Political expectations have slipped in recent decades; people accept things that were once considered unacceptable. Even after last year's tragic bridge collapse in Minneapolis, there seemed to be only a temporary burst of public outrage over bridges that are so structurally deficient that they are too weak to repair -- bridges that could not withstand the stress of bolting on reinforcement plates.
One important area where our society has lowered expectations relates to our acceptance of poverty among working families. It was always part of the American Dream that life would be better for the next generation than for the previous one. "Better off" might be measured in ways other than financial, but few parents in the last couple of generations would have expected that their children would not make enough to pay for food, housing, medical care and other necessities no matter how hard they worked.
Yet today, we have many families with full-time workers who are paid too little to make ends meet. At the end of 2007, about half of all job openings in Minnesota were for jobs that paid less than $11 per hour.
Economic analysis by the Jobs Now Coalition estimates that for the average family of four, with both parents working, each worker must earn at least $12.24 per hour in order to meet basic needs, which they define as "a 'no frills' standard of living: no money for debt payments, entertainment, restaurant meals, vacation, and nothing is set aside for emergencies, retirement or children's college education."
That means more than half of all job openings are for jobs that pay too little for workers to make ends meet, even if both parents are working full time!
Remember when one worker could support an entire family on the wages earned as a janitor or a retail clerk or a milk truck driver?
The situation is getting worse. According to the state demographer, "The number of Minnesotans in extreme poverty, below 50% of the poverty line, grew from about 154,000 in 2000 to about 194,000 in 2005." One in 27 Minnesotans lives in extreme poverty.
Yet despite political promises, some politicians are making the situation worse. This year's budget made significant cuts in health and human services that help poor, sick and disabled people.
It cannot be argued that the state is working to ensure that private sector employers pay better wages and provide health benefits to make up for these cuts. If anything, the administration is encouraging the opposite. Last year, when contracting with a private firm to provide food service at the state capitol, the Pawlenty administration selected a company that planned to fire long term employees and replace them with new employees at lower wages and without benefits. The situation is bad and getting worse. Many people are working very hard, but they simply cannot make ends meet for their families.
Think how low our expectations have slipped in recent years.
We have working people who, at the end of the work day, spend the night on cots in church basements because they cannot afford housing. We have families with two working parents who do not have health insurance because they cannot afford the premiums and co-pays.
One mother in northern Minnesota, who has adopted several children with special needs, told me that as they grow up, she hopes to help them learn to be content to be poor because, given her experience, she believes that they will never have the capacity to earn enough to escape poverty!
This is not the American Dream. These are not Minnesota values.
It is not acceptable to deny our neighbors the basic necessities of life. We must not allow this to be acceptable politics in Minnesota.
Two years ago, the legislature created a Commission to End Poverty by 2020, in response to actions taken by people in the faith community. Religious leaders from a wide range of denominations signed a commitment to end poverty, and pushed for creation of the commission. (more information at mnwithoutpoverty.org)
It's time to restore a vision of dignity for all. It's time to change public and private sector policies to bring an end to poverty in Minnesota.
Senator Marty is co-chair of the Legislative Commission to End Poverty by 2020.