June 25, 2018
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Feed the hungry, house the homeless, but don’t forget a larger solution: A living wage

By Larry Dansinger, Special to the BDN

Tis the season of giving. Besides holiday presents, many Maine people chip into bell ringers’ kettles, cook dinners for homeless people and donate to and prepare food baskets for those who are struggling to get by.

Sadly, the problems of poverty, hunger and homelessness continue every year and are getting worse. Why? It’s partly because holiday efforts only mitigate the struggle for low-income people temporarily. Temporary mitigation does not lead to solutions to these problems. In some cases, the agencies that do mitigation only hide the true solution; we give to them thinking they are working on solutions when they are not.

If we want to solve these problems, we have to address the root causes, not just the symptoms. Giving food doesn’t solve the hunger or poverty problems. Having a well-paying, living-wage job or enough entitlement income does. Providing a shelter doesn’t solve the homelessness problem. Having a large supply of affordable, permanent housing, some of which is rented based on a percentage of a person’s income, does.

Solutions must involve changes in public policies and budget priorities that create and maintain living-wage jobs and affordable housing. We need to emphasize the community values of respecting all workers and work and put public pressure on decision-makers to ensure everyone has enough for their basic needs. Helping people on an individual level to find a job or a place to live is beneficial for that person, but it doesn’t address the social and public policy problem.

Our economic system causes poverty when a few (the 1 percent) make millions and many (of the other 99 percent) can’t find a job at all, let alone one that pays a living wage so workers don’t need Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or other government programs. Workers at big box stores and fast food restaurants, owned by wealthy corporations, have been striking around the country and pointing out the absurdity of expecting most people to meet their basic needs on near-minimum-wage pay.

Large corporations are the biggest offenders when it comes to low wages and contributing to poverty. Their first priority is to their stockholders, not to their employees, so they pay their employees poverty wages. That leaves governments and the public to pick up the rest of the tab. The recent food drive for Walmart employees in Ohio is an example of how big boxes contribute to poverty instead of being a solution for it.

If we want this cycle of poverty, people with no permanent homes and a dysfunctional economy to end, we have to do more than simply support groups doing temporary mitigation. Here are a few things we all can do:

— Help to restructure the economy by supporting businesses, when possible, that pay their workers a living wage (estimated at $15 per hour) plus benefits and not shopping at those that don’t. That usually means patronizing some locally based businesses, cooperative/worker owned businesses and union-organized workplaces.

— Assist workers trying to unionize to gain livable wages, benefits and safe working conditions and to bargain collectively with their employers.

— For those who need a job, get together with others to create cooperatively owned businesses or partnerships where all workers have a say in how the business is run.

— Make donations to those groups that either combine the mitigation they do with addressing the root causes of poverty, hunger and homelessness, or focus their efforts on solutions. Give to groups like Food AND Medicine in Brewer, which does provide food to laid-off workers but also supports worker rights and organizing. Lobbying organizations on behalf of low-income people such as the Maine Association of Interdependent Neighborhoods or affordable housing groups such as Habitat for Humanity are other examples.

— Urge groups that do only or primarily mitigation to devote a lot more of their time and money to solutions, such as supporting workers seeking a living wage and programs to build affordable housing.

In this season of giving, it’s important to use our donations effectively, not just for temporary mitigation but for long-term solutions as well.

Larry Dansinger lives in Monroe and works with groups for economic human rights.

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