Wednesday, March 28, 2018

What Price "Greatness"?

The economy is booming. It is in better shape than it has been for many years. In many industries there is beginning to be a shortage of workers. People who have not worked for extended periods are going back to work. Unemployment at 4.1% is lower than a long time ago. Things in the economy are truly splendid.
We hear this message almost every day. But there is another message equally frequent: American workers have not gotten a decent raise in about 50 years. A few weeks ago the schoolteachers in West Virginia who make little more than $45,000 a year had to go on strike for nine days in order to get a 5% raise. Now teachers in Oklahoma are considering going on strike. In more than 20 states in the US, schoolteachers earn less than $50,000 a year. If they do not want to live in poverty, they need to have a second and third job. The time they spend away from school, they cannot prepare for their classes, think up new exciting projects for their children, and go and get advanced teacher training because they have second and third jobs just to make ends meet.
Health care is in crisis. Every week there are new plans to cut back health insurance for the poor and almost poor. The government does not have the money to ensure every American adequate health care.
There are significant number of Americans – many of them Americans of color – who are really poor, poor enough for them or their children to go without any food several times a month. If it were not for churches and other civic organizations who put up shelters and soup kitchens for the homeless, they would have to starve and freeze to death in the cold winter. The largest number of homeless persons are mothers with children fleeing violent husbands and boyfriends. Another large cohort are addicts. The government, let alone private institutions, do not have the money to provide enough beds in rehab institutions. There is no help for many addicts who would like to overcome the scourge of addiction. There is no money to build enough low-cost housing for people who cannot afford skyrocketing rents in urban areas.
President Trump was elected on the promise of rebuilding American roads and bridges and public buildings. The actual project as it now emerges is considerably more modest. The government has little money for infrastructure improvement. They can simply hope that private companies will manage to make money off some roads and some bridges and the other ones will simply have to wait – we don't know until when.
The government has cut back on support for scientific research; there is little money for dealing with environmental problems such as major floods, deforestation, and mudslides.
In short, the government is broke. It cannot afford to do a decent job at providing a good life, good education, good health care for all Americans.
The reason for this is obvious. More than half of our government budget of $1.11 trillion a year goes to the military, to a large standing army, to incredibly fancy and sophisticated weapons. It goes towards maintaining American military installations in 737 different locations outside the continental United States. The American military is everywhere. So are more less secret government agencies like the CIA maintaining black sites, secret prisons, and torture chambers in many places we don't even know about.
Spending all this money on the military we are slowly sinking into the condition of a developing country.
"But what would you have us do?" You might say. "Don't you want us to maintain our dominance as a world power? America is the most powerful country on earth and we need to maintain that."
Americans have said this for a long time and not only the man and woman in the street but also leaders like Pres. Obama or Hilary Clinton, let alone President Trump, have been committed to maintaining our preeminence in the world. But in their eagerness to maintain our military capacity, they have impoverished our nation to the point where our claims to dominance are becoming slightly ridiculous.
A country that is unable to feed all its citizens, that provides only a very second-rate education for many of its children, that is unable to house all its citizens at all, let alone decently, that is unable to provide good health care for all, a nation whose citizens die when they drive over bridges that collapse, or when they drive on really poorly maintained roads – can such a nation really claim to be preeminent?
A nation whose values are so mixed up that they believe themselves to be a great nation, although their citizens suffer, because they have military installations all over the world at the expense of a decent life for their citizens – such a nation nation is confused, not preeminent.
Very many Americans understand that in some way. They voted for a man who vowed to make America great again. They know that America is not great today in spite of our $600 billion a year of military budget.
We must take the next step and cut that military budget in half and keep cutting it every year until being an American, rich or poor, means having a decent life, getting enough to eat, living in decent housing. Being assured that your children get as good an education as they can and as good health care as possible – that is part of making America great, not having gold draperies in the Oval Office and people sleeping in the streets in the middle of winter.
A nation is not great that confuses military might with greatness, that cares more about wreaking violence abroad than promoting good lives at home.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Myth of the Lazy Poor

The Trump administration has recently suggested that recipients of Medicaid – health insurance for the poor – be forced to have a job or go to school if they want to retain their health insurance, however limited. This revives a theme which has been current in American mythology for a long time. The story is that the poor are to be blamed for their own poverty. They are poor because they refuse to work. Poverty is not anyone's fault except for the poor and their laziness.
People actually believe this, however incredible that may seem. But look at the plain facts: Beginning January 1, 2018 workers on federal contracts must be paid at least $10.35 an hour. If someone works a 40 hour week that amounts to $414. On an annual basis this would amount to $20,700.00. Federal guidelines defined a family of three persons as poor if they are earned $20,780 or less. If two parents have one child and one partner works 40 hours a week all year they are still poor. If two parents both go to work who will take care of their child and how much will that cost them? But what if they want two children?
Disneyland in Anaheim, CA employs more than 30,000 workers. Half of them earn $15.00 an hour or less. In Anaheim, in Orange County, the cost of living is exceptionally high. It takes $33,000.00 for a single person to live, to pay rent, buy food, insurance and maintain a car. If you earn $ 15.00 an hour your annual income is $ 30,000.00. Many Disneyland employees live in their cars or trucks.
People are not poor because they are too lazy to work. They are poor because their earnings are very low. This story about the poor who only have themselves to blame is a myth propagated by employers who pay minimum wage. "It's not our fault" they say, "it's the fault of the poor people themselves." But as we can see there is no truth to this.
Some time ago, I published a blog that dealt with an aspect of these questions. I pointed out that making poor people work for public housing, or Medicare, or food stamps or what have you is often defended on the grounds that everyone ought to work. Against that I argued that it matters a lot what sort of work people are made to do. There is work that is mind numbing and destroys the soul. No one should be forced to do that sort of work. In fact no one should have to do that sort of work. If people were offered work that is interesting, that makes one happy, few would have to be forced to do that.
But now an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Aaron E. Carroll, MD "The Problem with Work Requirements for Medicaid" February 20, 2018, page 646) examines the facts bearing on this project.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 80% of Medicaid recipients "are from working families." This breaks down as follows: 42% work full time, 18% work part-time, 14% do not work at all because they are disabled or ill, 6% attend school. That leaves 19% of Medicaid recipients who do not work at all. Of those 12% are caregivers for ill or disabled family members. Of all Medicaid recipients 7% are not working at all. Among those remaining 7%, some are looking for work and can't find any, and others are retired and or elderly. There remain about 3% of Medicaid recipients who could be described as "able-bodied adults" who choose not to work. This is a very different picture from the "lazy poor" narrative promoted by employers and their advocates among politicians.
Dr. Carroll's article quotes two other studies which find a higher numbers of able-bodied non-working Medicare recipients but those usually include older Americans or Americans who are in some way disabled. There is no evidence that there are a large numbers of poor people who refuse to work. In fact, there are probably more rich people who inherited large fortunes from their parents and grandparents, who are not working than people who live at the edge of poverty. Why allow the rich to be idle and keep bearing down on the hard working people who get paid so poorly that they remain in poverty?
The wealthy who can leave large fortunes to their children and grandchildren often acquire those fortunes by paying poverty wages to their workers. That is a pretty shameful way of making money. Instead of recognizing the immorality of that and paying workers a living wage, many employers use some of the money made by paying too little to live on to get politicians to repeat the myth of the lazy poor.
Do not be taken in by their lies!