Last Tuesday (July 15) I stood with Niger Innis of CORE and just under 100 people from around the country at a press conference in Washington, DC. The group was comprised of congressmen, senators, grassroots organizers, and clergy. We descended on Washington to announce a bold cry for affordable energy for the poor. Our campaign is simply called “Stop the War On The Poor.” Although some leftist groups have already called our efforts partisan, nothing could be further from the truth.
Many of us have realized that most legislators on the Hill are advocating ideologically-based approaches to our energy problems. While Washington plays politics with American energy supplies, people are hurting – and the poor are hurting the most. The only hope the average poor person has is that gas prices won’t rise to $6.00/gallon. The poor cannot afford to hire advocates or lobbyists. Energy reform will be a major civil rights frontier of the next decade because the poor do not have a voice.
We call this a war on the poor because high-energy prices disproportionately impact America’s poor and low-income families. These prices are actually a highly regressive tax on America’s most vulnerable citizens. Although both McCain and Obama are making bold declarations about their plans for our future, many more specific recommendations and plans of action will be needed to address the needs of the poor. The poor in America do not comprise one homogenous group. Included in this “poverty” label are urban minorities, some rural farming communities, and many elderly of all races.
The following data convinced me that I had to speak out. First of all, our poorest citizens spend up to 50 percent of their limited income on energy, while the average American spends only 5-10 percent of their income. In comparison to their rich suburban counterparts, poor families are sometimes forced to make serious choices between food, medicine, or fuel. As a result of this dilemma, eight percent of households with incomes between $33,500 and $55,000 have had their electricity shut off this year due to non-payment.
Secondly, those in rural areas of the country are being squeezed even harder. They tend to have older vehicles that are less fuel-efficient. Pickup trucks are common because they work part or full time in agricultural jobs. It takes a larger percentage of a person’s income for transportation in rural areas because of longer commutes.
Rising gas prices force many farmers and rural residents to make tradeoffs in their production practices and their daily lives. In fact, a survey by the Maryland based Oil Price Information Service shows that after gas hit $4 a gallon, rural counties in the South and West were hit hardest. Specifically, families in many southern counties are spending 10 to 15 percent of their income on fuels.
Thirdly, escalating energy prices disproportionately impact the elderly. A June 25 Los Angeles Time/Bloomberg poll found that, among those 65 and over, more than two-thirds (67%) said the recent rise in gas prices has caused them or their family financial hardship.
It seems to me that these three categories of poor people are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many middle class people that will be affected by energy shortages in future - not to mention national security problems concerning the use of Middle Eastern oil. The nation deserves an immediate “start” to solving our energy problems. Any school kid knows that trading up to cleaner fuels and developing alternatives sources of power will be important first steps. Yet we can hardly afford to take the opening of domestic oil reservoirs and the development of more nuclear power off the table. We need a comprehensive energy plan that addresses the short term, intermediate, and long term problems of the nation’s energy. We continue to be ignored by the energy ideologues, who are fighting for airspace and their version of the “perfect solution.”
Well-meaning elitist, environmental groups want Americans to dramatically change how we live our lives. They believe that the nation needs to go through a wholesale transformation both economically and socially. In their view, the best way to bring about this change is to lock up our energy resources in “protected” areas. The resulting energy shortages will create higher prices. Their hope is that the nation will be forced to use alternative energy sources because of radical changes in the economic equation. In their view, rising energy prices will nudge the middle class toward energy efficient cars and appliances, which are good for the environment.
It is my sincere desire that the American people will see energy as the creator of economic opportunities. I also hope that we will recognize that pushing energy prices up will make everyone suffer. Unfortunately, the poor and disadvantaged will get hurt first.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The Americans for American Energy Act and other legislation that takes all Americans into account will increase the US energy supply and bring price relief to consumers.
I believe that Congress should act immediately to help lower gas prices for all Americans. If you share my sentiments contact your Congressman and Senator and visit www.stopwaronpoor.org.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.