Poverty By Design

Even while survivors of our own country’s horrible 2012  “storm of the century,” Hurricane Sandy, are still reeling from Sandy’s wrath,  Haitians are still suffering from the 7.0 earthquake that happened three years ago today. Over 200,000 people were killed; 1.5 million were left homeless.

Homeless Haitians set up tents nearby the Pres...
Homeless Haitians set up tents nearby the Presidential Palace, in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In spite of billions of dollars pouring into the tiny country, said to be the poorest country in the world, the look of destruction is almost as stark as it was three years ago. Too many people are still living in overcrowded camps, where people are living in tents, with no fresh water, no sanitation, no electricity, and no privacy. Some camps have closed down, with some Haitians having been paid to leave them, but with so little new housing, one wonders where they have gone. A report on National Public Radio (NPR) said that some people have moved into new houses, but have ended up back in camps because they haven’t been able to get work to pay their rent. (http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=2&t=1&islist=false&id=169078876&m=169117672)

A friend of mine recently visited Haiti, and came back shaken. “I can’t stand to see that kind of poverty,” he said. “It’s too much.”

If it’s too much for a visitor who sees what is there but can leave it, one wonders how those trapped in the abject poverty and destruction are faring. One wonders what the overall psychological effects are on the spirits of the people who live in such squalor.

There was money pledged, billions, in fact. That money was received and according to Haitian officials, used well and wisely, but apparently the “wise and well” spending of the money did not extend to the millions of people living in misery. What happens to people who get “used” to being miserable? And what happens to the world when there are so many people, internationally, who live in such disgusting poverty?

In every poor nation, there are people who live quite well, and I would bet that those who live well try their best to stay away from the poverty and misery literally at their feet. Poverty is ugly. Nobody wants to see it.

And yet, perhaps if they would see it, and smell it, and taste it and hear it…they would be moved to help in ways they could. Maybe if they could see the squalor they know is there, their hearts would be pricked.

Once, when I was a reporter, I did a story on poverty in the city. I visited the “home” of a family, where the walls were cracked and broken, where there were holes in the floor of one of the upstairs bedrooms, where the roaches were everywhere, even in the refrigerator. The resident, a mother with small children, explained that she could not afford anything else, and that the landlord ignored her requests for help. “I clean,” she said, “but the roaches are everywhere. I can’t get them out.”  At night, she said, she would put cotton in her ears and in the ears of her children so that no roach would climb inside of them.

“I don’t sleep well,” she said. “I worry for my children.

Yes, she worked, but at a job which paid her barely enough to live. She had no benefits. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing.

“In the winter, we all stay in the kitchen,” she said, “and stay warm by the heat from the oven.”

I don’t even know why I wanted to do that story, but the images, the voices, the smells have never left my consciousness. That there are people living like that in these United States is troubling…and the fact that the poverty here isn’t even close to the poverty I have seen in other countries is sobering. Jonathan Kozol, in some of his books, describes the poverty and squalor that many urban kids and youth in this country face every day, in their schools, of all places. The facilities many of our kids go to every day do not encourage learning or the desire for wisdom. Rather, as students shudder in the winter and roast in the summer, as they go to bathrooms which many times do not work well, as they look through broken windows, or, worse, look at the place where windows are supposed to be, but see giant pieces of plywood instead, one wonders how they manage to learn anything. Even the poor like nice surroundings.

The poor are not objects, though we tend to look at them that way. I read recently that in the system of capitalism, some are supposed to be poor; that’s the way the system works. Wrote H.W. Brands in his book, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900, democracy and capitalism are two opposing ideologies, antagonistic to each other. Juxtaposing the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith, Brands called them “dueling manifestos.” “Democracy depends on equality, capitalism on inequality,” wrote Brands. “Citizens in a democracy come to the public square with one vote each; participants in a capitalist economy arrive at the marketplace with unequal talents and resources and leave the marketplace with unequal rewards.” (page 10)

In order to make this capitalist democracy work, then, we have to be able to look at some people as objects, not human beings with souls and needs. Their suffering cannot be allowed to reach our nostrils or our hearts.  They become objects which can and will be used to further the wealth of those who, frankly, do not need more money, but who are driven to get more and more.

