Monday, September 24, 2018

Poverty in the United States

The Census Bureau reports that about 13% of the US population lived in poverty in 2017. The recovery from the 2008 recession has improved economic conditions for many Americans but has not touched the poor. There are as many poor people today as there were 10 years ago.
The White House denies this. They criticize the methodology used by the Census Bureau. The way they calculate poverty only 3% of Americans are poor. But most economists and statistician do not accept that conservative view of poverty.
Who are the poor? Conservatives try to tell us that people live in poverty because they are unwilling to work. Hence there is a big push to deny any kind of assistance to citizens who do not go to school or have a job. But this is sheer prejudice. 35% of the poor are children, 25% have jobs, often more than one. 10% are disabled, another 10% are senior citizens. 8% of the poor are caregivers – they cannot go out and work because they are needed to care for children, or a sick, or elderly, or disabled family member. 3% have taken early retirement, 7% are enrolled in school. There remain 3% who are not working. The other 97% are poor because they are prevented from working by their age, their occupation (such as caregivers), or their disabilities. A quarter of the poor do work, another 7% are students.
These official numbers, moreover, ignore some important additional categories. In the United States there are more than 2 million people in prison. They and often their families are unable to make a decent living. To that we must add a significant number of undocumented workers who earn less than the legal minimum wage. Their employers can pay them illegally low wages because the undocumented will not complain about their mistreatment.
It is worth noting that 25% of the poor are working but their wages are so low that they do not have enough money to pay for rent and food and other necessities. By some estimates, 25% of all workers in the US earn less than $10 an hour. Such low wages are clearly one important cause of the continued poverty of our fellow citizens.
Different sources will provide somewhat different numbersfor different categories of poverty but the general message is the same: poverty is very significant in our country and, even in a growing economy, the percentage of poor people remains the same, year in, year out.
These facts are clearly scandalous. Poverty in the United States is much more serious than in other developed countries. The United States is not only the richest country in the world but also the developed country with the highest poverty rate. It is also the poorest country among the Western capitalist countries.
It is not difficult to see what needs to be done to drastically lower the rate of poverty. The federal minimum wage needs to be raised to $15 or $20 an hour. We need to seriously reduce the number of prisoners and make sure that families of prisoners are taken care of. Welfare payments must become more generous. We must make sure that everyone, without exception, has enough food, a decent living space, and access to healthcare and education.
These are the initial steps that we must take but there is tremendous opposition against those not only in the White House but across all of America. The poor are the targets of harsh prejudice. They get blamed for their own poverty. They are said to be poor because they refuse to do a day’s work, because they are self indulgent, and lack basic skills. The poor are thought to be largely teenage (black) women who have children at 14 and 15 years of age. They are thought to be sexually licentious--an inclination inherited from the African ancestors of several hundred years ago.
Some of these accusations are clearly ridiculous and others, as we have already seen, false and unjust. The poverty rate of Black and Hispanic Americans is higher than that of Whites. But the white population in the US is much larger than the black and hispanic population. Almost 59 million Hispanics are poor, as are 42 million Black Americans. 195 million of Whites live in poverty-- more than twice the number of Hispanic and African-Americans poor. If you encounter a poor person the chance is one in two that you meet a White person.
Why do prejudices against continue to be so powerful? That question has different answers for different portions of our population.
Our leaders, from the White House on down, believe, like most Americans, that a good life is a successful life. Success they define as making lots of money. By those standards, the poor are complete failures and are therefore deserving of nothing more than contempt. The chief policymakers in America, accordingly, look down on the poor and never hesitate to disparage them.
But the people in charge not only have no respect for the poor they actively hate them. Congress is constantly considering legislation to tear the social safety net, to put stricter limits on who is eligible for food or rent aid. Elected representatives compete with each other for proposing further inroads in the already limited support for the poor.
Conservatives keep talking about the blessings of capitalism, of the so-called "free market." They believe that the economy should not be regulated by the government. This amounts to saying that unfettered capitalism without any regulations to protect consumers or workers would be to everybody's advantage. The fact is, however, that even a regulated capitalism, as we have it, leaves more than 10% of the population living in poverty. Capitalism is not in everybody's interest. It leaves significant number of citizens in dire poverty. The existence of large numbers of poor people in what we like to call "the richest country in the world"show that capitalism is not the boon our richest fellow Americans believe it is. The poor in America stand as an indisputable proof of the inadequacies of capitalism.
Rich capitalists, like Donald Trump, hate the poor for that reason: they constitute a living refutation of the quasi-religion of the free market.
The hatred of the poor has a large component of racism. Different sections of the population have different reasons for perpetuating it. Middle-class Americans have failed to get rich; they just get by. Given the prevailing idea that getting rich is the mark of success, the middle class is not successful. They can console themselves over that failure by distinguishing their own work ethic from the, actually mythical, laziness of the poor.
The lower middle class, a section on the population always in danger of descending into actual poverty, can reassure itself that it will not end up genuinely poor by trotting out the myth of the lazy poor. They, the lower middle class, work hard. They faithfully go to the job every day whbere they are underpaid. They are virtuous, they are not like the poor, lazy and without skills. So they don't, they think, have to worry about being really poor-- until the next recession when they face real, grinding poverty.
Different sections of the population have different reasons for subscribing to the mythology of the poor as indolent, unable to control themselves, lacking basic skills. They all share the same set of values that wealth is the sign of success. One has lived one's life well if one has accumulated lots of money and property.
That is the ethic that goes with capitalism. The goal in life should be making more money than the next guy. Little value is placed on integrity, on being a loyal life partner or friend, on being a good parent or child to those parents. Public service, loyalty to one's country is given lip service but do not really count. Its all about being rich, owning a bigger house, a vacation home at the shore, a big cabin cruiser, etc.
America's relationship to its poor not only shows that capitalism is a failure as an economic system but, even more importantly, it is a failure as the basis of our national ethic and our ideas of what makes human lives good lives and lives worth living.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

