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USA feature: Poverty in the world's richest country
"LIFE, LIBERTY, and the Pursuit of Happiness." This is supposedly what the dream of America offers, but does this hold true for the 35.9 million Americans living in poverty today, according to the 2004 U.S. Census Bureau report?
Felicia Newhouse Socialist Alternative
The report also says that in 2003, the number of Americans living in poverty rose by 1.3 million people, to 12.5% of the population.
These numbers are appalling, but what is more disturbing is the number of people of colour, single mothers, and children who are hit the hardest. 24% of African Americans and 22.5% of Latinos live below the official poverty line, nearly twice the national rate.
Of all the "family groups" in the Census report, poverty is highest among single mothers. 28% of female-headed families are living in poverty, compared with 5.4% of two-parent households.
The Children's Defense Fund recently released The State of America's Children 2004, examining how children are faring in the US, and the figures are disgraceful. One in six children today lives in poverty. One in eight - 9.3 million - children have no health insurance. And up to 13 million children live in households suffering from hunger or "food insecurity without hunger."
How could the wealthiest nation in the world have the highest poverty rate of all industrialised countries? It seems asinine that the richest country in history cannot take care of the needs of the majority of its own population. But under this brutal capitalist system, it is only corporations and the wealthy that are taken care of.
In 2003, the top 50 outsourcing corporations paid their chief executives (CEOs) an average of $10.4 million, a nearly 50% increase from a year before.
At 70 of the 100 largest companies, the average CEO pay was 384 times the average employee wage in 2003. And now the gulf between the wealthiest fifth of the population and the poorest fifth has become the widest on record at the U.S. Census Bureau.
But perhaps the statistic that exposes the class structure of our society the most is that the richest 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 95% (www.CommonDreams.org , 14 September.)
This gulf between rich and poor cannot keep widening without eventually causing social explosions. Working-class Americans won't accept falling living standards forever. We simply can't afford to. We have to fight back.
Working women's next battleground
MANY PEOPLE in the US know we still have a long way to go to achieve workplace equality here. But what many people do not realise is that the problem is getting worse, not better.
Jessica Johnston Socialist Alternative
Despite decades of women struggling for equal pay and slowly closing the gender wage gap, the disparity actually increased from 2002 to 2003. Among full-time year-round workers, women's median earnings dropped from 77% of men's to 76% according to the Census Bureau.
A recent report by the Institute for Women's Policy Research shows that the average income from 1983 to 1998 of all women aged 26 to 59 was only 38% of the income of men of the same ages.
This earnings disparity results from workplace discrimination, the added burden of taking care of families, and the type of jobs that women typically have. While women make up 48% of the national workforce, they are the majority of workers in the service industry - particularly concentrated in traditionally 'female' jobs.
In 2001, women employees made up 69% of those in education services, 82% of social service employees, 77% of hospital employees, and 51% of all retail employees. These industries typically pay less than manufacturing jobs, which are predominantly held by men.
More than 55% of all contingent workers (i.e. temporary, contractual, or part-time) were employed in the service sector. These workers are often treated as disposable, quickly fired if they get sick or have to stay home with a sick child.
Healthcare, pensions, and other benefits such as paid vacation and parental leave are often not available to these workers. In 2001, around 91% of all contingent employees received no healthcare coverage from their employer.
Women workers bear the brunt of this economic insecurity as they make up 55% of temporary workers and 70% of part-time workers.
Unfortunately, more and more workers have to rely on these low-paying, insecure jobs because corporations are trying to downsize the good-paying union jobs.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, more than three million manufacturing jobs in the US have disappeared since 1998, and the wages of jobs being created are, on average, 21% lower than the jobs that are lost. If this trend continues, by 2010 about 30% of U.S. workers will be making less than poverty wages, according to the US Department of Labor.
WOMEN STILL do the majority of housework and childcare, so these low wages, lack of benefits, and job insecurity hit women even harder than men. Because of this, many women (especially those with children) have a very hard time making ends meet on their own, and are often forced to remain economically dependent on men, even if they are abusive.
The concentration of women in low-paying, part-time jobs also goes hand in hand with sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. A good example of this is Wal-Mart, which is facing the largest class-action lawsuit in US history, representing every woman hired by the store since 1998 (1.6 million women).
Supporters of the lawsuit found that women workers at Wal-Mart earned 6.2% less than men in similar jobs. Women constitute 72% of the company's workforce, yet men hold 90% of the managerial positions (ksworkbeat.org). The atmosphere inside Wal-Mart is rife with sexism, with business trips that include stops at strip clubs and mandatory managerial meetings at Hooters (a restaurant chain run on overtly sexist lines - eds).
The women's movement over the past century made a lot of headway in undermining the discrimination and exploitation of women, but there is still much that needs to be changed.
Corporations in the expanding service sector are getting away with such inhumane work practices because the labour movement has not yet carried out successful union drives throughout the service sector.
Beth Shulman, a former United Food and Commercial Workers vice-president, explains: "Take autoworkers, who had horrible jobs that became good ones because of unions and social legislation. The same thing must happen with currently low-paying service-sector jobs. In Las Vegas, for example, the housekeeper represented by the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees has decent wages and benefits thanks to unionisation."
Workers who organise unions raise their pay and benefits, reduce discrimination and sexual harassment, and narrow the income gap for people of colour and women. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, union workers earn 27% more than non-union workers. Union women earn 33% more than non-union women; African American union members earn 35% more than their non-union counterparts; and for Latino workers, the union advantage is 51%.
The Service Employees International Union is the fastest growing union in the country, but solving the problems women face will require, at minimum, a determined struggle to unionise the biggest corporations in the service sector - particularly companies like Wal-Mart that set such low standards for wages and workers' rights.
Forming unions and organising mass strikes and rallies has proved to win concrete gains in the daily lives of women and all workers. Working men and women share a common struggle - it's in our mutual interest to defend the rights of women and all workers.
In The Socialist 11 December 2004:
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