The Middle Class and the Poor

December 19, 2017

This is a season in which many of us make donations to help those with less than we do. But in the larger context, we need a better understanding of the poor.

For years now, politicians have been talking about the middle class. Being in the middle class doesn’t mean that one has it made. There are unfulfilled hopes and potential financial shocks that could knock almost any of us down and out. We know that and many of us are rightly concerned about it. The market has no feelings. It dispenses with people like so much trash. That should leave all of us concerned.

But when politicians talk about the middle class, I hear something else. I hear them telling us that no one else counts, especially not the poor. Many people treat the poor like trash. We even have names for it. A lawyer working for me once described his own family as poor white trash. He was nothing of the sort of course and his family couldn’t have been either – they brought up a very decent young man.

Tom Paxton wrote a song in which he says “If the poor don’t matter, then neither do I.” I had the pleasure of telling him after one of his concerts that song was very meaningful to me. I spent about ten years as a poverty lawyer in various positions in three different states. My clients weren’t trash and they did matter. They were decent, hardworking people who had suffered some reversal. Often, just as hard as the loss of income was the blow to their pride when they were out of work. The poor don’t have a financial cushion when things go bad. They can’t retire and rely on the pensions they don’t have. I remember working to get one of my clients who did have a right to a pension – it was thirty dollars a month.

With no money coming in, they spend most of their time trying to find things cheap enough to squeeze into their meager budgets. When people are poor, they are also very vulnerable not only to emergencies but also to fraud – they have little time or capacity to compare or investigate. Everything looks like an opportunity, even though too many offers are a mirage, squeezing out what little people have left.

We in the middle class are also linked to the poor because the worse they are treated, the worse we can be treated. That’s hardly a new observation. Free laborers in the pre-Civil War north objected to the way slavery lowered what they were paid for their labor. We are all affected by everyone’s wages. When the minimum wage goes up, so do lots of other peoples’ wages as well. When wages are set or negotiated it is always done with an eye to what other people are being paid.

The poor matter in another way. It’s very damaging to all of us to treat people like trash. Treat people like trash and train them to behave like it, and train ourselves to misbehave. George Mason spoke from experience when he told the Constitutional Convention that slavery made tyrants of the slaveholders. Civilization and civility require civilized behavior from all of us.

It’s also political. For all our fussing about corruption, Commonwealth United, respect for people of all backgrounds, and other issues of concern to those of us who feel like we are in more comfortable circumstances than the poor, who are our allies? And if we want allies, are we theirs?

Tom Paxton was right, if the poor don’t matter then neither do I.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 19, 2017.

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This is an Emergency

October 16, 2012

During the fund drive I heard Joe Donahue and this station working hard to bring Bill McKibben to this audience and lead us away from the catastrophe of global warming. He and the station did a great service and I am proud to be associated with them.

If your house was on fire you wouldn’t stand like a bystander waiting for it to collapse; you’d call the fire department and get anyone you could reach out of there fast.

If you child or your grandchild were about to drown, you would not turn your back moaning that it was too awful to contemplate; you’d raise hell to get your children out.

If your children disappeared on a camping trip, you wouldn’t sit around moaning; you’d search, call the rangers, find those children.

If your baby was dying of thirst, you’d find water. If your child was dying of hunger you’d find food. I met one six year old girl whose mother released her to others who brought her to America after the young girl’s brother had died of starvation in Liberia. It’s awful to contemplate but as parents we do what we have to in order to protect our children.  Read the rest of this entry »


Sources of American Strength

February 21, 2012

Let’s talk about some basics – the sources of American economic power.

  • We were always an immigrant society, peopled with those who had the drive and courage to leave where they were, cross the ocean and begin again with nothing.
  • Initially we were agricultural. One innovation was small, “republican,” landownership by independent farmers. Their efficiency made everything else possible.
  • We were among the leaders in the banking revolution which simplified and facilitated commerce.
  • The transportation revolution began in England but it had an enormous impact on the American economy because of the sheer size of the country.
  • Our system of democratic schooling  – education for all, rich and poor, boys and girls, immigrants and natives – was revolutionary and made us an international leader.
  • England pioneered the scientific revolution. But America took advantage of the land grant colleges, and with the appreciation for learning that came with both the Christian and Jewish communities that relocated here, America became a major source of invention.
  • Americans led the revolution in manufacturing – inventing and perfecting the assembly line.

Now what? Everything we achieved is out there. Read the rest of this entry »


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