Michelle Singletary: Are we ready for change?

Posted: January 25, 2013

I LISTEN to presidential speeches with an ear to the parts about personal finance. In President Obama's second inaugural address, he made a few interesting points.

The first came when he said, "For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it."

I immediately wondered: Do we as a nation really understand this?

I don't think so. If we did, I wouldn't receive numerous emails from people criticizing programs that help those who fell into the housing sinkhole. Their complaint? Why should those people get help when I did all the right things financially and I don't qualify for anything? The email writers see irresponsible people who don't deserve help. They don't acknowledge the predatory practices that pushed some borrowers into mortgages they couldn't afford.

Obama went on to say: "We believe that America's prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work, when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship."

On his first point I agree. The middle class is the focus of much of the country's attention, but often at the expense of the poor. If we truly cared about the poor, we would have a federal living wage. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. How can families get decent housing, pay for the necessities (food, utilities, transportation) and save for retirement or their kid's college education, as we constantly admonish them to do, on about $15,000 a year on one paycheck? Many two-income households can't make it by on low-wage and even mid-wage salaries.

Advocates from the National Employment Law Project say that the federal standard would be $10.58 an hour if pegged to inflation over the past 40 years. Even at that amount, it would still be tough to make ends meet.

The Law Project released a report last year discussing twin trends during the recession - the loss of mid-wage jobs (occupations with median hourly wages from $13.84 to $21.13) and the growth of lower-wage jobs (median hourly wages from $7.69 to $13.83).

I'm about to send my oldest child off to college. Even if she goes to school in-state, it will cost more than $20,000 a year in tuition, fees, and room and board. How in the world could even a two-income family making minimum wage be able to save more than $80,000 to send their child to college? Yes, they could shave a lot off that cost by having their student attend a community college or pick a commuter-campus school. But it's still a big financial hurdle to jump assuming no other life issues come into play.

Obama also talked about equal pay for women, arguing that "our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts." As the mother of two daughters, I'd like specifics on what more the president hopes to do to eliminate the gender pay gap.

Income inequality is increasingly dividing our country. Many wealthy individuals think less-fortunate people need only to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They arrogantly believe that they have achieved success on their own, though many of these hard-pressed people often don't help their case when they act financially irresponsibly. And yet even when they do make mistakes, we should have compassion and fight to maintain the social safety nets - Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security - that, as Obama said, "do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us."

I've known poverty. But I believed that I could succeed. And I did it. But not alone. I had help. Rising tides do lift all boats. Maybe soon we the people will agree.

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