Two Americas

“If profit is your only metric, man, where …do people stand?”

David Simon, a reporter, author and television producer, asked that, and says that in America there was a class war between the working class and the rich …and that the working class lost.

His words stunned me. There is something about hearing stark truth spoken out loud. If you don’t hear the words, you can pretend that things are not as bad as they are. If you’re in a relationship that’s over, you tend to do better, feel better, pretending that things are not as bad as they are until your significant other says, “I don’t love you anymore.”

Once that’s said, pretense is shattered.

That’s what Simon’s words did to me – jostled me into an uncomfortable reality. In America, something has gone horribly wrong, and much of it is because of our economic system which has pushed too many people to the brink of despair.

Simon says that democracy was supposed to be, or is supposed to be, about sharing. Yet, in the grip of capitalism, the notion of sharing has gone missing. If one talks too much about income inequality, or people needing to make a living wage, cries of protest – yelling out “socialism,”   “communism” or worse are heard in full force.

If you keep on and push the argument further, suggesting that Jesus believed in sharing, (some have suggested that Jesus was a socialist in his world view) then you will surely be shot down as a heretic.

And yet, it is clear that something horribly wrong has happened. The Congress, points out Simon, is full of people with good wages and health care; they have lost touch and do not care about – cannot, in fact, relate to – those who work hard and still cannot support themselves and their families …and who do not have health care. They cannot hear the cries of the growing underclass because their quest for more comfort for themselves and their families takes front and center.

Was capitalism supposed to turn out this way?  Conservatives like to quote the Constitution as the reason for all of their beliefs …but do they understand the spirit of that document …or, for that matter, do I? Did I get it wrong? Wasn’t “democracy” supposed to be a form of government that insured some type of equality for all its people?

If I listen to Conservatives or Libertarians, the answer would be a resounding “no.” All of us who have interpreted the Constitution as a document of, for and about economic parity and  “fair chance” of all people would be criticized as being constitutionally ignorant.

Simon says America’s government is a “purchase government.”  Capitalism worked, he says, when more people were, in fact, able to “purchase.” That is not the case anymore; too many people can purchase little to nothing …and from what I’ve learned from listening to economists, our economy cannot be at its best unless large numbers of people can purchase things that they need and some things that they want.

Big money, notes Simon, has purchased much of government. Consider Art Pope, who is said to have purchased much of the government of North Carolina and the result is that the poor, the almost poor …and the “gonna be poor” are suffering and struggling like never before. Simon says there are “two Americas.” Damn if he isn’t spot on. One only has to open one’s eyes to see it. The poor are getting more and more numerous. It’s not just people of color, either. Plenty of white people are in the “poor” category.

I am just beginning to deal with this on a gut level. And it hurts…I think I wanted my government to be better than all governments. I liked living in the myth that justice and the tenets of the Constitution would ultimately prevail.

Apparently, that is not so.

A candid observation …

Who Cares for the Poor?

It is very hard to understand why any politician would be opposed to paying people a living wage – meaning, a wage that would allow them to live with dignity as opposed to living as virtual slaves to an unfair economic system.

 

It is clear that capitalism and democracy are not one in the same thing;  apparently, if  Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson had a face-to-face conversation, they would lock horns on principle: capitalism does not pretend to want to, or to be about, providing a level playing field for all people, as democracy purports to be about.

 

But to be against helping people get paid what their work contribution is really worth seems immoral. Actually, allowing poverty, or ignoring it, seems to be immoral too, especially in such a wealthy and religious nation.  It seems like more and more, people are just a beggar’s cup away from abject poverty.

 

The growing gap between rich and poor, the shrinking of the middle class, is not just an American problem. In China, reports Rob Schmitz, “the number of people …who still live on less than two dollars a day is equal to the entire population of the United States.”  (http://www.marketplace.org/topics/world/street-eternal-happiness/celebrating-chinese-new-year-street-eternal-happiness). Ironically, the very poor sit on a street named “The Street of Eternal Happiness.” The well to do most often walk past the beggars; the sense of disdain is hardly unnoticeable.

 

There is nothing “happy,” though, about being poor. There is nothing “happy” about having to choose between food and medicine, or between diapers or milk for the baby who needs the diaper. Many families cannot afford diapers; hence in some places diaper banks have been created. Many elderly do not have enough to eat. And many adults are working their buns off with hardly anything to show for it except extreme fatigue and deepening depression.

 

There seems to be such an insensitivity to the poor. In China, Kang Xiaoguang, Professor of Regional Economics and Politics, actually said, publicly, “Although there are hundreds of millions of workers and peasants, they don’t count. You can ignore them. You can also rob and exploit them. It’s not a problem. The most important thing is to get the powerful on your side.”

