Poverty & Inequality in the World's Richest Nation: A Resource for Study and Citizen Action

November 3, 2010

Student readings and discussion questions explore 1) the growth of U.S. poverty; 2) multiple perspectives on the causes, effects, and proposed solutions of poverty; 3) the historic levels of inequality; 4) multiple perspectives on the causes and effects of inequality and some proposed solutions; and 5) how to interpret the Constitution's injunction "to provide for the general welfare." Suggestions for developing a class project follow.

By Alan Shapiro

To the Teacher:
This is a time when millions of Americans are unemployed, underemployed, or have given up trying to be employed. Millions more are "underwater,"— foreclosed or waiting to be foreclosed. Poverty and inequality have reached levels never before seen in this country. It is obviously a teachable moment, but not so obviously a moment for active student learning and citizenship.
The student readings below offer resources on the growth of U.S. poverty (Reading l); multiple perspectives on the causes, effects, and proposed solutions of poverty (Reading 2); the historic levels of inequality (Reading 3); multiple perspectives on the causes and effects of inequality and some proposed solutions (Reading 4); and a look at various interpretations of the constitutional injunction "to provide…for the general welfare." (Reading 5)
Discussion questions, some of which might lead to student inquiry, follow each reading.
Concluding the materials is "Teaching social responsibility and developing citizens," a response to John Dewey's view that "never in the life of the farmer, sailor, merchant, physician or laboratory experimenter, does knowledge mean primarily a store of information aloof from doing." (Quoted in Ted Sizer's Horace's Compromise)

Student Reading 1: 


Three snapshots in the world's richest nation
"Marcus Vogt is 20 years old and homeless. Or, as he puts it, 'I'm going through a couch-surfing phase.' Recently, a car accident injury left him unable to work. With no income and no health insurance, he quickly found himself unable to pay the rent. Even meals were hard to come by."
New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert met Vogt at a food pantry and soup kitchen in Wallingford, CT. Vogt is now back at work—at Wal-Mart. But he said it would take a few months of paychecks before he could rent a room. "He told me that his cell phone service has been cut off and he has more than $3,000 in medical bills outstanding," wrote Herbert.
Herbert views Vogt's situation as "quite a statement about real life in the United States in the 21st century." On the same day Herbert spoke with Vogt, Forbes magazine came out with its list of the "400 most outrageously rich Americans." ("We Haven't Hit Bottom Yet," www.nytimes.com, 9/25/10)
"Danise Sanders, 31, and her three children have been sleeping in the living room of her mother and sister's one-bedroom apartment in San Pablo, Calif., for the last month, with no end in sight. They doubled up after the bank foreclosed on her landlord, forcing her to move. 'It's getting harder,' said Ms. Sanders, who makes a low income as a mail clerk. 'We're all pitching in for rent and bills.'" (Erik Eckholm, "Recession Raises Poverty Rate to a 15-Year High," www.nytimes.com, 9/16/10)
Reporter Andy Kroll met Rick Rembold in a parking lot of an aircraft parts manufacturer in South Bend, Indiana. Rembold roared up on his '99 Suzuki motorcycle to apply for a job he was not going to get. Living in Mishawaka, Indiana, he has spent most of his adult life working on RVs, eighteen years with an Elkhart (Indiana) manufacturer of wood products used in RVs and conversion vans. But RVs took a hard hit from the recession, and Rembold lost his job last December.
In June Rembold joined the growing number of people are officially"long-term unemployed"—because it had been six months since his last paycheck. Given the sharp decline in Elkhart RV work, the uncertainty about whether it will be as profitable as it was anytime soon, and his age, 56, Rembold is in serious trouble. "I can't afford my home at $8 or $10 an hour," he said. Right now, Kroll reports, Rembold is getting by on unemployment checks, a dwindling inheritance from his mother, and loans from family members." ("Unemployed: Stranded on the Sidelines of a Jobs Crisis," www.tomdispatch.com, 10/5/10)

'A collective failure of will'
  • 6.76 million Americans — or 46% of the unemployed — were categorized as long-term unemployed in June 2010, the most since 1948, when the statistic was first recorded. In June 2007, 1.3 million were in this category. 
  • Another 1.1 million Americans had given up looking for work by August 2010, bringing the total number of unemployed to almost 8 million.
  • "The symptoms of collective impoverishment are all about us. Broken highways, bankrupt cities, collapsing bridges, failed schools, the unemployed, the underpaid, and the uninsured: all suggest a collective failure of will," wrote historian Tony Judt. ("Ill Fares the Land," The New York Review, 4/29/10)

