Growing up in Saginaw, Mich., I learned from a young age the unjustifiable poverty and violence that flows from our nation’s legacy of racism. Our schools were underfunded, and families and children were hungry. Though I never lost my faith in God, I certainly grew disillusioned by our government’s failure and the church’s struggle to bring hope and opportunity to communities filled with despair.
Every year, the contrast between abundance and neglect for the working poor comes into agonizing focus as we celebrate Thanksgiving. Across the nation, programmatic breaks from parade coverage and football games offer a glimpse into soup kitchens and food distribution networks hoping to bring reprieve to working families, veterans and homeless individuals.
The outpouring of charitable giving we witness around the holidays reminds us of both the tremendous generosity of communities and our government’s failure to create a moral budget that guarantees families and children can live with basic human dignity. The work of charity is important — and so is the work of marching, organizing and voting for justice and equity.
We live in the richest nation in the world, with enough abundance to ensure every family has the right to dignified jobs and living wages, housing, education, health care, welfare and the right to organize for the realization of these rights. The challenge we face is not one of resources but one of political will to ensure democracy prioritizes the well-being of the many and not the interests of the few.
Wages for middle- and low-wage workers have remained largely stagnant since the 1970s. Today, roughly 58.3 million people work for less than $15 an hour. At the same time, the infamous top 1 percent has doubled its share of national income. In 2017, the nation’s 400 wealthiest owned more wealth than 204 million people — the bottom 64 percent of the entire U.S. population.
Allowing a small few to reap incredible wealth while federal programs to support working families run dry represents a collective failure to invest in our shared future. From roads to the internet, no successful business could operate without infrastructure built by government funding. It seems only right and just that we would equally invest in giving children and families the support they need to succeed.
Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 would boost the earnings of 39.7 million workers, generating $118 billion in additional wages. That dwarfs the estimated $7.1 billion in tax-cut bonuses given to U.S. workers by their employers in 2018.
In 2018, 60 of the largest Fortune 500 companies managed to zero out their tax liability on $79 billion in pretax income. That’s more than the estimated cost to provide universal early learning and child care support, approximately $70 billion per year over 10 years.
Too often, policymakers justify their failure to meet families’ basic needs by suggesting there are only so many pieces in the government pie. We’re told to cinch our belts. But that’s not how investments work. Choosing to prioritize $1 in early learning initiatives promises future gains of $8.60 in reduced poverty, lower incarceration rates and better health outcomes. Unlike your table at Thanksgiving, investing now in creating opportunities for the next generation makes the pie bigger.
As we enter the holiday season, let us embrace the spirit of civil rights leaders before us, who recognized the importance of charity and generosity while also organizing upstream to put an end to systemic inequality and injustice. The politics of division, designed to prey on people’s fears and exploit stereotypes, are effective only if we fail to remember our hopes and dreams for the future share a common desire to better ourselves and provide for our families.
The Rev. Erica N. Williams is the national social justice organizer for the North Carolina-based nonprofit Repairers of the Breach, where she is a lead organizer for the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Follow on Twitter @AExquisitePearl.