07/21/2014 05:21 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2014

Income Inequality Hurts All of Us

Martha Mendoza's heartbreaking article, Survival and Defeat in Silicon Valley Slum illustrates the struggle that our homeless brothers and sisters face. She rightly points out that in San Jose, CA, amongst some of the wealthiest people in the world, too many are living on the streets, in shelters, or in encampments like The Jungle.

It's easy, perhaps too easy, to dismiss stories like this as "not my problem." Say "there but for the grace of God go I," and assume it has no bearing on one's own life. That assumption is wrong. This type of income inequality affects every level of our society - from those who are on the streets to the very richest.

While the top earners are thriving, record numbers of Silicon Valley residents are slipping into poverty. This puts a strain on our public resources, including welfare, Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps), and health care. This, in turn, means our government must make cuts in other areas, possibly including infrastructure repairs and business incentives. So we all feel some of the pain of income inequality.

46.5 million Americans still live in poverty. That number is unacceptably high. Even worse, the child poverty rate is rising. It's reached the point where more than 1 in 5 children grow up in poverty. One-third of the poor live in the direst poverty, earning less than $6,000 per year. This is inexcusable in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.

Silicon Valley is perhaps more economically uneven than any other part of America. Some 16 percent of Santa Clara County households earn at least $191,000 per year, placing them in the nation's wealthiest 5 percent. But food stamp participation in the county just hit a 10-year high, and homelessness has risen 20 percent in the past three years.

We also know that in recent years the wealthiest have controlled an increasingly larger share of total earnings, while the average working household earnings have continued to decline. It has gotten to the point that the wealthiest one percent of American households have a greater share of the nation's wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined.

There are steps we can take right now to address this growing gap. The first is to raise our minimum wage to a living wage. No one who works full time should have to live in poverty. Increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 would lift millions out of poverty, ease some of the burden on our social safety net, and put more money into our local economy.

We also need to extend unemployment insurance for long-term job seekers. While the latest unemployment numbers are encouraging, there are still too many people who need assistance until they get a position that matches their skills and salary requirements. Unfortunately, House Republicans have refused all efforts to extend unemployment insurance, causing more than 3 million Americans to lose their benefits, including nearly 300,000 veterans. We need to pass an extension to help those who are having trouble finding work.

Unbelievably, there are those who still want to privatize Social Security, minimize Medicaid, and cut SNAP. These cuts would hurt those who can least afford it. Social Security is the single most important anti-poverty program for seniors in our country's history. We need to strengthen it by "scrapping the cap" that has the poor and middle class paying more for the program than the rich.

Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), one of the most effective programs to lift people out of poverty, would also help lessen this discrepancy. EITC is the most significant tax credit in the federal individual tax code for working low- and moderate-income families, because it lowers the amount that these employed parents owe. This leaves them with more spending money, which allows them to provide for their families.

Without taking steps like these, we will see a greater gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots." While this will mostly hurt those on the bottom, everyone up to, and including, the very rich will feel the effects. There are moral, social, and economic reasons to address this gap. Failing to do so will hurt all of us.