09/20/2013 11:15 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

Consensus on Census: America's Stuck in Reverse

This week, troubling new data from the U.S. Census Bureau confirmed what most of us already knew to be true: that poverty remains pervasive in America, and that more and more people aren't able to earn enough to lift themselves and their families out of this economic stagnation and into the middle class.

According to the report's press release:

"The nation's official poverty rate in 2012 was 15.0 percent, which represents 46.5 million people living at or below the poverty line. This marked the second consecutive year that neither the official poverty rate nor the number of people in poverty were statistically different from the previous year's estimates. The 2012 poverty rate was 2.5 percentage points higher than in 2007, the year before the economic downturn."

In other words: Working people are suffering, and the very programs that raise incomes, drive economic growth, and lift millions of Americans out of poverty are being threatened every day. The jobs and housing numbers can be deceiving, because the truth is that this recovery is leaving way too many people behind. We are one of the world's wealthiest democracies, and yet the people who make up the fabric of our population -- who serve our food, stock our warehouses, and take care of our loved ones -- barely make enough to survive. Despite more than three years of consistent economic growth and a recovery of the financial sector, millions of Americans remain mired in poverty. The recovery simply hasn't made it past Wall Street and onto Main Street.

In their analysis of the numbers, The Washington Post found an illustrative and startling statistic: "In 1989, the median American household made $51,681 in current dollars (the 2012 number, again, was $51,017). That means that 24 years ago, a middle class American family was making more than the a middle class family was making one year ago."

The stagnation is even more troubling than the decline, because it represents a deep, engrained system of economic oppression that becomes increasingly difficult to overcome. These are our friends, our colleagues and our neighbors who have been stuck in reverse. They're working three jobs and taking public transportation to all of them; they're caring for young children and aging parents simultaneously; and they're defaulting on their student loans while laboring at jobs that pay inadequate wages. And not surprisingly, these trends are far worse for women, immigrants, and people of color.

As of 2012, women who worked year-round and at full-time hours were still found to earn only 77 cents for every dollar of income flowing to men in the same position. Similarly, black and Latino households continue to have a significantly lower median income than their white counterparts. According to Slate's analysis, "14.5 percent of American women lived in poverty in 2012, compared to 11 percent of men. According to the National Women's Law Center, poverty rates are even higher for black women (25.1 percent are living in poverty) and Hispanic women (24.8 percent). Women are more likely to be poor than men at every age: Among people between the ages of 18 to 64, 15.4 percent of women are in poverty, compared to 11.9 percent of men. Above age 65, 11 percent of women are in poverty, compared to 6.6 percent of men."

We have to do better. And we have to realize that inequality doesn't just happen. Social programs, regulatory fixes, and government policies are a critical piece of this puzzle. Raising the federal minimum wage would be a great place to start. Continued deregulation of banks is another. And another tried and true way to create a clearer path toward the middle class? Joining a union.

Unionization remains one of the best options available to alleviate poverty, yet workers are consistently retaliated against, fired, or otherwise silenced for wanting to band together to improve their workplace. Not surprisingly, the decline in union density in this country is mirrored eerily by the decline of the middle class. As Dean Baker from the Center for Economic Policy Research explains, "Unions allow workers to organize and bargain collectively, raising wages and therefore the share of economic productivity distributed to workers."

Unions are a key economic and political force in pushing for policies that benefit all working people, and remain one of our best checks against the corporate greed. Until we regain the right to exercise our fundamental and democratic rights to organize and collectively bargain, the one percent to get richer at the expense of the rest of us.