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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How Can We Protect American Workers

March 11, 2017

Trump’s power, and his policies on jobs, immigrants, religious and ethnic hatreds and the Alt-wrong are all related.

Scholars of intolerance tell us that threat breeds hate. I suspect that all we can say about why immigrants and Muslims are really good people only makes those who feel threatened feel more threatened, because instead of talking about their needs we’re praising someone else.

So I want to talk about the needs of Americans who feel threatened economically and what can be done regarding their economic losses, recognizing that the disfunction in American politics is partly due to the desperation of workers who’ve lost once good jobs.

Protecting American workers is crucial both because people suffer when they can’t find good jobs, and because desperate or threatened people take dangerous risks at the polls and elsewhere. We must protect workers both for their sakes and for ours; it’s much the same thing.

It’s our job because government fiscal, tax, programmatic and other policy decisions daily determine how many jobs there are. Some people can make their own opportunities, but, to be fair, most good, decent, hard-working people can’t.

What can we do about it? Sometimes it helps just to set out the options. Here are the choices I can see:

FDR created unemployment compensation and Nixon proposed a negative income tax – safety-net approaches based on direct income transfers. Many object, including those who benefit from handouts, tax loopholes, deductions, farm price supports, subsidies etc. – the tax code and the budget are replete with them. But direct financial transfers are one possibility.

A second approach is to pay for jobs indirectly through trade policies. All three presidential candidates talked about that. I understand the fear of foreign competition even though there are reasons to look for other solutions for American workers: limiting foreign imports hides the cost in the price of things we buy, and isolates the American economy from developments elsewhere. It also might not work; actual hiring decisions would rest on other people’s decisions. But we can’t overcome the fear if we can’t commit to other steps, and all the talk about the risk to Social Security fans that fear.

A third approach, the conservative free market approach, is not really a solution for the working person at all – it simply puts the monkey on workers’ backs to find jobs or starve.

A fourth approach is to create new jobs by government action – fiscal stimulus, infrastructure development, and investment in science and education, all of which call for construction, maintenance and technical jobs. That’s what Obama called for but Congress drastically whittled his effort down.

Why can’t government be employer of last resort? That would automatically support a minimum wage, create better communities, and make life better for all of us. It’s not the free lunch some people worry about; it’s a job. What’s so terrible about giving people what Tom Paxton called “a job of work to do”? There’s plenty to do if we were willing to invest in our people, our workers, our infrastructure, and our environment. Sometimes spending a little can make the community more attractive and the economy zing while providing a decent income to people who need a job.

Some countries use all of those methods and have quite robust economies.

Those are the alternatives I can see: the free marketeers’ defining it away as the workers’ problem, the safety net approach of income transfers, paying indirectly through trade policies or subsidies for the appearance of helping workers, or creating jobs through fiscal stimulus or hiring people to do needed work. My preference is to put people to work – that way protecting others is good for us all. One way or the other, standing up for each other is essential.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 7, 2017.


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