Conservatives, we're told, want to reassert America's "exceptionalism." But virtually everyone agrees that America is a special country. They could do a service if they looked at both the bad and the good. For America, to our shame, houses exceptional poverty. Among the industrial nations, only Turkey and Mexico have higher rates of poverty.
And poverty is getting worse in the wake of the brutal recession. Some 44 million people -- one in seven -- were impoverished in 2009 -- the highest number since the Census Bureau started keeping track 51 years ago. 50 million lacked access to adequate food at some time in 2009. Nearly 18 million lived in households where one or more persons had to skip meals because of lack of food. 40 million received food stamp benefits each month. 51 million lacked health coverage in 2009.
Poverty is much worse among African Americans and Latinos, both of whom suffer poverty rates of more than 25 percent -- about twice as high as the general population. One in three African-American children now live in families that have trouble providing for them. Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo and Milwaukee had the worst poverty rates among large cities. The vibrant centers of the industrial Midwest have been devastated by plant closings and the offshoring of jobs.
America's inequality has reached extremes not seen since before the Great Depression. Wall Street is handing out million dollar bonuses again. Corporations are raking in record profits, even as workers face layoffs and cutbacks in wages and benefits.
Yet poverty and disparity are unmentionable in our nation's capital. The debate there now focuses on deficit reduction, with Republicans promising to cut 20 percent from domestic programs next year. In the midst of this disparity, the conservative co-chairs of the president's so-called "bipartisan" fiscal commission released a report that lowers top tax rates, while closing exemptions and omits any mention of a tax on financial speculation.
Some have been gorging on a feast during the last decade, but most have been losing ground. Yet we're told everyone has to tighten their belt and sacrifice. Taxpayers bailed out the banks that blew up the economy. Shouldn't the banks and their executives be asked to lead in rebuilding the country and lifting the poor?
The Rev. Martin Luther King has become one of America's most honored heroes. But we might do well to admire him less and imitate him more. When King was struck down, he was working tirelessly to pull together a Poor People's Campaign, a march that would bring the impoverished and the unemployed -- across lines of race, region and religion -- to Washington to demand a revival of the war on poverty.
The silence must end in Washington. This nation cannot exist, to paraphrase Lincoln, as two nations, separate and unequal, divided between the one percent who capture half of all the gains of growth, and the many whose lives grow ever more insecure, with more and more descending into poverty.
Today, the Citizens Commission on Jobs, Deficits and the American Economy, sponsored by the Campaign for America's Future, publishes an antidote to the current Washington focus on austerity. The Citizen's Commission argues that we need to put America back to work first, and then redress our deficits not by cutting Social Security or Medicare, but by progressive taxation, cuts in wasteful defense spending and corporate subsidies.
But this common sense won't get a hearing unless citizens of conscience join in piercing the wall of silence about poverty in America. President Obama would be well advised to convene a bipartisan conference on poverty and hunger in America. But King was right. We should not wait on Washington, we should march on Washington.
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