Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day: We are the Majority

Today, the Community College of Vermont is participating in Blog Action Day 2008. This annual nonprofit event aims to unite people around the world on one issue on the same day. This year's topic is poverty. Messages from several members of the CCV community will be posted here throughout the day. The following post is submitted by Amy E. Stuart, LiCSW, a Coordinator of Academic Services at CCV Burlington.

First some disclosures: When I was growing up people never talked about how much money they “made.” Ostensibly, parents considered talk about income “impolite.” I knew early on I was a member of what is called the “upper middle class.” My dad, a dentist through my childhood, easily earned what would now be about $150,000/year. I liked that my parents taught me to save some of the money I received (birthday gifts) or earned (from my summer job). I also liked that my parents taught me to share the money I had. I didn’t have to get a job to help my family pay the bills – ever.

Now I am a full-time employed woman, married to a full-time employed man.
I earned a Master of Social Work degree in 1989; my husband earned a Master of Education degree in 1998. I am a step-mother to two school aged girls whom we care for every other week. Our gross household income was about $67,000 in 2007.

The income for 87% of all households in the United States in 2007 was less than $100,000/year. Smack-in-the-middle middle income households earned between $36,000 and $57,657. The poverty level for a family of four in 2007 equaled $21,200 or less. I spent one year of my life from Sep. 1984 through Aug. 1985 as a Jesuit Volunteer earning $365/month. And, while during that year I was “living simply” (college-educated speak for living on a very low monthly income) I really have no experience living in poverty. I don’t write about poverty from personal experience. I do write about poverty from what others have taught me through their stories and research.

For a class I taught at the Community College of Vermont, I assigned a journal article from the May, 1999 issue of Social Work titled “The Likelihood of Poverty across the American Adult Life Span.” Authors Mark R. Rank and Thomas A. Hirschl revealed from longitudinal studies that “…60% of 20 year olds in America will experience poverty at some point during their adult years.” The authors continue, “What this analysis strikingly reveals is that rather than being an event occurring among a small minority of the US population, poverty is an experience that will touch a clear majority of Americans at some point during their adult lifetimes.”

Alarmingly, other studies at that time showed that most of us believe that encountering poverty is a remote possibility, even people who are statistically living in poverty. The implications of such false beliefs contribute to our sense “that won’t happen to me…” and more dangerously to the shame or resentment we often hold towards ourselves or others who need cash assistance, food stamps or other public benefits. The reality is that “those” few of us are actually most of us!

Today we hear daily about the incomes, bonuses and benefit packages of some of the wealthiest executives in our country. We hear how much money millionaires lost in the last 20 minutes. We hear thousands are losing jobs, retirement income and homes. I’m so glad more people are talking about what for some of us used to be considered impolite, even taboo.

I’m having these conversations and I hope you do too. I’m also combining conversations about money with current, clear, unarguable data readily available from the Census Bureau. Speaking the truth rather than silencing ourselves, we are poised to change as-we-know-it economic policy. Economic laws and policies impact my wages, how much I pay for utilities, taxes and tuition, how much I spend on health care and the dollar amount of my individual retirement account… Air currently pours out of the largest hot air balloon – our stock market. Talking together about income, savings, spending and debt will help us create ethical economic policy changes and behavior. By talking openly and clearly about the realities, we’ll be able to create new economic policy on our experiences and needs. We are the majority.

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