44 million Americans officially in poverty

If the yearly income for a family of four is under about $22,000, the government considers the family to be living in poverty. An individual living alone would have to make about $10,000 or less. By this standard, the Census Bureau recently counted almost 44 million people in the US as poor, the highest number in the 51 years since the Bureau began the count. Millions more avoided poverty only because of such government programs as expanded unemployment insurance and food stamps or by other measures, such as living with relatives.
But research organizations view Census Bureau numbers as unreasonably low. For instance, the Center for Economic and Policy Research presents evidence that a family of four needs $45,000-$50,000 per year to get by. One out of every three people in the US now fall short of this amount. (www.cepr.net)
  • 15 million Americans are unemployed and either sinking into or already in poverty. Forty percent of them have been unemployed for more than half a year, a modern record. Millions more are working part-time when they need full-time work or have given up looking for jobs after months of trying, and failing, to find one. 
  • As many as 3 million Americans are homeless. In August 2010, 95,000 homes went into foreclosure, adding to the numbers of people in poverty or on the edge. Many of these people had been middle class. 
  • New figures show that 1.4 million children under 18 recently joined the 13.6 million children who were already in poverty.
"In contrast to their parents and grandparents, children today…in the US have very little expectation of improving upon the condition into which they were born. Economic disadvantage for the overwhelming majority translates into ill health, missed educational opportunities, and, increasingly, the familiar symptoms of depression: alcoholism, obesity, gambling, and minor criminality."(Tony Judt)
"Poverty isn't simply about not having enough money. Its tentacles slither into all aspects of family life. It is psychologically draining, it can ruin health and relationships, and children often feel the weight of their parents' despair. Some people find it too humiliating to ask for help, and quietly slide further and further downward." (Editorial, North Jersey Record, www.Northjersey.com)
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What evidence is there that increasing numbers of Americans are becoming poor? What do you know about why poverty has increased?
3. What standard is there for determining how many Americans live in poverty? What criticisms of that standard are there? If you want to know more, how might you find out?
4. Judt writes: "The symptoms of collective impoverishment are all about us" and "suggest a collective failure of will." Do you agree? Why or why not? If you think you need more information, how might you find it?

Student Reading 2: 

