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Op-Ed: Words from Tibet for a More Peaceful Newark

The Dali Lama tells Newark officials the widening gap between rich and poor must be addressed.

Speaking last weekend at a peace summit in Newark, Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, rightly reminded Newark officials that to reduce violence and rebuild communities, we must address the widening gap between rich and poor. Equally important to realize is that many people who are poor hold jobs.

Today, nearly one-third of all Americans are trying to make ends meet on low wages. And the number of low-wage jobs -- primarily service jobs in security, hotels, food preparation, home healthcare and office cleaning -- is growing. Over the next decade, 5 million new jobs will pay poverty-level wages unless something is done to reverse this trend.

Jamila Bishop, a security officer working at the Newark Housing Authority, lives this struggle daily. She's doing her best to make ends meet. But her paystub from a private security contractor in Newark shows she earns only $10 an hour, not enough for her to provide the home she wants for her two daughters. She is also forced to rely on publicly funded New Jersey Family Care for healthcare.

Jamila’s not alone -- nearly one in four Newark residents lives in poverty. Many of them have jobs, and are working hard to create better futures for their families. But they can make little headway in an economy that's producing low-wage jobs like there's no tomorrow.

At the same time, our economy is growing more dangerously unbalanced as the rich grow even wealthier. The top 1 percent of U.S. households reaps nearly 24 percent of all income -- more than double the 9 percent of 30 years ago. This is the highest concentration of income in the hands of the superwealthy since 1928, a year before the great stock market crash.

In New Jersey, the income inequality is glaring. A 2010 analysis by New Jersey Future found that the income gap in our state is more pronounced than in Russia, China, Turkey and even many Latin American countries. The disparity, as New Jersey Future noted, is geographic -- with the wealthiest suburbs having incomes close to 15 times that of the poorest cities and towns.

As we look for solutions to deep-seated problems like violence and poverty, we must demand policies at the local and national level to change the direction of our economy. The Dalai Lama has said, aptly, "Change doesn’t come from the sky. It comes from human action."

If our government pegged the minimum wage to a percentage of median income, it would raise the earnings of our lowest-paid workers and keep them on pace with the rest of the workforce. Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit -- widely considered to be among the most effective of all antipoverty programs -- would also help those low-income families teetering on the brink of poverty.

Government programs are critical, but not enough. Businesses need to increase their pay in low-wage service sectors. And to help this happen, companies need to be open to collaborating with unions, which have shown their ability to work responsibly with business to lift low-wage workers out of poverty.

Unless steps are taken to address the growing imbalance in our economy, violence and poverty will continue to stifle our potential as a nation. As the Dalai Lama says, there won’t be peace "as long as the weak and small continue to be trodden by the mighty and powerful."

Kevin Brown is New Jersey State Director for 32BJ SEIU (Service Employees International Union), which has 120,000 members in eight states, including 8,000 in New Jersey.

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