American Winter Revisted as we discuss minimum wage and unemployment

Last March, I wrote a post about a terrific documentary called “American Winter” which tracked eight families who had become impoverished in Portland. “American Winter” does an excellent job of putting a face on people who are struggling. Attached is the post, which will link you to more information on the documentary.

Let me state a few comments that need to be said time and time again, as political groups have a tendency to make broad brush comments based on the anecdotes of a very few. Like many problems, the issues are complex and varied depending on your circumstances and require holistic problem-solving and not some group painting a simplistic view of the problem and, as a result, not providing a holistic solution.

– We have a poverty problem in this country with far too many people in poverty or living paycheck-to-paycheck.

– Poverty is an equal opportunity offender impacting all political persuasions, races, genders, and ethnic groups; in fact, most people in poverty are white. I mention this only because some unenlightened folks have a firm belief that it is only those “other” groups of people who are needing help. Poverty affects all of us.

– In America, we have fallen in terms of global rankings in social mobility, so where you were born and to whom you were born matter a great deal. Per Warren Buffett, one of the richest people on the globe, “I was born lucky – a white man in America.” This impacts education, opportunity, networking, etc. He said he took advantage of his opportunities, but started off with a leg up.

– Minimum wage jobs perpetuate poverty. You are a slave to the scheduler, you eat poorly, you tend to have jobs on your feet, you cannot afford healthcare (Obamacare will help in this regard), and you must have good transportation options to get to and from work. Our minimum wage is behind where it needs to be when you trend forward with wage inflation the amounts from the 1960s. It is also lags a living wage for an individual. Opponents say an increase would impact jobs. I have seen data on both sides of this issue. If a retailer can reduce turnover by paying people a better wage, it actually will aid in productivity. But, let me state something obvious – almost every one of us has felt exploited by an employer on how much we should be paid. A minimum wage job is no different, with a huge exception that you don’t make enough to live on.

– Unemployment benefits and food stamp aid do not put anyone in the lap of luxury. These are designed to help people in need. I understand fully that unemployment benefits cannot go on forever, but while the economy has improved, there are many who are still disenfranchised. Some of those people were parts of Reduction in Forces (RIFs) where people in their fifties were laid off due to higher salaries and with a changing business model. Some were laid off to pay for the sins of their leaders who made poor business decisions. The leader cuts expenses to pay for the write-offs from bad decisions and then rides off with a golden parachute while the people RIFed get screwed.

On the flip side, some good things are happening. The economy has inched forward over the last three years and prospects look good. I have told my son it is not like you hit a switch and say everything is better. Yet, much of the recovery has not “trickled down” to everyone. So, we need to make that happen. Our President is a target for many criticisms, some of which are justified, but some things he should get some credit for is promoting greater investment in our community college system and emphasizing the increase in exports over the last three years, which have been occurring.

These are the kinds of investments which we need along with other infrastructure investments. For example, the dredging of southeast coast harbors to allow for bigger ships coming through a deeper and wider Panama Canal, is something that will promote trade and help with job creation. As an Independent voter we seem to hide these investments rather than celebrate in them. My Republican friends are surprised when I tell them the “failed stimulus” that they use as campaign mantra in 2012 was untrue – the stimulus package actually worked so says six econometric firms, it just was not enough. My Democrat friends would be surprised to learn that under Obama we are more energy independent than before; we need to be more mindful of the environmental problems that it is causing and invest even more in alternative forms of energy, but we have been doing “drill baby drill” under this President.

Yet, back to my earlier theme. We need to be mindful of the people in poverty. We need to make sure safety nets remain in place for as long as needed. Yet, we should not simplify this problem and have rigorous, fact based (and not political win-lose) discussion. We need to make sure we pay people a decent wage. People working for better pay is the better way to go as it treats them with dignity and not as chattel. And, we need to openly discuss, plan, execute, measure and celebrate investments in our country. Our country has always been about a public/ private partnership which is why we are successful. The dredging of the harbors is an easy example, as no one business should be burdened with that investment. We should not hide behind this history, because other countries have learned from us. This partnership on major investments is a job enabler. We need to do more of that.

American Winter clearly defines what poverty looks like

There is an excellent documentary on HBO called “American Winter” by Joe Gantz which tracks eight Portland families who are struggling in this economy. Please check it out at This documentary puts a face on poverty and shows what these families are dealing with during the economic crisis. Since I volunteer with an agency that helps homeless families, I can assure you the problems portrayed in Portland are in evidence in North Carolina and elsewhere in the United States. For example, the median family income of the homeless families we help at the agency is $9 per hour. With a living wage in NC of $17.68 for a one adult/ one child family, you can see how people are having a hard time.

