Time to face truth about poverty in America

Story highlights

  • Unemployment rate for blacks more than double rate for whites, report says
  • Carolyn Maloney, G.K. Butterfield: Time to increase federal minimum wage

Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, is ranking Democrat on the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee. G.K. Butterfield, D-North Carolina, is chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. The views expressed are their own.

(CNN)Early this spring, we stood together with our colleagues in Congress, civil rights leaders and thousands of others on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, trying to imagine the incredible courage it must have once taken to simply walk across that bridge despite knowing with grim certainty that clubs, tear gas and fire hoses were waiting for you on the other side.

We were there to commemorate the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," a day that changed the course of American history when peaceful civil rights marchers were tear gassed, beaten and brutalized by police and dogs were unleashed on women and children. Photos of those events shocked the conscience of a nation, galvanized public support for civil rights, and made very clear that things needed to change.
Carolyn Maloney
Fast forward to today, and disturbing pictures of confrontations between crowds of African-Americans and police once again flood our TV screens. And while the details are different, a new report by the Democratic staff of the U.S. Congress' Joint Economic Committee shows that many African-American families are still struggling -- and still facing troubling economic disparities.
    Baltimore didn't happen in a vacuum.
    G.K. Butterfield
    Take the current unemployment rate for blacks (9.6%), which is more than double the rate for whites (4.7%.) In fact, a higher percentage of blacks are unemployed now than the percentage of whites who were unemployed in the very depths of our most recent recession. If the unemployment rate for white Americans was still over 10% it would rightly be considered a national emergency. Why should it be different for anyone else?
    The JEC Democratic staff report shows that the median income of African-American households ($34,600) is nearly $24,000 less than the median income of white households ($58,300). The median net worth of white households ($142,000), meanwhile, is 13 times the level for black households. And black Americans are almost three times more likely to live in poverty than white Americans.
    These numbers are deeply disturbing.
    Some say the best thing to do is to do nothing -- allow the free market to solve these problems and wait for the astronomical incomes of the extremely rich to "trickle down" to the rest of America. But experience has shown that this "solution" is a mirage.
    So, what can we can do now to help provide opportunity to Americans of all backgrounds?
    First and foremost, we should increase the federal minimum wage. The real value of the minimum wage (which accounts for inflation) has dropped by a third since its peak in 1968. Simply restoring the hourly minimum wage to the 1968 value of $10.90 would mean an additional $7,592 annually to full-time minimum wage workers. This would lift millions out of poverty. It is a clearly pro-family policy that polls show most Americans strongly support.
    Second, we should expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides poorer families greater economic incentive to work hard and earn more. In 2013, the tax credit lifted 6.2 million people out of poverty.
    We should expand early childhood education, restore cuts to Pell Grants and strengthen the role of community colleges. Everyone says education is the key to success in America -- let's act like we mean it and make sure that every American has that key.
    We should enlarge the Child Dependent Care Tax Credit, giving a hand to working families.
    We also should get serious about passing some of the numerous bipartisan bills that address problems in our criminal justice system. The Smarter Sentencing Act would be a great place to start.
    It will take political courage for local and state leaders to support the kind of reforms that are needed. But doing these things would demand far less courage than that shown by the young people who were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge for standing up for civil rights.
    But to begin the process we first need to acknowledge the truth revealed by the data -- that America is still not the land of equal opportunity for all that it aspires to be. If we can confront that reality, then maybe these numbers, like the photos from a bridge in Alabama, will galvanize us into taking action.