Theories on the origins of poverty & how to reduce it 

1. Corporate relocation and the decline of unions
"There are three chief reasons why the $3 trillion has been sucked upward," writes Roger Bybee:
"First: US corporations have used the threat of relocation to Mexico or China to ratchet down US wages."
"Second, millions of Americans have lost the right to bargain over their wages as heavily-unionized manufacturing plants have been shut down and often relocated in low-wage nations. We have lost 5.6 million industrial jobs—about 32% of the total—since 2000 alone.
"Third, the right to form unions has suffered a de facto repeal. Employers realize that they can intimidate and fire pro-union workers (over 31,000 in 2005 alone)… without repercussions, so an atmosphere of fear and anxiety haunts American workplaces."
(Roger Bybee, In These Times, 5/7/10, www.inthesetimes.com)
2. Fear of visionary public projects
"The Erie Canal, Hoover Dam. The Interstate Highway System. Visionary public projects are part of the American tradition, and have been a major driver of our economic development," writes New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman. "And right now, by any rational calculation, would be an especially good time to improve the nation's infrastructure. We have the need: our roads, our rail lines, our water and sewer system are antiquated and increasingly inadequate.
"We have the resources: a million-and-a-half construction workers are sitting idle, and putting them to work would help the economy as a whole recover from its slump. And the price is right: with interest rates on federal debt at near-record lows, there has never been a better time to borrow for long-term investment.
"But American politics these days is anything but rational….On Thursday (10/7/10), Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, canceled America's most important current public works project, the long-planned and much-needed second rail tunnel under the Hudson River….News reports suggest that his immediate goal was to shift funds to local road projects and existing rail repairs. There were, however, much better ways to raise those funds, such as an increase in the state's relatively low gasoline tax—and bear in mind that whatever motorists gain from low gas taxes will be at least partly undone by pain from the canceled project in the form of growing congestion and traffic delays. But, no, in modern America, no tax increase can ever be justified for any reason."
[Governor Christie is now reconsidering his action.]
(Paul Krugman, "The End of the Tunnel," New York Times, 10/8/10)
3. Too many taxes, too much red tape
The Republican "Pledge to America" (9/23/10) aims to "create jobs, end economic uncertainty, and make America more competitive" as the "first and most urgent domestic priority of our government." The plan includes:
  • "Permanently Stop All Job-Killing Tax Hikes: We will help the economy by permanently stopping all tax increases, currently scheduled to take effect January 1, 2011. That means protecting middle-class families, seniors worried about their retirement, and the entrepreneurs and family-owned small businesses on which we depend to create jobs in America. 
  • "Give Small Businesses a Tax Deduction: We will allow small business owners to take a tax deduction equal to 20 percent of their business income. This will provide entrepreneurs with a much-needed infusion of capital for investment and new hiring. 
  • "Rein In the Red Tape Factory in Washington, DC: Excessive federal regulation is a de facto tax on employers and consumers that stifles job creation, hampers innovation and postpones investment in the economy…. To provide stability, we will require congressional approval of any new federal regulation that has an annual cost to our economy of $100 million or more."
4. Widen the 'circle of prosperity'
The jobs crisis "began decades ago when a new wave of technology—things like satellite communications, container ships, computers and eventually the Internet—made it cheaper for American employers to use low-wage labor abroad or labor-replacing software here at home than to continue paying the typical worker a middle-class wage," writes Robert Reich.
Measures to "widen the circle of prosperity" include:
  • "Exempting the first $20,000 of income from payroll taxes and paying for it with a payroll tax on incomes over $250,000."
  • "Making early childhood education more widely available"
  • "Public universities should be free"
  • " Workers who lose their jobs and have to settle for positions that pay less could qualify for 'earnings insurance' that would pay half the salary difference for two years."
("How to End the Great Recession," New York Times, 9/3/10. Robert Reich was secretary of labor in the Clinton administration and is now a professor of public policy at University of California, Berkeley)
5. Give business confidence to create jobs
"The fastest way to get the economy moving again is to cut spending, pay back the national debt, and make permanent the Bush tax cuts which are due to expire in just a few months," says Sharron Angle, Republican candidate for the Senate in Nevada. "Steps like these would go a long way toward giving the business community the confidence they need to start creating jobs and hiring again. (Angle lost her bid.)
6. Tax cuts, not government spending
"Tea Party members, like voters overall, are very focused on the economy and jobs: 36 percent say it is their top issue," writes Kristen Soltis in the Washington Examiner. "The tea party is a movement defined by its preference for fiscal restraint and low taxes. Presented with two competing proposals to create jobs, four out of five tea party members say tax cuts for small business will create more jobs than increased government spending on infrastructure."(Kristen Soltis, www.washingtonexaminer.com, 4/5/10)
7. The poor don't vote—or contribute to campaigns
"The 'failure of will' is evident on Capitol Hill, even though legislators may believe that poverty is important and a blight on the nation. But we are also up against a general recognition that poor people don't vote in great numbers. And they certainly aren't going to be making campaign contributions. That definitely puts them behind many other people and interests when decisions are being made around here."(Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition in Human Needs, a national alliance of advocates for the poor. (www.washingtonpost.com, 9/17/10)
For discussion
1. What "three major reasons" does Bybee offer to explain the growing numbers of poor Americans? What legislation before Congress would promote union organization but does not have the votes to pass? Do you agree with Bybee's reasoning? Why or why not? 
2. What is Krugman's argument for a second rail tunnel under the Hudson River? Why did New Jersey's governor cancel the project? If you need more information, where might you find it? Why does Krugman view current American politics as irrational?
3. During 2001 and 2003, President George W. Bush was president and the Republican-controlled Congress passed tax cuts that will expire on January 1, 2011. Should they be re-approved? Republicans think all the tax cuts should be continued. President Obama and most Democrats think tax cuts or everyone earning less than $250,000 should continue, but that tax cuts for those earning more should be allowed to expire. Why? If you don't know, how might you find out?
4. How might a tax hike lead a small business to cut back on hiring people? The government has regulations covering many areas - food production, medicines, the financial markets, the environment. Name one specific example of a federal regulation that could hurt job creation, hamper innovation or reduce investment in the economy. How might that same regulation, if eliminated, harm people? On balance, do you think this regulation should be continued or repealed? Why? If you need more information, how might you find it?
5. What is Reich's explanation for the origin of the jobs crisis? Consider one example he offers—computers. What are two ways in which computers can result in the loss of jobs in the US? In what other ways might technology produce job loss? If you don't know, how might you find out?
6. Why does Angle think it is essential to cut spending, pay back the national debt and preserve the Bush tax cuts? Why do she and other Republicans support each element of this program? If you don't know, how might you find out?
7. Why do Tea Party members prefer tax cuts over government spending?
8. Why does Weinstein conclude that poor people don't get much attention from Congress?
9. Which arguments to explain poverty and/or ideas about what to do about it make the most sense to you and why? Can you think of any others that the reading does not mention?

