Our nation may miss the true spirit of the season if we do not acknowledge that the Christ child had much in common with millions of American working families who find affordable housing out of reach.
While many in our nation are celebrating economic growth, a stable unemployment rate and macroeconomic stability, too many folks find that there is no room at the inn called affordable housing.
It takes an hourly wage of $15.78 for a family to afford a two-bedroom rental unit in the United States, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The number ranges from around $11 in states like North Carolina, Louisiana and Arkansas to as much as $30 an hour in municipalities like San Francisco.
Many folks do not earn this much. Home health care workers, teachers' aides, parking lot attendants, clerical workers, office cleaners and waiters and waitresses are among those who cannot afford two-bedroom apartments. Many cannot afford them even with two incomes, since millions of Americans earn less than $15 an hour. (Average hourly earnings in November were $16.32.)
More than 2 million workers still earn the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, or $10,700 a year. Affordable housing is outside their reach.
At his recent press conference, President Bush boasted that homeownership is at a record high. Nearly three-quarters of white families, and nearly half of African-American and Latino families are home-owning families.
But that means that the remainder of folks -- often those with only modest pay -- are renters. These renters have often been ignored from a policy perspective, with subsidized housing programs like Section 8 being trimmed in the name of budget deficits.
The lack of affordable housing is an invisible problem. It is not as stark as homelessness -- as the folks you see on the street lining up for a night's warm rest.
It is not as tragic as the Katrina displacement -- the folks you see looking weary and bereft as their belongings are swept away.
Instead, this is the quiet and grinding poverty of people who are paying half of their income for someplace to live, letting other key needs go. These are the people who are doubling and tripling up, living in cramped quarters because that is all they can afford.
Those who cannot afford basic housing are hard-working Americans who have been ignored by public policy. They are the folks whose hard work doesn't buy them a slice of the American dream. They have been confronted with the harsh reality that there is no room in the affordable housing inn for them.
We must create that space by expanding affordable housing programs. The season of charity demands no less.
Julianne Malveaux, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained economist, is author of several books, including "Wall Street, Mean Street and the Side Street: A Mad Economist Takes a Stroll" (Independent Publishers Group, 1999). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.