                                                                 Labor Day 2018

 Labor day was instituted as a national holiday in the 1880s. It was meant to celebrate American workers who were building a country of exceptional wealth and, as it would turn out, exceptional international power. But hundred and forty years later, Labor Day is not a celebration of much of anything. It is a long weekend, the beginning of a new school year and one more occasion to go to the mall and spend money. Labor is not doing well; wages have remained stagnant even in an economy daily celebrated as suprisingly productive. The country is thriving if you look at it from the perspective of those who are daily getting richer. It is not thriving in other ways.

These days everyone focuses on the President but that, of course, is just being lazy. There are thousands in positions of leadership in the military, in government, in universities and foundations who daily put one foot in front of the other and do not ever ask themselves where we are going. The country has lost any sense of direction. There are no clear goals. It is every man and every woman for him or herself and those that do not thrive and prosper are forgotten or, worse, blamed for their failure to enrich themselves in the brutal free-for-all.

Here are just two examples of our nation being completely lost, drifting no one knows where and not many people caring.

The current commanding officer in Afghanistan retired on Labor Day. The war, he reminded his audience in his farewell speech, has been going on for 17 years [SEVENTEEN years!!]. A war that began as punishment for Afghanistan's harboring Al-Quaeda is now a war against the Taliban and is, if the retiring commander is to be believed, a war we are slowly losing. But the commanding general in Afghanistan has not once spoken with the President, the Commander in Chief. The President seems not interested in the daily sacrifices of human lives and the enormous losses of weapons and other equipment paid for by American taxpayers. The military leadership seems content to stumble ahead blindly. Elected legislators in Congress are too busy with their war against the previous administration to consider what should be done with this endless war. In the current electoral campaigns I have not heard of any candidate who speaks out against continuing this bloody engagement. 

What shall we think about a country that continues to fight a war simply because no one wants to think about it? What shall we think of a country whose foreign policy rests on public relations slogans. The war in Afghanistan is referred to as "Operation Enduring Freedom." But this war has nothing to do with our freedom because a nation that conducts its affairs without any clear goals, without questioning the usefulness, let alone morality, of its policies can hardly consider itself free. Free citizens and free nations make clear eyed choices. We have not made any choices about the Afghanistan war in a very long time.

Here is one more news item from Labor Day that illustrates the total disarray of our nation. A year after hurricane Harvey flooded and devastated Houston Texas, many of the victims still are unable to live in their houses devastated by the storm. The government agency tasked with assisting the victims of natural disasters, FEMA, has provided some aid but left the reconstruction efforts woefully incomplete. A year later many people still cannot live in their houses and have to live with friends or relatives. These facts are not controversial; their interpretation is. We frequently hear that the continued homelessness of poor folks is not surprising. Their lack of minimal sources is to blame. The poor are poor because they are poor.We blame the poor for still having houses no one can live in. We are saying: "I do not want to think about this. Its their own stupid fault."

During tropical storm Florence in North Carolina, many, particularly elderly and poor people did not evacuate. They too get blamed for that--another thoughtless refusal to be informed and think seriously about our fellow citizens. Many elderly people lack automobiles. Had they left their homes where would they have gone. They had no money for hotels; the shelters were full. Many could not leave their pets which play central roles in their lives. Did anyone who blames them for not evacuating offer spacer in their homes?

As a country, we are content to allow people – significant numbers of people, especially children – to live in poverty, to not have enough food at the end of a pay period, to lack reliable transportation to get to work and home again, not to have access to excellent healthcare or education.