 

While Xiaoguang’s statement is harsh and insensitive, it is hard to believe that he is not saying out loud what many people feel.  When President Obama said, in his 2013 State of the Union Address, that he wanted Congress to approve a hike in the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour, he apparently caught Republicans and some Democrats off-guard.  The president said, “Today, a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. Even with the tax relief we’ve put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. That’s wrong. That’s why, since the last time this Congress raised the minimum wage, 19 states have chosen to bump theirs even higher. Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty, and raise the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour.”

 

Those who are criticizing big government are not impressed with the president’s suggestion, nor are they apt to seriously consider it, and those who stay far enough from the poor to see the misery in which they live are not likely to “encourage” their state and federal lawmakers by threatening to withdraw support for them if they don’t raise the minimum wage.

 

If you do not see poverty, it is easy to minimize it and the suffering it causes.

 

Before the 2008 election, CNN anchor Lou Dobbs said, over and over, that America was losing its middle class.  He seemed not to get a lot of support, and I don’t remember what his solution was to the problem, but the fact is, Dobbs correctly called that there would be a crisis of the middle class, which has come to be.

 

The state and federal jobs which allowed so many people to reach middle class are shrinking, as are the manufacturing jobs. There are jobs available, but many of them require technical training which the vast majority of people do not have.

 

“Find a way to go to school and get some training,” those who are insensitive would say, not understanding that the working poor don’t have a penny to spend and would probably not qualify for a student loan. The working poor often cannot take a day off, or refuse to take a day off, even when they’re sick, because they cannot afford to miss a day’s wages. Their families suffer, as do they, in all areas of life.

 

Marco Rubio, who delivered the GOP rebuttal to President Obama’s speech, said, “I don’t think a minimum wage law works.” Addressing and raising the minimum wage would threaten the creation of jobs, those who oppose big government would say, but what kind of jobs? Probably more that are wont to pay workers what their work is worth.

 

It is no secret that wealth often accrues on the backs of the poor, with the poor getting little benefit. But there is something inherently wrong in that. There is something wrong with a system that allows the wealthy to make and hoard more money they can ever use, while those whose labor made them rich can barely make ends meet.

 

Professor Susan Thistlewaite, in her book, Occupy the Bible, encourages a moral and religious response to the issue of poverty. She spends a lot of time addressing the debt students are in who took out loans to go to college. Too many of them are not only struggling financially, but they are struggling emotionally as well. To not be able to find a job, or to get a job which does not pay a living wage, is demeaning. Many former students are committing suicide, she writes.

 

Thistlewaite encourages the religious of our society to read the Bible and interpret it from the perspective of those who struggle with poverty and financial hardship. The struggling don’t have trouble doing that; the wealthy would probably toss it off as Liberal dribble.

 

But there is no “dribble” in the fact that in this nation there is an oligarchy, not a democracy. There are too many people struggling to obtain the bare necessities for themselves and their families. The Republicans have criticized President Obama for the fact that more people receive food stamps than in the previous administration, but without help, how are the poor and working poor supposed to make it?  To require and expect them to work for the increase of profits for the wealthy and then to give them pittance in return …just does not seem right.

 

In fact, it seems that in doing that, the wealthy and powers that be are merely ignoring the poor.

 

The pervasiveness of poverty is not new; the society in which Jesus lived was as imbalanced economically as are the societies of China and Haiti and our own nation. But what is troubling is that it feels like it’s getting easier and easier for the wealthy to act like the poor and working poor don’t exist, that they are whiners and takers, like …they don’t matter.

 

Perhaps if nationally there could be a shift or an outpouring of programs that teach the poor how to compete in our global economy the picture could and would change. The poor don’t want to be poor; many of them are stuck and don’t know how to get out. Some would rather die than take government assistance. They don’t want a hand out. They want a way up and out of their economic misery. Poverty causes people to live in despair and depression; suicide is not all that uncommon for those who have simply given up hope of their lives ever getting better. There is a lot of domestic abuse amongst the poor, and children end up being ignored and neglected, which causes a host of social problems. It doesn’t make sense to ignore and/or ignore the poor. Poverty ends up costing money …but then, those who are investing in private prisons, the so-called Prison Industrial Complex, would not care about that because their wealth is built upon the backs of the hopeless and despairing.

 

Capitalism
Capitalism (Photo credit: Juliano Mattos)

 

You have to have eyes to see that, though, ears to hear it, and a heart to receive it. That, apparently, is what is missing in our great nation.

 

A candid observation …