Student Reading 3: 

Inequality growing in America

The rich get richer while the poor—and the middle class—get poorer. This trend has continued over the past 30 years. But the gap between the rich and everyone else has grown especially rapidly since the beginning of a severe economic downturn that began in the fall of 2008.
"The new face of poverty," Jesse Jackson writes, "includes autoworkers whose jobs have been shipped abroad, never to return; it includes young college graduates working in minimum-wage jobs while living back home, unable to find jobs worthy of their educations; it includes former welfare-to-work mothers, now laid off because of the recession, with no safety net to help keep them going." (www.huffingtonpost.com, 9/21/10)
Support for this view comes from government reports. More than 70 percent of Americans 40 or older feel the negative effects of the deep recession, according to the Population Reference Bureau. Another finding is that "the net worth of the average American household has shrunk by about 20 percent—the greatest such decline since the end of World War II." (Judith Warner, New York Times Magazine, (8/8/10)
This "new face of poverty" is part of the country's growing economic inequality. Inequality in America is not new. The income tax was created almost 100 years ago, in part because of fears that the growth of mega-rich families like the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Mellons, and Carnegies might "turn the United States into a European-style aristocracy….In American history, there has never been a time when class warfare seemed more imminent," Timothy Noah writes in Slate.
Back then, the richest 1 percent took 18 percent of the nation's income.That figure dropped somewhat, then climbed again until the 1929 crash. "Incomes started to become more equal in the 1930s and then became dramatically more equal in the 1940s," Noah writes. "Income distribution remained roughly stable through the postwar economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s." By the 1970s, the richest 1 percent accounted for 8 to 9 percent of all income.
Income inequality grew through the 1980s, slackened briefly at the end of the 1990s, and then resumed with a vengeance in the new century.
In 2007, the last year for which figures are available, "the richest 1 percent took 24 percent of the nation's income." The richest one-tenth of l percent took about half of that." ("The United States of Inequality," www.slate.com, 9/3/10)
  • During the last 30 years US productivity rose by about 20 percent and generated increased total income. The richest 1 percent of Americans took 80 percent of that increased income while middle and lower income Americans took practically none.
  • The top-earning 20 percent of Americans (making more than $100,000) received almost 50 percent of all income while those in poverty made 3.4 percent, according to the latest Census Bureau study. The U.S. now has the most income inequality of all Western industrialized nations. (www.huffingtonpost.com, 9/28/10) 
  • "By and large, an average CEO made in one day what a worker made in the entire year." (Ananya Mukherjee-Reed, "US Poverty Data Tells Only Half the Story," www.commondreams.org, 9/23/10)
The result, says Noah: "Economically speaking, the richest nation on earth is starting to resemble a banana republic."
"Why don't Americans pay more attention to growing income disparity?" he asks. "One reason may be our enduring belief in social mobility. Economic inequality is less troubling if you live in a country where any child, no matter how humble his or her origins, can grow up to be president….But when it comes to real as opposed to imagined social mobility, surveys find less in the United States than in much of the class-bound Old World. France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Spain—not to mention some newer nations like Canada and Australia—are all places where your chances of rising from the bottom are better than they are in the land of Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick." (Noah)
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What evidence is there in the reading for the reading's opening statement: "The rich get richer while the poor—and the middle class—get poorer"?
3. Why does Jesse Jackson think we are seeing a "new face of poverty"?
4. Identify: Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Mellon, Carnegie. How did each of these people become so rich? What did these people have to do with the origins of the income tax? If you don't know, how might you find out? 
5. Define: "banana republic." Why do you think Noah writes that the US has begun to resemble one?
6. Define "social mobility."
7. Answer Noah's question: "Why don't Americans pay more attention to growing income disparity?"
8. Who was Horatio Alger? If you don't know, how might you find out? What is Noah's purpose in referring to Alger?

