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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Looming Catastrophe and Stubborn People

March 22, 2016

Help. Two major problems have the same structure – it doesn’t look like people will deal with the problem until it is too late. Too late means the survivors will be refugees. Everyone else will be dead. And yet getting people to deal with the threat except at the fringes has been impossible.

One of those problems is global climate change. I’m told people will come around. Great but time is not on our side. I’m told people don’t want to make any sacrifices.  Great. Life is a sacrifice. We sacrifice for everything we want. How about life? For us? Our kids and grandchildren? Isn’t that worth a few pennies? What’s the matter?

We could deal with this. It’s not rocket science. Changes to the tax system would push carbon out of the air. And some regulation would clean up other parts of the problem. Is life itself, for everybody we love, not worth some sacrifice? Can’t we make it clear to everybody in this election season that anything less than a full-court, all-out press to call a halt to global warming is the sine qua non of our support, the one overriding issue, and they’d better do everything they can?

Time might have been on our side when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring came out in 1962, Barry Commoner called attention to environmental threat of global pollution in the late 1960s, and we held the first Earth Day in 1970. That was 46 years ago. Time is not on our side now. Action is crucial now; we need to do everything possible to make the system move. Corporations that hide behind the bad-for-business apologias deserve boycotts. Everybody’s shoulders need to go to all the wheels – now.

The same dynamic underlies Israel’s miscalculation of its own position. It has now lost or is in the process of  losing all its allies. The majority there has been stubborn and stupid in denying that they needed to make any changes. But it’s become obvious to many more than those of us who’ve been crying in the wilderness for years. I know I’ll get hate mail – people cover up their own blindness by refusing to see and blaming everyone else around. Sorry. That won’t help. The problem isn’t me; it’s that the world has lost patience and it doesn’t particularly matter now if the world is right or wrong. Israel never had a future without allies and Israel has been squandering its erstwhile friends. It’s bet on the Republicans has only revealed the loss of support across the American political spectrum. So will Israel go the way of the Crusades? It will take a lot of far-sighted savvy to stave that off and I doubt their politics will permit it.

Two very different problems and yet two problems that are very similar. Meanwhile, I sit down to write some commentary, and here, two problems close to my heart are looking intractable and I don’t really know what to say. Help. Let’s get this done.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 22, 2016.


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