These facts alone are shameful but they are testimony to our widespread thoughtlessness. Americans like to brag about how great America is but they don't think about their fellow citizens who lack of work that pays a living wage, who, because they are the wrong color, because they have some infirmity or another, cannot make a decent living-- often only because their employer refuses to pay a decent wage. But we see no great uprising of outrage about how some of our fellow Americans have to live in extended periods of poverty. In the current political campaigns economic inequality is a theme. But I have yet to hear a candidate who has a concrete plan for assuring everyAmerican, everyone who lives in this country, a life of sufficiency without having to suffer anxiety about feeding their children or making sure that they get the medical care and the education they not only need but are entitled to.
Instead we go on going on stumbling forward or perhaps backward or sideways. No one knows where. No one thinks about it.

It is important to repeat that focusing on the vagaries of the existing President is clearly a way of dodging the larger issues which have been with us for a long time. We have refused and are still refusing to ask ourselves the important questions about why we conduct our affairs as we do, what our goals are, what it would mean for America to be great.

What are we trying to achieve it Afghanistan? Why are we allowing the poor to suffer disproportionately? As long as no one asks these and similar questions we will continue to wander around in our fog of indifference. We will remain a nation lost.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Our Democracy

A friend was recently deploring the state of our political landscape. She was troubled not only by the measures the government was taking and the utter chaos created by the president in his fairly random and unpredictable tweets, but also by the ordinary citizen’s sense of impotence. We can complain, she said, but there is really nothing we can do. We as ordinary citizens are without any power whatsoever to affect the conduct of this government. We have no power at all to moderate its hostility towards our friends or the support we are giving to brutal dictators all around the globe from North Korea to the Philippines to Israel or Russia.
She merely repeated what many other people have been saying: in our democracy citizens seem to be unable to affect legislative decisions or the apparently random policy choices of the executive.
But this time I stopped and asked a question: how can it be a democracy if citizens are unable to affect government decisions? Don't we always say that in a democracy the people rule? But how can the people rule if they have no power over the actions of their government?
We encounter here one of the contradictions in popular thinking about democracy. On the one hand, we consider a country a democracy if the citizens at large rule, that is, if they determine government policy perhaps not in intricate details but at least in broad outline. But on the other hand we think of democracies as systems where periodically the citizens cast ballots in favor of one representative instead of another and, sometimes, in favor or against a policy. In this way voters in different states, for instance, have decided to legalize the use of marijuana. On this view a reasonably well functioning electoral system is all a country needs to be considered a democracy.
But we can learn from our current condition, that casting ballots for representatives and the president does not give us the power to run our own lives in ways we choose. When the government takes small children away from their immigrant parents we can be totally outraged but whether that outrage affects government policy is up to the president and the people he chose to police our borders. If they do not respond to us, we are powerless to change their behavior.
The lesson to be learned from our present condition is that holding periodic elections, even if those elections are a squeaky clean, does not make us into a democracy. Only where the people rule can they claim to live in a democracy, where they have power to change government policy in specific instances, such as taking children away from their parents and detaining the parents under utterly deplorable conditions without proper bedding, clean water, and decent food.
As our government system is set up now, we, the voters, do not have the power to affect government policy. What kinds of changes would we need to restore the power that rightfully belongs to us?
It is interesting and distressing that this question is not being raised very often in America today. There is a great deal of discussion about different voting schemes, but there is no discussion, that I know of, of ways of restoring the power to the people.
But there are of course ideas that bear on this question. The most common example are discussions in different cities about citizens' review boards over police behavior. Here is a suggestion that the actions of a government agency, the police, should be regularly supervised by citizens who are not part of the police but are, instead, expected to represent the interests and concerns of citizens. In many places police behavior, especially towards African-Americans and Hispanic citizens, is often violent and demonstrably unjust. Citizens; review boards would possibly restore the citizens ability to exercise at least some control over police conduct.
Police in different localities have been quite successful in agitating against the institution of such review boards. Typically this particular government agency is quite unwilling to subject itself to the supervision by citizens. The same, of course, is true of many if not most government agencies. They may talk volubly about our democracy but they are really opposed to measures that might make our country more democratic.
We can hope to make our government more genuinely democratic by subjecting specific branches of the executive to citizens' supervision, for instance, by setting up police review boards. Electing school boards is another familiar technique. Citizen control over schools has been enhanced in some large cities by establishing local school boards to supervise the running of local schools by neighborhood groups. In other cities committees of patients at local health centers have been enlisted to mobilize neighborhoods in support of better health care and better health practices.
We actually know how to strengthen our democracy by instituting citizens participation in and supervision of government agencies. But the lack of citizen initiatives and the concerted resistance of government agencies has, so far, stymied many efforts. How can your neighborhood strengthen its ability to supervise government activities where you live?