Student Reading 4: 

Inequality: views on causes, effects, remedies

1. Reducing inequality is the key to economic recovery.
"Rising inequality…increases of difficulties of mounting a sustainable recovery. The logic is simple. When the overall amount of income produced in an economy is shared broadly, more people have money in their pockets to spend, which bolsters demand in the markets and encourages private businesses to invest more. This leads to expanding employment opportunities, which then strengthens market demand further. Conversely, when an excessive share of an economy's overall income is concentrated at the top, then more money gets channeled into the Wall Street casino. This sets the stage for the financial collapse we experienced in 2008-2009." (Robert Pollin, author and professor of economics at U. Massachusetts, The Nation, 9/27/10)
2. The Census overstates the level of economic inequality.
"On the surface, the Census figures appear lucid and easily understandable. However, the conventional Census data are marred by four problems that lead to an overstatement of the level of economic inequality:
  • Conventional Census income figures are incomplete and omit many types of cash and non-cash income.
  • The conventional Census figures do not take into account the equalizing effects of taxation.
  • The Census quintiles actually contain unequal number of persons, a fact that greatly magnifies the apparent level of economic inequality.
  • Differences in income are substantially affected by large differences in the amount of work performed within each quintile, yet these differences in work effort are rarely acknowledged."

(Rea Hederman, Jr. and Robert Rector, "Two Americas: One Rich, One Poor? Understanding Income Inequality in the United States," www.heritage.org, 8/24/04)

3. Inequality is corrosive.
"Inequality is corrosive. It rots societies from within. The impact of material differences takes a while to show up: but in due course competition for status and goods increases; people feel a growing sense of superiority (or inferiority) based on their possessions; prejudice toward those on the lower rungs of the social ladder hardens; crime spikes and the pathologies of social disadvantage become ever more marked. The legacy of unregulated wealth creation is bitter indeed." (Tony Judt)
4. Inequality largely stems from our poor education system.
"The most commonly cited culprits for the income inequality in Americaoutsourcing, immigration and the gains of the super-richare diversions from the main issue. Instead, the problem is largely one of [a lack of] education.
"The extent of outsourcing, for instance, is not yet high enough to have much effect on American wages…. The problem isn't so much capitalism as it is that American lower education does not prepare enough people to receive gains from American higher education.
What is needed are "changes at multiple levels, including additional college aid, more accessible community colleges, easier financial aid forms, more serious attempts to identify and retain top teachers in high schools and school voucher experiments.
"It doesn't suffice simply to increase the number of people in college; rather the new students must be prepared to learn. There is, however, no single magic bullet."
(Tyler Cowen, "Why Is Income Inequality in America So Pronounced?" www.nytimes.com, 5/17/07)
5. Inequality results from policies that can be changed.
"Reagan-era policies [were] intended to weaken the power of ordinary workers" through weakening their unions.
"Some of the remedies are well-known. Restoring some discipline to CEO pay would be a great first step. One way would be to…require that compensation packages be approved by stockholders….A small tax on financial speculation would go a long way toward moderating the multimillion-dollar salaries on Wall Street….Finally, unions have long been a major force in reducing inequality. Whatever can be done to protect the right to organize and allow workers the option of joining unions will help to reduce inequality.
"It is not difficult to develop policies to reduce the inequality that has given us a crisis-prone economy. The problem is getting the political will."
(Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, The Nation, July 19/26/10)
6. Employers stopped raising wages, despite productivity gains. 
"There is no mystery about why income inequality got so much worse. The real wages of average workers stopped rising during the 1970s (after having risen for a century or more). Meanwhile those workers' productivity rose. They produced ever more goods and services for their employers to sell, but their employers no longer had to raise their wages to get that work from them. Employers and those they support (share-holders, top managers, professionals, etc.) thus "earned" ever more as workers' incomes stagnated. That top 10 percent got an ever bigger share of the total national income, while the other 90 per cent of us were left with an ever smaller share.
"The problem is that huge numbers of American workers did not know, nor were they informed, why they were falling ever further behind the wealthy top 10 per cent. They did not understand that their decline flowed from the changed social conditions (especially the computers that replaced so many jobs and the jobs employers moved out of the US to lower wage locations). Employers took advantage of those changed social conditions to stop raising the wages paid to their US employees. Nothing personal; it was just business."
(Richard Wolff, Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of Massachusetts, www.rdwolff.com, 2/4/10)
7. There's no silver bullet for inequality.
"Over the long term, there's no silver bullet. A lot of things need to be done, from much better education systems and better access for low-income students to higher education and improvements in certain assistance programs. More important than those would be stellar performance by the economy. If we were able to get the unemployment rate back below 5 percent, the impact over the long term would be very big, not only because more people have jobs and people at the bottom are more likely to get hired, [but] also because, when you have full employment, it has upward wage pressure at the bottom."
(Robert Greenstein, executive director, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, www.washingtonpost.com, 9/16)
For discussion
1. How does Pollin support his conclusion that rising inequality hinders an economic recovery? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?
2. Why, according to the Heritage Foundation, do Census figures overstate the level of economic inequality? Consider its argument that taxation has "equalizing effects." How would you determine the accuracy of this statement?
3. What specific results does inequality produce in societies, according to Judt? What do you think he means specifically by "the pathologies of social disadvantage"? Do you agree? Why or why not?
4. Why does Cowen think that inequality is largely the product of a lack of education? What would he do about it? Would you propose anything else?
5. How does Baker agree with Bybee? What specific measures does he support to reduce inequality? How effective do you think they would be and why?
6. How and why does Wolff agree with Reich?
7. How and why does Greenstein agree with Cowen?
8. Which arguments to explain inequality and/or do something about it make the most sense to you and why? Can you think of any others that the reading does not mention?

