Throughout the recent presidential election process, we heard a consistent theme - the economic pain felt by millions of working-class Americans.
In red states and blue states, in cities, suburbs and rural America, too many of our working neighbors have been left behind.
Many working families today earn less income. They confront higher costs for housing, healthcare and other basic needs. They routinely run out of food or money by the end of the month. They see a future not of opportunity, but of survival.
Post-election, our country is now poised for a great debate about how we help the working class. How we frame this debate will say a lot about the actions we ultimately take.
Do we view working families as an expense, or as a critical investment? And will we invest in them for the long haul?
I think about these questions every time I visit one of the more than 600 food pantries we support at the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
Every year, our network serves more than 750,000 people. The majority of them are already working. Most of them live in the suburbs. Nearly one-third earn too much income to qualify for food stamps or other assistance programs, yet their income doesn’t cover basic needs.
These working families often face temporary, but recurring, setbacks and shortfalls. Without our help, they’re forced to make tradeoffs, choosing to skip food or health care or housing so they can meet their other basic needs. Those tradeoffs can lead to increased rates of diabetes and heart disease. Their kids don’t perform as well in school. They’re forced to focus on short-term survival at the expense of long-term planning for a better future.
I think about the difference we as a community make in the lives of these families by connecting them to millions of meals each year. But I also think about how much more investment they need to change the trajectory of their lives.
I think about the single moms that we serve who are working two part-time jobs. They need help meeting basic needs for their family, like food and health care. They don’t need training for an entry-level job – they often have two of those. They need help finding a higher paying, full-time job. They need solutions that give them time back – like better transportation, more affordable housing – time they can spend with their kids, working on their future.
There are strong policy ideas that invest in and strengthen the working class – expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, improving health care access, and targeted training programs for high-demand skills. And there are many more ideas that we haven’t yet imagined.
Like many Americans, I believe we can’t simply spend our way to a stronger working class. But we can’t cost-cut our way there either. Instead, we need to see support for working families as an investment – investing our resources and our talents in growing our people.
In this case, I think we can learn a lot from the private sector. Just about every winning company and organization views their people – and building a great team - as a critical investment.
Organizations that view people as an expense often fail. These organizations chase short-term cost savings at the expense of long-term growth. By not investing in people, they lose talent – and then they lose business.
Intuitively, we all get this. Supporting the success of working families is an investment in our collective future. A stronger working class means more people have more money to spend, driving economic growth.
When I visit with folks at our food pantries, I witness firsthand the costs of our declining working class. But, I also witness how we can all play a role in growing our investment in working families.
Our food bank network is powered by thousands of caring neighbors, most of them volunteers, who show up and step up to help people in need.
They are Trump supporters and Clinton supporters. Conservatives and liberals. Christians, Jews, and Muslims. They don’t agree on everything. But they are united by a commitment to investing in their neighbors. And they are in it for the long-haul.
As we begin our debate around how to strengthen our working class, we should focus on how we invest in people.
My hope is that doing so will connect us all more deeply, helping us overcome our divisions and to remember that we’re all on the same team.
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Kyle Waide is president and CEO, Atlanta Community Food Bank.