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The Senate’s bag lady: Joni Ernst |

The Senate’s bag lady: Joni Ernst

| Saturday, January 24, 2015 9:00 p.m

According to freshman Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, she wore plastic bread bags over her shoes when she was a child to protect her feet from rainy Iowa weather. She told that folksy story in her party’s official rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union Address.

But as far as poor-mouthing goes, the “bread bag as galoshes” story is pretty run of the mill. Ernst might have talked about coffee soup, a staple in those last days just before payday. The trick was to save used coffee grounds, boil the last trace of flavor out of them for broth and serve it with stale bread crusts for dunking.

Or she could have described how large families packed four kids into a small bed, the three oldest sleeping like cordwood, in tight alignment, with the youngest along the footboard. If you got that bottom-of-the-bed assignment, you quickly learned to sleep facing away from the feet or you would awaken every morning with a fat lip or bloody nose.

Most regular folks can tell stories like that, if not their own, passed down from older relatives. Like parables, they are often proud tales of rites of passage — hardship happily endured. But each story also should be offered as a clarion call for a better life in this land of plenty.

Too many families are denied even the Ernst family’s resourceful bread-bag trick, because they often cannot afford the bread. Food insecurity, a softer term for hunger, is part of daily life for working families, not just the unemployed, as wages shrink and costs rise.

The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank reports that 20.5 percent of all Pennsylvania children are food insecure, unsure of where their next meal will come from, with about the same number considered to be living in poverty. And hungry kids face added problems with health, education, behavior and future employment.

Forget about the debate over whether raising the minimum wage is a panacea for all our economic ills; it is not. It is enough to recognize that American families cannot make it on what is now the sole income of many principal breadwinners, even if they work every waking hour.

This has brought about the changed face of hunger in America, as described by Tracie McMillan in National Geographic in July 2014. Wages have not matched the cost of living as food prices have gone up, according to McMillan. The hungry are almost always employed today.

Ernst is entitled to her sunny memories, and she seems so positive about life that she might have the best chance to get her party to fight hunger, protect our children and strengthen their families by supporting a higher minimum wage.

Anyone who can brag about castrating hogs on the family farm and ride that story to a U.S. Senate victory is capable of just about anything.

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (

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