This week marks the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty in the USA announced by President Johnson in his first State of the Union Address. Most of us agree that we are not much closer to winning that war than we were in 1964. While the conditions of abject poverty may have changed (most housing today has indoor plumbing, for example), many measures suggest that the current economic conditions are even worse than they were when Johnson became president. In particular, some argue that in addition to continuing the war on poverty, it is time for our nation to go to war on wealth inequality.
My husband and I hosted our family’s Christmas celebration and had a number of family members staying at our house. My family and I tend to talk about current events (among other things) and one night we had a long conversation about the state of the economy, the declining middle class, and the future of the country. I was raised in a working class family, by two parents who highly valued education. They worked hard to provide my brothers and I with resources to increase our opportunities to access education and find a career path that suited our interests. My mom went to college after having us and worked her way through a Ph.D. program and all three of my brothers and I have or are completing Ph.D.’s. We are what some refer to as the “bridge” class. Most people today would classify me as middle class (based on my education, current job, and annual income), yet I continue to hold many of the values (as well as some of the anxieties) that I acquired growing up in a family where it was hard sometimes to make ends meet. In many ways, like President Johnson, my personal experiences with economic insecurity have increased my interest in resolving issues of poverty and wealth inequality.
One of the things my family discussed was the way in which wages have changed over time, including the widening gap between those at the top and those at the bottom.
When my dad was born in the 1950’s, the wage gap ratio between the average CEO and the average worker was about 20-1. In 2012, that gap was 354-1, according to the AFL-CIO. And since that is an average, it includes CEO’s who make 19 times their average worker (companies like Whole Foods) and those that make 1,795 times. This huge discrepancy in the difference between the pay of the average employee and the head of a company is related to two phenomenon: 1) the rise in wages granted to those at the top and 2) the stagnation of minimum wage.
These trends have huge repercussions for individuals and society as a whole. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Despite the increase of minimum wage in some states as of January 1st, most are not above the federal amount, and Washington state has the highest minimum wage at $9.32. Some cities have decided to make increases above this, but these movements have been slow and only reach small numbers of people.
Just in case you think that $7.25 an hour is “just fine and dandy” I encourage you to run a little online experiment. Go to http://livingwage.mit.edu/ and search for your city. The chart will show you what the estimated wage is and how much it costs to live—but only factoring the bare necessities (ok, not even the bare necessities because the budget doesn't include clothing). The site will also list the average wages for a number of jobs and how many of them are below the living wage for one adult and one child. In Allegheny County where I live, almost half of the fields listed fell below the living wage minimum. Many more likely would if the calculation was based on a more realistic representation of one’s living expenses.
No wonder people are going on strike!
What I find more surprising is the fact that there are not more discussions about these issues and how to change them. It seems like Miley Cyrus can’t open her mouth without the whole world talking about it, but very few people were discussing the anniversary of Johnson’s speech or what it means for us today. While NPR and other news stations covered it (as well as some current politician’s responses), it certainly did not get the airtime (or social media time) that many of our pop culture figures take for granted. In fact, in many ways it seems that most media forms are invested in sending the message that no one need worry about poverty (unless they are making fun of or criticizing those who live in poverty), and that America is a country basking in wealth. Marketers certainly benefit from convincing people that they should focus their time, energy and money on acquiring more goods. Children (especially girls) are told that they should incorporate materialism into their identity—being a “shopper” is one way to be “empowered.” Shows that glamorize excess and wealth serve to distract people from the realities of the disparities that exist and often send them false hope about the likelihood that they will “make it” someday.
The numbers suggest otherwise.
Some people are outraged by the current economic system and using all tools they have available to them to get their voice heard. Occupy Wallstreet continues to use social media to inform people about poverty and econo, and others and finding news ways to fight for equality.
Let’s hope we don’t spend another 50 years losing this war.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.