The coming election of our next United States Senator from Massachusetts once again highlights the choices we make as citizens in a democracy.
As candidates, your job is to state your position on the crucial issues of our time. As voters, our job is to probe and make sense of the information you provide before we decide who can best represent us.
Over the past months, we have been doing just that. We have reviewed your campaign literature, your websites, and your speeches. To our dismay, we find scant evidence of interest in the most searing moral issue of the day: alarming levels of poverty coupled with the demonization of those in need.
Scott Brown, you claim to champion working people. Yet surely you must realize that many people who work hard in our state still cannot bring their family income above the poverty level. Your attack on our state’s human service officials for finally meeting their legal requirements to advise welfare recipients of their voting rights is especially odious in its implication that those in need of public assistance do not deserve important information necessary for full participation in a democracy
Elizabeth Warren, your commitment to middle-class families who struggle with the fallout from subprime mortgages and unwarranted foreclosures is admirable. But you must understand that a just society requires more than “leveling the playing field for the middle class.” Surely those who have never owned homes, indeed those who have no home at all, merit our equally passionate attention.
Why the silence about poverty in our state when our poorest citizens find themselves invisible, increasingly stigmatized by policies, regulations, and media stories that assume those who can’t make it have only themselves to blame for their difficulties?
Massachusetts is now tied with Arizona as the two states with the highest income gap between rich and poor. In 1979, the average income of the wealthiest 20% of Massachusetts families was $136,099; today, it is $194,899, an increase of 43%. During these years, the average income of the poorest 20% has remained at just a little above $22,000, the poverty level for a family of four.
This expanding income gap is unacceptable. Persistent poverty and our failure to address it both pose severe threats to our civic culture.
As we enter the final months before the election, we seek answers from you to questions that your campaigns should address equally with the concerns of the middle class:
- What do you propose to do to improve the lives of the 1 in 9 (more than 700,000) Massachusetts citizens who, as of 2010, were living below the poverty line?
- An even greater proportion, 1 in 7 (14.3%) of Massachusetts children are living in poverty. , How would you help these children live better lives?
- Deep poverty (defined as an annual income of less than half the official poverty level) is endured by 1 in 20 (5.3%) of Massachusetts citizens. What steps would you take to ease their dire circumstances?
- While Congress argues about how deeply to cut the SNAP (food stamp) budget, increasing numbers of Massachusetts citizens are experiencing food insecurity. What will you do to increase rather than cut the food stamp budget so that it meets the needs of the growing number of our state’s residents (700,000 in 2011) who struggle every day to put food on the table?
- In Massachusetts, over 3,700 families with children are homeless, double the number recorded in 1990. As access to shelter becomes more and more difficult, more than 1,700 homeless families are living in hotels and motels. Increasing numbers – now reaching 50% of those who applied in the first five months of 2012 – have been denied any form of emergency assistance. What would you do to ensure immediate access to shelter and a pathway to permanent housing for homeless families in Massachusetts?
We are living in a harsh and punitive age. Whatever safety net exists, it does not protect the numbers in need. We appear to have abandoned the idea of a society based on an ethic of compassion in favor of one based on bullying those who are struggling to survive.
We want to live in a Commonwealth where everyone is treated with respect, where no one has to beg to make ends meet. We seek leaders who reject measures which label those in need of public assistance as unworthy, pit citizens against one another, blame the poor for their poverty, and undermine our common humanity.
We need policies which ensure that every Massachusetts resident’s basic needs are adequately met. We need leaders ready and willing to put the goal of enacting such policies at the top of their “to do” list. We urge you to break your silence about poverty now and assert the right of all citizens to a life free from want.
The authors collected information for this letter from Project Bread’s 2011 Status Report on Hunger, the Mass Budget and Policy Center, the Mass Law Reform Institute, and the Mass Coalition for the Homeless. It also appears in the Sept. 2012 Newsletter of the Poor People’s United Fund (ppuf.org).
Vicky Steinitz coordinates Cambridge United for Justice with Peace. Anne Wheelock is an independent researcher who writes about inequality and education policy in Massachusetts. You can reach them via email at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively.