Reducing U.S. Poverty Rates: How Organized Labor Can Help
The current wealth inequality and continuing rise in poverty rates within the United States has troubling implications for a country that prides itself on being the “land of opportunity.” In recent years, wealth inequality has soared, reaching historic heights that are higher than any other developed Western country and rival those on the eve of The Great Depression (Fischer et al. 1996, Saez 2008). The top one percent of Americans owns 42 percent of the nation’s financial wealth while the bottom 80 percent of Americans own only five percent of the nation’s wealth (Domhoff 2010). The income of the top one percent has nearly tripled in the last 30 years while those at the bottom are struggling to make ends meet (Congressional Budget Office, 2007). Our country is at a crossroads while we lose our middle class. The decline of organized labor and subsequent proliferation of low wage jobs have played an influential role in the growing divide between the rich and poor in America. Deliberate policies have created this current state of inequality. However, this fortunately means that new policies can help to reverse the trend (Fischer et al. 1996). In this memo, I will argue that a set of policies aimed at allowing workers a free and fair process to organize unions will help to dramatically reduce the growing poverty within the U.S. – uplifting the lives of millions of hardworking families and revitalizing our local economies. Why Reducing Poverty Matters
There are many arguments for why high levels of inequality and poverty are bad for a society. For the purposes of this proposal, I will highlight only a few of the most consequential. Researchers have found that a large disparity between the rich and poor produces higher crime rates as those at the bottom must turn to illicit forms of employment as a means of survival (Krueger 2004, Western 2001). A large wealth gap also creates an ineffective democratic process, as there are many less educated voters and the extremely wealthy can use their money to wield disproportionate influence in the state (Krueger 2004, Mills 1956, Domhoff 2002). Furthermore, large levels of inequality have been found to reduce economic growth both locally and in our gross domestic product (GDP) (Krueger 2004). Workers who do not make enough to subsist must go on public assistance, which is paid for by the American taxpayer (Krueger 2004). Additionally, struggling workers consume much less, depleting local economies further (Gutierrez 2013). Finally, there are the lived experiences of the working poor. These are the Americans who work full time, sometimes two jobs, and six or seven days a week. They are doing hard manual labor or demeaning service-sector work and sometimes traveling great distances to their job, yet do not have enough money to feed their children or find stable housing (Ehrenreich 1999, Newman and Chen 2007, Wilson 1999, Hays 2003). These are the individual experiences of poverty that many people often forget, but are nevertheless crucial to our understanding of inequality and the reasons why we must address it. A healthy nation requires a flourishing economy and stable democracy. As a society, we must stop and reconsider the ways in which our policies are helping to reproduce and further economic injustice. The Significance of Unions
Through looking back on the history of labor in this country we find that unions have long played a crucial role in the formation of a strong middle class. It comes as no surprise then, that their decline over the last four decades has accordingly played an equal role in the growing U.S. poverty rates. Union strength was at an all-time high during the 1950’s. In the post world-war period, one-third of the private sector employees were unionized with millions more living in households dependent on a union wage (Rosenfeld 2010). Through collective bargaining, unions helped to establish a...
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