Recap of the “Voices on US Poverty” event on July 12th, hosted by Oxfam America at the National Press Club in Washington, DC
Increased poverty, low-paying jobs, and socioeconomic inequality harm not only millions of Americans but also the nation’s overall economy and standing in the world, according to six participants in an Oxfam America forum in Washington on Friday, July 12th.
The panelists discussed the nature and consequences of poverty, the spread of low-wage jobs, the dearth of political or public discussion of poverty, and the need for greater activism to achieve a more just society. (You can listen to a recording of the event here.)
“Poverty may look different in developing countries from what it looks like in the US, but poverty everywhere is about power, not scarcity,” Ray Offenheiser, Oxfam America’s president said, addressing a standing-room-only audience at the National Press Club. “It is the result of imbalances in power that privilege some and marginalize others.”
Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said that those who provide home care and others in low-wage jobs face “long hours, job insecurity, lack of control over their hours, and vulnerability.” She said that, by 2020, 40 percent of the workforce would be in low-wage jobs.
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, criticized Congress for being “afraid to wrestle with the hard issues of poverty, which are really about our entire economy.” She also called the belief that “we’re all just individuals, not communities,” a “lie.” Americans “ignore the commitment in our Constitution to posterity, not just to ourselves.”
Major General George Buskirk, adjutant general of the Indiana Army and Air National Guard, echoed the idea that, like a general leading his troops, we need to think more of our collective well-being. Calling poverty one of the “greatest threats” to US security, he added that “we’re bankrupting ourselves if we don’t invest in the next generation.”
Campbell, together with moderator Timothy Noah, author of The Great Divergence, spoke of the political shift since the 1970s that has led to a “dismantling” of anti-poverty efforts and the growing power of the wealthy to shape public policy in their favor.
A new public-opinion survey that Oxfam released at the event found that Americans agreed by a more than two-to-one margin that government is much more likely to take actions that benefit the wealthy rather than the working poor.
Sarah Burd-Sharps, co-director of the Measure of America project of the Social Science Research Council, urged anti-poverty activists and researchers to work more closely, saying that well-meaning but disconnected organizations are “like sesame seeds on a bagel.”
Despite recognition of the outsized power of “the 1%,” amplified by the influence of money in politics, panelists agreed with Sister Simone, who said, “We the people need to stand up. It’s not just the 1% that’s the problem; it’s us.” While mobilizing the public may be challenging, the Oxfam poll found that 84 percent of respondents believe that addressing the problems of the working poor should be either a top priority or an important priority of government.
Ai-jen Poo said that, because of the nature of the low-wage workforce, “we need new and powerful ways” of organizing. She called on people to fight economic injustice through three types of power—“mobilizing, narrative, and disruptive”; a good example of disruptive power, she said, was Sister Simone’s” Nuns on the Bus” campaign, which asserts that “the status quo is simply not acceptable.”
Saying that he didn’t want the United States to mimic developing countries with small, wealthy, gated and armed communities, Ray Offenheiser said that Oxfam intended to help provide more platforms to raise awareness of US poverty and inequality.
Read more from Oxfam America’s Voices on US Poverty series here.