Do We Need a Poor People's Coming-Out Movement?

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The Nation

Do We Need a Poor People's Coming-Out Movement?

Governor Andrew Cuomo says raising the minimum wage in New York is harder than passing marriage equality. Is that true? Is it spin? If we were to say it’s true—is it all about money, or could it be that there’s something we need, namely a coming-out movement about poverty in America?

Democrats in the New York State Assembly have passed a bill to raise the minimum wage from the federal $7.25 to $8.50 an hour. Last week, during a Capitol press conference, the governor said this is probably where the bill is stuck at least for this session. There’s likely to be no passing a minimum wage hike through the Republican-controlled Senate, the issue’s just too divisive, said the governor. Isn’t this the same savvy politician who last year convinced four Senate Republicans to pass a bill legalizing same-sex marriage? Cuomo insisted that this time it’s different.

“This is broader and a deeper divide,” Cuomo said. “Marriage, in some ways, was more of a personal judgment for people on their personal values.

There’s certainly a case to be made that the governor could apply himself more forcefully to the task of raising the wage. (Although the speaker wouldn’t like it, he could for example, hike the wage by order of the state Labor Department.) It’s also true that where politics is concerned, deeply held beliefs are usually less relevant than deep pockets. Most LGBT activists aren’t well-to-do—but some are, and they knew how to use it. The wage-raisers, by contrast, may have the popular will on their side, but they’re up against an entire Chamber of Commerce–funded army of opinion shapers, propagandists and paid-off politicians who argue that living wages lead to dead business. They’re up against the well financed spin, and they’re up against the already freaked-out business owners who believe it.

All that having been said, can we talk for a moment about the words “personal” and “poverty”? “Silence=Death,” said the movement against AIDS. “Come Out! Come Out!” said the gay liberation movement. The movement for LGBT equality pushed itself from the margins to the mainstream against a tide of powerful politicians and a whole host of big-mouth churches with one simple message: we are your sisters and your brothers. Hollywood and TV helped, but making LGBT lives real took real, personal, coming out: at work, in schools and, yes, in Washington and in state politics.

In the United States today, some 103 million Americans live in or near poverty. Over half of all the jobs in our country pay $34,000 per year or less (barely twice the poverty line for a family of three). While the rich have become super-rich, 6 million Americans are living on an income of only food stamps. It’s incredible that we tolerate for a minute the reality of 6 million of us living on food stamps alone. Yet we do, says Peter Edelman—a former senior staffer for Robert F. Kennedy who served in the Clinton administration until he resigned to protest welfare reform. He believes we tolerate it largely because the poor tend to blame themselves or believe they’re alone. I suspect it’s because we’re experiencing a new kind of segregation. Somehow, neither policy makers nor opinion makers seem to know enough poor people well enough to feel them, living and breathing.

A working-class coming-out movement: do you think it’s possible? I had a chance to interview Edelman, on May 22 at the Soros Foundation, about his new book, So Rich So Poor, Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America. A video of our entire conversation appears at GRITtv.org.

Laura Flanders

Laura is YES! Magazine's 2013 Local Economies Reporting Fellow and is executive producer and founder and host of "GRITtv with Laura Flanders." Follow her on Twitter @GRITlaura.

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