co-workers. You read about them and see them on TV. They are passed by on your way from work and can be even out of your way. They are men, women and children, a majority with minority opportunities representing the totality of the American racial, ethnic spectrum.
According to a just released U.S. Census Bureau report, more Americans fell below the poverty line last year. 2011 marks the third year in a row that the rate has increased, growing in the past 12 months from 14.3 percent to 15.1 percent. Those numbers represent people, 46.2 million of them, who are considered in need. A little more than half of them (28 million) are working. But, they earn less $9.04 an hour/$18,800 a year, giving them an income that marks the federal poverty line for a family of four.
Look around you. Chances are good you know them. Overall, 63 percent of all U.S. families below the federal poverty line have at least one member working trying to help make ends meet. They’re not just minorities. Nearly 60 percent are white. About one-fifth of the working poor are foreign-born coming mostly from Mexico. And the majority possesses high school diplomas and even some college degrees.
They are the reference point. They are the reason. They are the excuse to do or not to do, a constant calculus of social engineering. Without them, life would degenerate into a monotony robbed of competition to realize and nurture ambitions. Revolutionary rhetoric’s would have a hollow sound to them. Indeed, revolutionaries would be extinct by now.
In reality, they make everything possible. They make us, and then make us better and bigger. There is no desire or ambition by society to end their long line, because ending their plight would scuttle human ambition. To save them is to disorganize natures’ perfect arrangement. Because we have done nothing, the last several decades has seen an unnatural shift in this pact. An explosion of income inequality means the distinction between the haves and have nots has grown to a dangerous level. Those on the bottom are struggling to move up the ladder.
So they have been relegated to evasive vocabulary, colorful words and expressions to make them a lighter load on our conscience. In reality, a hard-working single parent with two jobs trying to make ends meet and be a good parent is not a lighter load. The family whose main wage earner lost his or her job and now is in jeopardy of losing their home is not a lighter load.
The truth is history is a judgment passed when there is no chance for an appeal or the plea is offered from a position of powerlessness. At that point it becomes a rationalization that does not make sense as we observe the pervasiveness of suffering around us. The lack of empathy for others reflected in our policies and in our actions does not lead to a rational response. Those that we would prefer to ignore are in our reality each and every day. They are the reason for the vitality and success of this nation because they labor hard in the vineyards of this economy invisible to so many of us.
But the truth is they are us. We are so bound together that neither can labor alone. Each blow that we strike in our own behalf helps mold their universe to its detriment.
They are poor and economically challenged. They are our reference point. They are the reason.
Akande is dean of the Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University in St. Louis.