Opportunity 08, a joint venture by ABC and the Brookings Institute to focus presidential candidates and public attention on important issues facing the US, is this week focusing on poverty (see ABC News). Thirteen per cent of US citizens are classed as in poverty, and eighteen per cent of children (mirroring the higher rates of poverty among children in the UK which I wrote about here). This is higher than was seen in the 1970s, and reflects the falling real wages of most workers since the 1970s, particularly among those on lower wages. The State of Working America report by the Economic Policy Institute notes, ‘in 2003 the minimum wage was worth just 34% of what an average worker earned hourly, the lowest point for 40 years’ (down from 50% in the late 1960s and 40% in the early 1990s). There have also been significant decines in the number of jobs providing health insurance and pensions over this period.
Bush is doing his bit. On Tuesday he vetoed $150.7 billion in discretionary spending for the Departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services. He has also repeatedly blocked any raising of the minimum wage, although in May this year a $2.10 rise (to $7.25 an hour) was passed. This is the first time the minimum wage has gone up in ten years.
There are therefore good reasons for poverty to be an issue in the election. We wait to see how much of an impact Opportunity 08 actually has on the debate.