Maryann Tobin

Poverty is not an issue that lawmakers have been eager to discuss in a political environment dominated by budget cuts and deficit reduction. However, in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama not only addressed the rising poverty rate, he offered a partial solution.

“Tonight," Obama said, "let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.”

Putting a little more money in the pockets of low-skilled workers will not end poverty in America, but it will help get some people off of government-funded food assistance and other programs for the working poor.

However, there was more behind the suggestion of raising the minimum wage. In asking Congress to raise the standards of the working poor, Obama sent a message to CEOs across America that corporations should not be enjoying record profits by paying people so little that the government has to help buy them food.

Obama added, “This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families. It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank, rent or eviction, scraping by or finally getting ahead. For businesses across the country, it would mean customers with more money in their pockets.”

Obama’s call for raising the minimum wage was not as comprehensive as President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty as laid out in his 1964 State of the Union address. Yet it highlighted the fact that there are things government can do to improve living standards for the poor.

Conservatives have put the focus of America’s problems on the federal deficit, which exploded when the George W. Bush administration started two unfunded wars and gave away the Clinton-era surplus in the form of tax cuts, mostly for the wealthiest Americans. Combined with policies that propagated deregulation, a new attitude overtook the country. Making money was all that mattered.

Lost in the excesses of Wall Street that flourished in the 1980s was generation of workers whose shrinking wages created an ever-widening gap between America’s rich and poor.

Low-paying jobs are a symptom of a bigger problem in America. Raising the minimum wage would not be an issue if employers in the 21st century had not forgotten the business plan of automaker Henry Ford, who knew the best way to succeed was to pay his employees enough money to be able to buy the products they were making.

Workers making $9 an hour today are still earning less than middle-class wages. But a pay raise will ease some of the financial struggles of the working poor.

Sources and more info:

US government poverty guidelines

Full transcript of President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address