Student Reading 5: 

Providing for the "general welfare of the United States"

Preamble to the Constitution: "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution: "The Congress shall have the power [to] provide for the…general welfare of the United States."
Ever since the Constitution came into effect in 1788, there have been questions and disagreements about what produces the "general welfare of the United States."
In May 1787, a group of men came to Philadelphia and for almost four months worked to turn a confederation of states into a closer union that became the United States of America. These founders are usually regarded with reverence today. But they were also fallible human beings who disagreed with one another, ultimately compromised on major issues, made the best decisions they thought they could, and left problems for future generations.
Under the Articles of Confederation, each of the states was independent. What kind of representation in a new national legislature would be fair? Delegates from big states and small states disagreed but ultimately reached a compromise. In the House of Representatives, where representation would be decided on the basis of population, the big states would have the advantage. But each state would have two senators, giving the small states equality in the Senate.
What seemed best for the general welfare in 1787 when the population of the new United States was much smaller may not seem the best today. In 1790, New York's population was something over five times larger that Delaware's. Today it is more like 20 times larger. Yet, both states still have two senators, which means that a New York citizen's vote for the Senate is worth about 1/20th of a Delaware citizen's.
The Constitution went into effect in 1788, but omitted specific guarantees of such rights as freedom of speech and of the press. The first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were added in 1789. But these rights do not necessarily explain themselves. Should freedom of speech and press be given a meaning that secures "the blessings of liberty" to corporations to spend as much money as they want to run commercials on political issues during an election campaign? The Supreme Court recently voted yes in a very controversial 5-4 answer to this question.
How specific could the founders have been on what it means to "promote the general welfare"?
The list of congressional powers in Article I, Section 8 does not include a federal minimum wage. Two hundred and twenty-two years later some political candidates in the 2010 elections think the federal government has become too big and assumes powers the founders did not grant it. Senatorial candidates Joe Miller in Alaska and John Raese in West Virginia and Oregon gubernatorial candidate Chris Dudley all argue that the federal minimum wage is unconstitutional and should be repealed. They point to Amendment 10 of the Constitution: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."
Tea Party members have made similar arguments recently to oppose the federal bailout of banks and provision of economic stimulus money.
The struggle for general welfare legislation, such as the minimum wage, has a long history in the US Workers began their fight to form unions with federal collective bargaining rights in the 1800s, but did not win them until 1935 with passage of the National Labor Relations Act. A struggle by children's advocates to prohibit the employment of children as workers on farms and in factories also began in the 19th century and lasted until 1938 and passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Business interests fought both laws successfully well into the 20th century, arguing that they violated the Constitution.
The general welfare of African-American slaves was not something the founders considered at all. The existence of slaves was recognized as an issue only for the purpose of apportioning representatives to the Congress. Southern legislators were eager to include slaves as part of their population to increase their congressional representation and won a compromise to include each slave as three-fifths of a person. (Article I, Section 2)
African-Americans did not even begin to achieve the right to justice, the general welfare and blessings of liberty promised in the Preamble until slavery was banned (Amendment 13, 1865). Later, all persons "born or naturalized in the United States" became citizens (Amendment 14, 1868). And then "the right of the citizens of the United States to vote" was guaranteed, regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude" (Amendment 15, 1870). But blacks were still regularly denied their right to vote through various forms of trickery and intimidation that persisted in the South until well into the 20th century.
The Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that racial segregation was legal as long as "separate but equal" facilities—in this case, seats in a railroad car—were provided. For the Court, this satisfied the clause in Amendment 14, which declared that no state could "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law." To obtain that equal protection, African-Americans would have to wait decades while Jim Crow laws created facilities that were separate and unequal.
Not until Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) did a different Supreme Court rule that "separate but equal" schools were "inherently unequal." Racial segregation was a violation of the "equal protection" clause of Amendment 14. But the US still didn't enforce blacks' right to vote or their right to use and be served in public accommodations such as restaurants, hotels, buses, and railroad cars. That took years of work by a determined nonviolent civil rights movement, the active support of many thousands of citizens, and support from President Lyndon Johnson to move Congress to pass the Civil Rights laws of 1964 and 1965.
Ensuring that our country really does "provide for the general welfare" of all Americans usually requires a lengthy people's struggle. And when it comes to issues like the right to earn a living wage or equal rights for people of color, it requires never giving up. It took a century for African-American citizens to win their basic rights. 
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Why do you think the founders of the Constitution were able to grant the Congress many specific powers but were not specific about providing for the general welfare? 
3. Why do some political candidates today argue that the federal minimum wage is unconstitutional? Do you agree with them? Why or why not?
4. How would you define the "general welfare"?
5. What evidence does the reading provide for the view that the Constitution is open to conflicting interpretations, even by justices of the Supreme Court?
6. What evidence does the reading provide that the Constitution does not enforce itself?
7. How do you explain why it took African-Americans so long to achieve the legal rights of other citizens?
8. Can you think of any general welfare measure in US history that did not require a lengthy people's struggle and a refusal to give up?

