By Elijah Cummings

Individuals who overcome barriers to “getting ahead” and business leaders who recognize their ability to contribute deserve our admiration.  Yet, even as we acknowledge these Americans for “doing good while also doing well,” our nation’s public policies must also address a more fundamental economic reality.

Only significant legislative reforms that strengthen the efforts of enlightened individuals, companies and local governments will overcome (and not simply manage) the struggles of our nation’s “working poor.”

When we think of the challenges faced by far too many working families, we typically concentrate on urban and rural poverty (a focus of public policy that clearly is justified in places like Baltimore City, where tens of thousands of well-paying manufacturing jobs have been lost since the days of my youth).

Elijah Cummings (Courtesy Photo/Facebook)

Nevertheless, the experience of neighboring Howard County, Maryland, one of our nation’s four most affluent jurisdictions, reveals an economic “disconnect” that must now be corrected in every community.

Our nation’s working families have become ever more productive during the last two decades, while their wages have remained flat and the costs of what they need to buy have continued to rise.

This growing “disconnect” between productive work and unsustainable wages has brought us to a fundamental challenge – both for our economy and for our democratic system.

Simply stated, not enough Americans are making enough money to both grow our economy and assure that everyone who contributes receives a fair and adequate share of the rewards.

As a result of the “supply-side” economic policies that we have followed in recent decades, far too many of our neighbors are trapped in the world of the “working poor;” and their lives of desperation are driving a growing outcry for political and economic reform in our cities, rural communities and more affluent suburban counties alike.

I personally know this world of our “working poor” quite well.   It was the world of my youth – and it still confronts far too many of our neighbors today.

If we are to move beyond a national political orientation that, at best, tolerates and attempts to manage (but not end) their poverty, we must become more clear-eyed about the extent of the economic challenges that far too many of us are facing.

Consider some facts that Howard County’s Association of Community Services has reported about the struggles of our neighbors who are both working and poor.

First: A single Howard County adult needs to earn $35,000 a year just to meet basic expenses without assistance – and a single parent with two school-age children needs more than $68,000 annually.

Second: Confronted with these demands, 6,300 Howard County households are trying to live on an annual income of less than $20,000 – and at least 24,000 Howard County households [22%] are struggling to make ends meet on less than $60,000 each year.

Third: This economic “disconnect” has serious consequences for our neighbors, most of whom are working or trying to find jobs:

– 18,000 of our neighbors in affluent Howard County needed Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (“food stamps) to meet their basic nutrition needs last year, while more than 27,000 residents need the help of Howard County’s Food Bank every year;

– 44,000 Howard Countians had to rely upon Medicaid for their health care;

– more than 5,000 Howard County families are on the waiting list for Housing Choice Vouchers (what we used to call Section 8); and

– the spiraling cost of affordable child care is too often out of reach for working families, both in Howard County and nationally.

Food security, healthcare, housing and childcare: these are the real-life, day-to-day economic challenges that far too many American families find it difficult or impossible to overcome.

This is the sobering, daily reality for the thousands who are living, working and remaining poor in one of our most affluent jurisdictions – and for the millions more who are struggling, feeling forgotten and left behind, in our other, less fortunate communities.

How could any thoughtful policy-maker remain silent, doing little or nothing, when so many of our countrymen and women (and their children) are trying so hard – and still struggling?

It is both appropriate and just to honor those individuals who rise above indifference to help their neighbors – as well as local initiatives like Howard County’s “Achieve 24/7” program.  Yet, it is neither appropriate nor sufficient for so many of my colleagues in government to turn a blind eye to the unsustainable economic hardships that so many Americans are enduring.

We, who have been elected to serve all the people of our great nation, must open our eyes to these disconnects within our economy – and expand the federal programs that can provide broader, more comprehensive, more sustainable, and more transformative long-term support.

We must turn away from the supply-side economics that have failed far too many Americans for far too long – and turn toward “demand-side” policies that will both grow our economy and end (not simply manage) the struggles of those among us who are both working and poor.

We must send to the Congress, and to government service at all levels, those who will:

– better support our public schools;

– reform our tax code to expand and increase earned-income tax credits

for the working poor;

– preserve their healthcare cost subsidies;

– expand their affordable-housing supports; and

– make their childcare more affordable as well.

As citizens, voting in this year’s elections, we can use our voting power to move toward an America in which every working family is able to achieve the economic security that they have earned and deserve.

Through our ballots, we, too, have the ability to do some good, while also helping our nation to do well.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.