Ask the Expert: Dr. Michelle Wolkomir
Given America’s wealth, why do millions of citizens still struggle to meet basic nutritional needs?
According to U.S. Census data, over approximately the last four decades, the richest 20 percent (and particularly the top 5 percent) of Americans have accumulated a greater proportion of wealth, leaving the other 80 percent relatively static or declining. Our failure to pay people who work full time a living wage has made it difficult for the poorest Americans to meet basic human needs, and there are two important contributing factors. First, underemployment is a major issue for many workers and families. Many Americans are employed full-time in various jobs yet do not make enough money to lift their families above the poverty line, which suggests a systemic problem with American labor policies and the distribution of wealth.
Second, there seems to be an unfortunate trend of blaming the poor for their situations which reduces income inequality to an individual problem rather than a large scale systemic one. For example, a widespread ideology in America is, “If you work hard enough, then you will succeed.” By extension, those who do not succeed economically thus are perceived as lazy or somehow individually deficient.
Because of these perceptions, many believe that poverty results from individual behavior. They therefore fail to examine how our economic system creates such vast income inequality. If we do not ask this question, we will most certainly continue to blame the poor, applaud the wealthy, and remain blind to how social systems affect national challenges such as hunger.
Dr. Michelle Wolkomir is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Centenary College.