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Raising pay, easing hunger

Andrew L. Yarrow is senior research adviser at Oxfam America and author of "Thrift: The History of an American Cultural Movement," which will be published

Andrew L. Yarrow

is senior research adviser at Oxfam America and author of "Thrift: The History of an American Cultural Movement," which will be published

in December

A single mother of six works at a jewelry store in the Philadelphia area and works so few hours at so little pay that she regularly goes to Philabundance, a local food bank, to put a meal on the table for her family. Once a successful Realtor, she finds it hard to worry about being able to eat. "It can be so overwhelming, you can't function," she said. "You shouldn't have to choose between food and your electric bill."

This holiday season is anything but bountiful for this woman and her family. And she's not alone. A majority of the 46.5 million Americans who used a food pantry in the Feeding America network last year live in working households; 25 million people, including children, are in working families that relied on food pantries to stave off hunger, according to a new study by Oxfam America and Feeding America.

Millions of people make $8 to $10 an hour working as cashiers or in restaurants, or providing elder or child care - a far cry from a living wage. Despite working hard, many of these people live in poverty or on the edge of poverty.

This isn't what America is about, and it can't be reconciled with political rhetoric that says if you work hard and play by the rules, you will succeed in the United States.

Despite economic growth and the stock market's reaching record levels, the "economic recovery" hasn't touched most Americans. Ninety-five percent of the income gains between 2009 and 2012 have gone to the top 1 percent of earners, as most new jobs created have paid low wages, and the number of middle-income jobs have shrunk. About one-third of all U.S. workers are paid less than $12 per hour, and most of them have no paid sick, family, or vacation leave; no employer-provided health insurance; and no pension plans. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that nearly half of all jobs created between 2012 and 2022 will be in low-wage occupations.

All this explains why so many Americans are increasingly turning to the 58,000 programs in Feeding America's nationwide network, not for emergencies, but as a regular part of their household budget. Most are forced to make agonizing choices between paying for food or health care or the monthly rent.

Half of the working households that use food pantries also rely on government assistance. Almost all of their children depend on the federal school-lunch program.

But neither nonprofits nor government can be the long-term answer to hunger in the United States. Many policies would benefit low-wage workers, but the place to start would be raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. That move alone would benefit more than 25 million workers, including 15 million children. On average, it would pay for an additional 10 weeks of groceries for a family of four.

Public opinion stands firmly behind raising the minimum wage, and the issue has historically enjoyed bipartisan support. During this holiday season, both parties can come together to ensure that millions of working families do not suffer the indignity of turning to charity and government assistance just to eat.