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New Oxfam Poll: Most Americans Believe We Should Help Working Poor

07/13/2013 01:41 pm ET | Updated Sep 12, 2013
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As a global development organization, Oxfam has fought against poverty and economic injustice for 70 years in the world's poorest nations--but we increasingly believe that we have a moral obligation to fight poverty and injustice at home in the United States.

America's poverty rate is now at its highest level in two generations, and many Americans are in jobs that do not pay a living wage. 100 million of us have a hard time putting food on the table, and almost half of America's children live in poverty or near poverty.

Although poverty may look different in sub-Saharan Africa from what it looks like in the US, poverty everywhere is about power, not scarcity; it is the result of imbalances in power that privilege some and marginalize others. The time to enact policies that help poor Americans lift themselves out of poverty is now--and a majority of voters agree.

In a new poll Oxfam America released today, we found that most Americans believe we have a responsibility to help the working poor achieve better lives.

In fact, 61 percent said that they would vote for a candidate who said that government must help the working poor and an overwhelming 84 percent said that addressing the problems of low-wage workers should be a top priority or an important priority of government. (Only 2 percent thought that government should not have a role.)

American people believe by more than a two-to-one margin (60% vs. 26%)--I would say correctly--that government today is much more likely to take actions that benefit the wealthy rather than the working poor.

And, in a result consistent with many local ballot initiatives to increase the minimum wage, 65 percent said that the minimum wage should be set at a level that a full-time worker can live on.

Finally, when asked which priorities should be protected from budget cuts, 56 percent said education and Head Start, whereas only 16 percent said defense spending.

The US has long presented itself to the world as the model of successful, inclusive economic growth that has lifted millions into the middle class. While that was true during the three decades after World War II, since the 1970s the story has been very different.

The reality is that the escalator to the middle class has gotten stuck. Contrary to the American dream of broad-based upward mobility, the US ranks near the bottom of Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries surveyed in terms of social mobility.

Our country is rich, but our wealth is distributed more unequally than in any other rich nation. Inequality in wages, income, and wealth has grown enormously. During the last decade, almost all of the country's income gains have gone to a tiny sliver at the top, while the bottom 90 percent have lost ground.

Wealth inequality is even worse. The top 1 percent controls 35 percent of the nation's wealth, while the bottom 90 percent controls just 23 percent.

What makes poverty and inequality in the US particularly troubling is that few of our leaders in politics and the media are talking about these issues. There is much talk, by both parties, of strengthening the middle class, but little discussion of the growing ranks of the poor and working poor.

This is what we have to change. Ending poverty and reducing inequality will occur as a result of deliberate choices and policies. And we all must do our part to push the movement forward.

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