New report documents the fading of the American dream

By Coco McCabe
Joseph and Geneva Ross, shrimpers on the Gulf of Mexico, say they haven't been able to make a profit in three years--since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita slammed into the region.

Joseph Ross and his wife Geneva are in their 60s, the age at which plenty of people would have begun their retirement. Not this pair. Though each has retired from a previous career, work—the hard, physical kind—still consumes them. They are shrimpers on the Gulf of Mexico, squeezing what they can from an industry hammered hard by hurricanes Katrina and Rita almost three years ago.

But with fuel prices rocketing and dock amenities still in short supply, making a living from the ocean has become next to impossible for the couple. They depend on their social security checks and Geneva's schoolteacher's pension.

"I ain't made a profit in three years," said Joseph. "The boat supports itself, but that's it. It's so hard to make a living."

Disaster has compounded that challenge for the Rosses and countless others on the Gulf Coast. But they are not alone. Millions of Americans face similar struggles trying to earn a living, to stay healthy, and to educate their children in a country where the American dream has become more myth than reality for many people.

That truth emerges—sharp and stunning—from the pages of a new report that, for the first time, provides a human development rank for each state, congressional district, and ethnic group in the US. Called "The Measure of America," and supported by Oxfam America, the report takes tools long used to analyze the complexities of developing countries and applies them to one of the richest nations in the world. The report was written by Sarah Burd-Sharps, Kristen Lewis, and Eduardo Borges Martsin. Its goal is to deliver a clear picture of what life is really like for many of the 305 million Americans in a country where the average income among the top fifth of US households in 2006 was almost 15 times that of those in the lowest fifth—or $168,170 versus $11,352.

"The American Dream has drifted beyond the each of many, while fading from view among others," say the authors in their executive summary. "To reinvigorate it, to make it real for millions of middle-class and poor Americans, the stagnation and decline of middle and low incomes must be reversed, and opportunity must once again reach down to the lowest rungs of society."

That mission—to give poor people a fair shot at opportunity; to ensure their basic rights and dignity—lies at the heart of Oxfam America's US regional programs in the southeast. One of them is concentrating on helping the Gulf Coast recover from the devastation caused by back-to-back hurricanes in 2005.The second program seeks to reform the food system so that those who produce the food that feeds our nation—the low-wage farm and meat-processing workers—can secure their rights to decent work and improved conditions in their communities.

Rebuilding the Gulf Coast

When Katrina and Rita barreled into the Gulf Coast, the damage they left was enormous—and indiscriminate. Regardless of their means, everyone in the paths of the storms got slammed. But not everyone has benefitted from the multi-billion-dollar recovery—funded by American taxpayers—that slowly has been restoring what the wind and water swept away.

In Mississippi and Louisiana, many of the region's poorest residents continue to struggle toward recovery. The persistent inattention of state and federal policy makers to meeting the needs of the most vulnerable people has compounded the storms' destruction.

Walk through storm-battered Biloxi, Mississippi, and the disparities in the recovery become clear. Remodeled hotels glimmer and luxury condominiums have sprouted just blocks from narrow streets where many people still live in temporary trailers.

"We need affordable housing: not projects, but homes that people can pay for on a living wage in Mississippi," says Sharon Hanshaw, a lifelong resident of the city who longs for the old neighborhoods to come alive again. She's executive director of Coastal Women for Change, an Oxfam partner organization founded following the disaster. Its goal is to empower local women to participate in the recovery. "New houses mean new life."

After the hurricanes hit, Oxfam's first response was to work with its local partners and provide emergency assistance to people. That response has now grown into a five-year, $12-million program focused on Mississippi and Louisiana. Working through local organizations, the program's goal is two-fold. The first is to ensure that the regio's most vulnerable people have access to safe and affordable housing. And the second objective is to ensure that workers in the hospitality industry—including those employed by restaurants, hotels, and casinos, as well as the construction workers now rebuilding those facilities—can land jobs that will allow them to achieve a decent standard of living.

By working with local communities to understand, demand, and ensure their rights, Oxfam's objective is to influence the outcome of the recovery and to help bring equity to the country's poorest states.

To the authors of "The Measure of America," it's a job that will require an investment of both will and financial resources on the scale of the Marshall Plan—a multi-billion-dollar reconstruction effort that helped to rebuild Western Europe following World War II. According to the report, about 12 million people live in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, and together their three states have the lowest human development index scores of any region in the country—and that was before the consequences of the storm were factored in.

"On key measures of human development, the region today is at the level of development the country as a whole experienced 18 years ago. It has the nation's lowest levels of educational attainment, shortest life expectancy, and lowest incomes," say the authors.

"A Gulf Coast Reconstruction Plan, encompassing far-reaching humanitarian, social, political, and economic aims would expand choice and opportunity for the people of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi."

Decent work for farm laborers, meat processors

Expanding choice and opportunity for farm and meat processing workers is also going to require some far-reaching change. Oxfam America's program to improve conditions for some of the country's lowest-paid workers in the rural southeast employs a number of tactics including consumer campaigns that pressure employers to offer workers better pay.

"By working at multiple levels, the program addresses the issues of declining wages, low union density, gender and racial discrimination, high rates of occupational injury, and abuse due to the immigration status of workers," said Guadalupe Gamboa, Oxfam's worker rights program officer.

Farm workers, of whom there are an estimated three million, are among the poorest laborers in the country. Half of all individuals earn less than $7,500 a year, and half of farm worker families earn less than $10,000 a year—wages that are well below the US poverty threshold. Most workers get paid on a piece-rate basis, and because of their poverty they often live in overcrowded and substandard housing that routinely violates federal regulations. Food processing workers—there are about 800,000 of them in the US—face similar stressful economic and social conditions.

Besides poverty wages, both groups of laborers face dangerous working environments. Accidents and exposure to toxic pesticides are among the regular risks for farm workers. Meat packers are often forced to work at blinding speeds using razor-sharp knives, risking accidents and cumulative stress injuries.

But momentum for change is building. Oxfam-supported campaigns against some of the biggest names in the food industry—Yum! Brands (owner of Taco Bell), McDonald's, Burger King—have coincided with the public's increasing concern about food safety, motivating people to mobilize in support of farm workers. All three companies have agreed to pay some of the field hands in their supply chain a higher wage.

Building on those successes, Oxfam is now supporting a major campaign to organize 5,000 workers at Smithfield's Tar Heel, North Carolina pork processing plant—the largest of its kind in the country.

"Low-wage workers in the rural southeast, particularly people of color, immigrants, and women working in agriculture and food systems have a right to decent work and improved conditions," said Gamboa. "And we'll know they've secured that right when we see their increased power through collective bargaining, fair compensation, and worker leadership."