It is the way the system works.

That reality is sobering. When I think of the people squashed in those tents in Haiti, while some in Haiti are living in luxury, when I think of the poor in this nation, the richest in the world, we’ve been told, when I think of the poverty in India and in Latin America…and even in the places where we who are more fortunate actually go for vacations. I shudder.

Something is wrong and not enough of us want to face it.

A candid observation …

What If?

The western front of the United States Capitol...
Image via Wikipedia

What would America be like if it were run by a plain, old, middle or lower middle class president, and if the Congress wasn’t filled with millionaires?

There is so much conversation about how we are a plutocracy and not a democracy at all – meaning that the wealthy are doing the controlling and the governing. Government and big business are in bed together, and they are not about to give up or even consider policies which will threaten their class status or their wealth.

That’s understandable. They have no vested interest in the common people; “we the people” are merely puppets used in elections. Ironically, we elect people who do not really have our best interests at heart, not if it threatens the status quo.

It is not surprising, though it is sad, that the gap between the wealthy and the poor is getting larger and larger and that the middle class is almost non-existent. GOP presidential candidate shows absolutely no sensitivity to this reality, saying this week that the complaints against the wealthy is really envy.

Perhaps somewhat. It would be unrealistic to deny that the “have-nots” would rather be “haves.”

But what if the presidency went to a middle class person who was not so far removed from the days of real economic hardship, who remembered personally what it was like to work and still not have a decent, living wage? What if that person had a Congress that was likewise filled with people who could relate to the vast majority of Americans because they were in basically the same boat? What if the members of Congress didn’t have health care, or what if their jobs at Congress paid minimum wage or just above? What sorts of policies for the American people might emerge?

It is telling that in debates, the words “poor” or “poverty” are seldom heard. We hear that conversations criticizing the distance between rich and poor as being “class warfare,” and we hear jabs intimating that people who depend on entitlements or even government employment are burdens to the system of free enterprise.

But the candidates show their disconnect from what is the reality in America, and it goes beyond comprehension why they do not seem to know that a country cannot be its best if the masses are in distress.

And clearly, the masses are in distress.

Someone said to me that if more people would just try harder and get a good education, the playing field would be more level.

I wondered which country she lives in. The cost of a college education is skyrocketing, way out of reach for more and more people, even as jobs that don’t require college educations become fewer and fewer.

Something is wrong with this picture.

So, I just got to thinking …what if the president were just…one of us? I cringe as I see these millions of dollars being spent to get elected. It’s like the money was pulled from a reserved tree or something; this while so many people are suffering. The poverty rate in America is 46 percent…

To make matters worse, the money being thrown around isn’t getting us any closer to knowing who, really, has the best interests of “the rest of us” at heart. No, super PACs are doling out money so that candidates can tear each other to shreds personally.  All these guys are super wealthy, and all they want to do is get into office to create policies that will protest their wealth. So, what’s a few million dollars to get that done?

If there were to be someone who came aboard advocating for the masses, he or she would be quickly dubbed a socialist. People call President Obama a socialist, but his policies have not been all that kind or helpful to the masses. The complaint against him seems to have stemmed from rabid opposition to his Affordable Health Care Act, but other than that, I find it hard to figure out why people are saying that he has been against big business and free enterprise.

At the end of the day, those who “have” fight to protect their interests. That’s all that’s going on now. That’s why I wonder what America would be like if someone less wealthy, with a less wealthy Congress, were in control?

Would we be a more equitable nation, or would those in power aspire to be like their mentors, i.e, the wealthy who are in power now?

A larger question might be, would a less wealthy president and Congress create a more equal America, or do the masses of people, wealthy, middle class or otherwise, even believe that financial and/or social equality  is even a part of the definition of democracy? Was this country ever intended to serve the interests of and protect the masses, or were we, the common people, duped into believing in the ideal of equality by Thomas Jefferson’s words, “all men are created equal?”

A musing …and a candid observation.