To the Teacher: Teaching social responsibility and developing citizens

Following their study of poverty and inequality in America, have students discuss the following question:
At a time when millions of Americans are unemployed or underemployed, and poverty and inequality have reached levels not seen in generations, what responsibility, if any, does a citizen have to do something about this situation (even one who may not be old enough to vote)? Write the question on the chalkboard.
Sharing in Pairs
Begin the discussion by having discuss their responses in pairs. Have students pick partners, who face each other and speak to the question for one or two minutes. The listener is to give complete attention to what the partner is saying. When the time is up, the listener paraphrases the partner's views before expressing his or her own point of view. After both have spoken, give the pairs a few minutes to respond to what each has said.
Classwide discussion
Next, involve the entire class in discussion, inviting students to share what they regard as worthwhile thoughts and ideas expressed in the pair-share. Then have a general discussion about what actions or projects the class might take to address the issues of unemployment, poverty and/or inequality. List students' thoughts and ideas on the chalkboard.
Students may well have difficulty in coming up with ideas. In that case, the teacher might suggest a few areas of possible action in the local community. Are there homeless people in your community? What, if anything, is local government doing to help? Is there a nagging problem that the community could address, creating new jobs in the process? How might this work be financed if no local money is available? Might a foundation be interested? Do students — and people in the wider community — need to learn more about local issues of poverty and inequality? How might students promote an education campaign in the school or community?
Developing a class project
What next? To develop a class project, go to www.teachablemoment.org, and click on "Ideas and Essays" for "Teaching Social Responsibility." The essay includes outlines some steps for developing and executing a class project. 
"Students can and should be given opportunities to take part in the significant events in their world. As teachers, we can create very powerful opportunities for our students, both in the classroom and extending into the larger world….We can help them understand processes of group decision-making and the political process. And, we can structure ways for them to participate in the empowering experience of acting to make a real difference in the world."
—Sheldon Berman, "Making History," Educators for Social Responsibility

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org