09/18/2013 03:28 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2013

New Census Data Underscores Why Movement to Boost Wages Must Succeed

From fast-food workers to Walmart employees and from airport workers to security officers, 2013 has been a year of workers standing up for living wages. Census data released today underscore why we need this movement to succeed.

It's bad enough that for three decades, wages have been stagnant. But in the midst of a so-called economic recovery, most Americans are losing ground no matter how hard they work. Median household income in 2012 fell to $51,017 -- down for the fifth straight year and down more than 8 percent since the economic crash, according to the Census Bureau. The Washington Post notes that "the typical family makes less than it did in 1989." Simply put, people are working harder and bringing home less bacon.

Only the very wealthy are doing better. Just last week, an analysis of IRS data showed that in 2012, the top 10 percent of earners reaped more than half the country's income. The very rich have a greater share of America's wealth than at any other time since 1928, right before the Great Depression.

We will not have a prosperous, functional society if more of the nation's income continues to concentrate at the top while fewer working people have the resources they need to put a roof over their heads and food on the table.

Sadly, the Census numbers aren't shocking. Working people are well aware that they are losing ground. They recognize it when they lose a middle-class job and have to settle for a lower-wage job because it's the only job they can find. They may not know the Census data in and out, but they know something is amiss when news report after news report says the economy is getting better and the stock market is booming while they are forced to choose between paying the rent on time or getting the car repaired so they can get to work.

But working people refuse to accept stagnating wages, high poverty, and a shrinking middle class as the new normal. They have the will to stand up and fight for better lives for themselves and their families.

Onetha McKnight works for a subcontractor of U.S. Airways in Philadelphia. She took on executives at the airline's annual shareholder meeting in July, asking, "Do you really think it is good for your long-term profit to be engaged in a race to the bottom" when it comes to wages?

"They make millions that come from our feet," Shaniqua Davis, a McDonald's worker, told a reporter after she walked off the job during a one-day strike in New York City. "They can afford to pay us better."

I take inspiration from these women and other working people. They are risking their jobs and livelihoods because they expect the nation to live up to its fundamental promise that if you work hard, you can get ahead.

History has taught us that the nation does better when we have a strong middle class. We need bold changes in public policy to reverse the rising tide of income inequality, and we need profitable corporations to recognize that business models that suppress wages are ultimately bad for the entire nation.

The Census figures released this morning are yet another sobering reminder of the vast income inequality in our nation. That's why the movement for better wages has to succeed. America's economic well-being depends on it.