Paul Jacob

Ah, the good old days! When the word "poverty" really meant something!

In the Middle Ages, thousands of city dwellers might starve to death during a drought. "The poor" were people who walked around without clothing. To be destitute meant eating tree bark to survive.

Today, obesity is a bigger problem for the poor than is hunger. A poor person usually has several television sets, a cell phone, and perhaps a car. "The digital divide" that some decry is the awful fact that some of these people don't have computers or Internet access — though they probably do have Nintendo or X-Box, and free Internet access at their local library.

Welcome to modern wealth . . . and the strange world of "the living wage" and "the poverty line."

It was recently found that in the area of Washington state surrounding Microsoft's HQ, 40 percent of the workers don't earn a living wage. So, in an area that was hailed a few years back as the central focus of the future, a huge chunk of the populace lives like paupers?

Whatever the problems of modern society, nowhere near half of us are "poor." Poverty has been upgraded . . . to include the "merely struggling." Why? Could it be to keep poverty activists employed?

Everybody wants a higher wage, of course. That's why many people actually go to college, vo-tech, or find some other way to increase their skills. That's also why most people, over time, move up from scullery maid or fast-food cook: to get more money. The sub-sub-living wage is merely a stage on the journey of life, for many; a permanent condition, for a few.

But what about those few? If you start having kids too early, or are lazy, or a drug addict, or ring on the dull side of the Bell Curve, or are just footloose and fancy-free, you are more likely to find yourself "trapped" at the lowest wage levels. Of course, if you are stuck at this level, it's hard to pay the bills and pay your health insurance and raise a large family and buy the latest HDTV wide-screen monitor.

Frankly, I've sometimes found it tricky to pay all of my bills, when health care is added on top of the mortgage. And I still don't have wide-screen HDTV.

This does not make me poor.

Major social issues swing in popularity, not like Satchmo but like a pendulum. Right now, "poverty" appears to be "in." Studies of living wages and attempts to raise the federal minimum wage are increasing. Voters in Arizona, Michigan, Montana, Nevada and Ohio may find ballot measures this November that would raise their state's minimum wage.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.