In the president's State of the Union address there was an interesting focus on rebuilding America's middle class. As executive director of the Missouri Association for Community Action, a network of 19 anti-poverty agencies statewide, we feel that helping families reach the middle class is our mission. However, the middle class is disappearing as the income disparity between rich and poor widens.
Upward income mobility has decreased to such a point that the United States appears to have the highest rate of income inequality in the industrialized world, according to the Congressional Research Service. "Americans may be less concerned about inequality in the distribution of income at any given point in time partly because of a belief that everyone has an equal opportunity to move up the income ladder," they report.
According to U.S. Census data, 37.7 percent of workers in our state live in poverty. Total poverty numbers last year climbed to over 920,000. Clearly, a job is not all that is required to help an individual move from poverty to prosperity in our country today. Even worse is the fact that most low-income and even middle class families are finding it difficult to pay for critical services such as health care and higher education.
Community Action agencies often are the catalyst to help individuals reach self sufficiency. We provide a variety of emergency services such as energy assistance, food pantries, and housing assistance that keep families stable. Those families, once stabilized, are able to advance up the economic ladder with proactive programs like life skills classes, Head Start, job training, and asset development. These services help bridge the wide gap that exists between "making too much to qualify for help" and "true self sufficiency."
Regardless of your personal political views, it benefits all of our communities to ensure that people have living wage jobs, health care, access to quality education, and social mobility. Unless we, as citizens, find ways of forcing our politicians back to the middle of the road, we are going to wake up and find that our society no longer has a middle class at all, just the rich and the poor with no real way to climb the ladder if you happen to be born at the bottom.