These people are living paycheck to paycheck and it takes only one thing to cause them to lose their house. It could be the loss of one job or the cutback on hours worked. Or, it could be a healthcare crisis.  We have people in America who are struggling and even dying because of lack of healthcare. According to The American Journal of Medicine in 2009: 62% of bankruptcies in the US are due to medical costs and 75% of the people whose illnesses caused bankruptcy were not insured or were under insured. This is the key reason we need the Affordable Care Act and for states to permit the expansion of Medicaid to cover them.

Yet, rather than make this about healthcare, I want to focus on why we have people in such crisis. I addressed many of these issues in two companion posts last fall based on Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s book “The Rich and the Rest of Us.” The first post was written on October 20, 2012 and the second on October 29, 2012. We are not talking enough about our poverty problem in the US. The middle class problem is referenced often, but where did they go? Only a few moved up in ranks, where as the significant majority fell into poverty or near poverty.

As organizations have taken efforts to improve their profit margins dating back to the 1980s, we have seen a continuous downsizing and outsourcing of jobs. Since the early 1980s, the disparity between haves and have-nots became even more pronounced with the trickle down economics which has been proven to be unsuccessful, unless you were viewing it from the higher vantage point. As a result, there were multiple pressures on the middle class, which has led to its decline.  It only got worse when the economy went south. While there has been some repatriation of outsourced manufacturing jobs to the US, they have remained overseas for the most part.

So, if the worker did not stay up to speed with new technologies and, even if he did, there are fewer jobs for those without a college education. And, with the economic crisis, we have seen even having a college education is not enough these days. These unemployed did what they must, so where they could, started getting service jobs in retail, restaurant and hospitality industries. These jobs are near or at minimum wage and make you beholden to the number of hours you are permitted to work. Unfortunately, these jobs perpetuate poverty. You cannot afford healthcare and better food options and can barely afford rent. So, if something happens to your hours or job, you may lose your home.

The homeless families I have worked with work their fannies off. There are some I speak with in churches , who believe these families are homeless because they are less moral or virtuous and that is not it at all. Per Smiley and West’s book, poverty is the absence of money. Nothing more, nothing less. A few national stats to chew on:

– 40% of all homeless families in the US are mothers with children, the fastest growing segment;

– 75% of homeless children never graduate which perpetuates an ongoing cycle of homelessness; and

– 90% of homeless children suffer extreme stress; some worse than PTSD that former military face.

I mention these last two items, as even with all I say to the contrary, some people do not want to help the adults, who these obstinate people feel are totally responsible for their plight or are lazy. They see a chronic homeless panhandler on the street and paint all homeless people with that brush. That is a small, small subset of our homeless problem and, while we should help the chronic homeless people, there is a significant majority of homeless people who work hard, but cannot make it. Yet, I try to sell the concept of helping the kids. They did not sign up for being homeless and if we can help them, we can break the cycle of homelessness, the cost of caretaking is less, we gain a taxpaying citizen and we may be untapping a huge potential. The second place Intel Science Award winner in 2012 was a homeless girl, e.g.

We need to help these folks climb a ladder out of the hole they are in. It will be more beneficial to them and our society. And, we must provide educational paths forward, whether it be getting a GED, community or tech college schooling to learn new or improved skills. There have been some amazing things going in community colleges which can provide some paths forward. And, we need to pay people more. We have to improve the minimum wage to get at least to a living wage for an individual. It needs to be more, but if we can make that statement (making the minimum wage = a living wage) it speaks volumes and will help.

One of our dilemmas as a society is we must have a vibrant middle class to flourish. Unfortunately, the American Dream is a myth for many. We have one of the least upwardly mobile countries in the world. So, unless we make changes to our societal investments, we are destined to have only two economic classes of people. If you do not believe me, please check out my blogging friend Amaya’s website at and check out the short video on economic disparity in our country. It is atrocious and unforgivable that this can happen in the US.

This is our collective crisis. Please watch “American Winter” or check out the above posts or Amaya’s. While “American Winter” highlights eight families, let me add a couple of more for you. One of our new Board members who works for a large bank was touring the homeless shelter and she came upon a colleague who was employed by the bank who was homeless. This stunned her that someone who worked at reasonable pay could end up homeless. Many live paycheck to paycheck in our country and it only takes a nudge for some to lose their home.

The other person I want to mention was living in a tent with her parents and younger siblings. Her dad was a construction worker and got some handy man jobs, but neither he nor his wife made enough to prevent losing their home. I highlight this teenager, as she would volunteer at a food bank to help others in need. Let me repeat this for emphasis. This homeless girl would volunteer to help people in poverty working at a food bank. We have helped this family get housed and they are climbing the ladder out of poverty. And, this young lady is now in college.

Let me shout this from the rooftops. Please help me become more vocal. We have a poverty problem in the US. We have a homeless problem in the US. We must help our neighbors and by helping them, we will help ourselves and country. Let’s help them climb these ladders. Let’s give them opportunities to succeed. If we don’t then we all will suffer.