Poverty, Austerity and the New Normal
Both of my parents were born into poor families. My mother’s father was a security guard, and in those pre-1938 days worked 365 days a year, 12 hours per day. His employers thoughtfully let him go home for lunch with his family on Christmas Day. Without any sick leave or health insurance, he was forced to work right up until two weeks before he died of cancer. His situation was typical for the day and age. It’s no wonder he spent every rare free moment drinking heavily.
An empathy for the poor was drilled into me as a youngster. My mother would recount stories of how she and her siblings would wander over into the nicer sections of Washington, D.C., where they would forage for change that had been dropped on the lawns and in the streets. My father vividly described how he and his eight siblings slept in a single bed, in the rotating apartments they resided in. He talked about feeling the ice on the walls in the winter, and how he’d often return home from school to find a note on the door, directing him to their new dwelling.
I just finished reading Jack London’s marvelously powerful 1903 book The People of the Abyss. Much as John Howard Griffin would do, six decades later when he wrote Black Like Me, London blended into the East End of London, probably one of the western world’s most impoverished areas and scene of the Jack the Ripper murders twenty years previously, as one of the inhabitants. His first-hand experiences are must reading for any true student of history.
As horrific as their poverty was, the East Enders had it better than the Irish had in the nineteenth century. French sociologist, Gustave de Beaumont described his 1835 visit to Ireland in 1835 this way: “I have seen the Indian in his forests, and the Negro in his chains, and thought, as I contemplated their pitiable condition, that I saw the very extreme of human wretchedness; but I did not then know the condition of unfortunate Ireland…In all countries, more or less, paupers may be discovered; but an entire nation of paupers is what was never seen until it was shown in Ireland.”
Poverty was common in the Middle Ages. In Great Britain, the Church taught an obligation to help the poor, and they ran the only hospitals. During the Tudor age, unemployment was rampant, and disabled beggars, along with those pretending to be disabled, filled the streets. In 1530, the elderly and disabled were granted licenses to beg. Those who were not truly disabled were tied to a cart and whipped severely. Such “vagabonds” could be enslaved for a period of two years. Runaways were branded and became slaves for life.
England passed another odious law in 1697, requiring “paupers” to wear a blue or red “P” on their clothing. Most estimates claim that by the eighteenth century, half of England was living barely at the sustenance level. A century later, much dreaded workhouses were developed, where the unfortunate poor labored long hours in order to be modestly fed and housed. As London described it in his book, while the vaunted British Empire never saw the sun set upon it, an alarming number of her citizens were struggling in absolute squalor.
As a Baby Boomer, born in 1956, I took for granted the standard of living I enjoyed, in my lower middle-class family. Our neighborhood was quiet and safe, and my mother was always there to meet me when I arrived home from school. My father never made much money, but there was a sense of security there, and an idea that my future prospects were in my own hands. There were plentiful jobs during the 1970s and 1980s, and opportunities for promotion. Not to mention yearly raises at almost any position, and peak level benefits across the board.
Flash forward to 2016. The true unemployment rate is unknown, because the government releases phony numbers that count only those who are currently collecting unemployment benefits. But it certainly is the highest it’s been in my lifetime, and the kinds of jobs that are available tend to pay minimum wage or barely above that, with zero chances of advancement and no yearly raises. And benefits that were once enjoyed by nearly all full-time workers are becoming a thing of the past, what is increasingly referred to everywhere as “the new normal.”
The Right has unleashed their Ayn Rand-driven hostility towards the poor onto much of our society at large. The poor really, really aren’t “cool.” Much as the mentally retarded and other disabled persons used to be locked away, to be seen only by their caregivers, the poor are seen as an embarrassing nuisance that won’t go away. If some “conspiracy theorists” are right, there has already begun a class cleansing in some big cities, with the poor being scooped up and transferred to those diabolical FEMA camps.
One of the most hard-edged admonitions from the Bible, the “he who doesn’t work shall not eat” one, is becoming quite popular with the “conservatives” who still manage to unashamedly dress up and appear at church each Sunday. These folks would also like to eliminate the minimum wage, which is already a pittance no one can live on. And they’ve converted the wealthy into “job creators” in the public mind. They blanch like vampires in the sunlight at any references to my favorite Biblical verse, where Jesus talked about it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
My next book, due to be published in Spring 2017, Survival of the Richest, will focus on all these issues. The distribution of wealth in America goes far beyond the obscene salaries and benefit packages of CEOs. I examine the validity of our present marketplace, and how it seems to bestow economic rewards upon people often in inverse relation to their actual contributions to society.
While an increasing number of Americans seem to literally hate their own poor, most of these same people are sympathetic to the poor in other countries. They rarely protest against any foreign aid, for example. And they seem to be enthralled with permitting more and more immigrants, legal and illegal, into our country to compete with the huge numbers of unemployed and underemployed American citizens for dwindling jobs and limited resources.
Lyndon Johnson declared “war” on poverty in the 1960s, following his “accidental” ascension to the presidency. Much as the “war” on drugs begun by Ronald Reagan has proven to be a miserable failure, the “war” on poverty was lost a long time ago. The reason is simple; to truly eliminate poverty, you must have plentiful jobs, that each pay enough for a person to live decently. All wages must keep up with the ever increasing costs of living. And you just can’t do that when the richest people in your society are accruing millions as readily as the common riff-raff collect pocket change.
No one’s job, no one’s life, is worth hundreds, or thousands of times more than any other person’s. What message are we sending to the populace when executives who lay off thousands of meagerly paid workers are given huge bonuses as a reward for doing so? How is the marketplace fair, when a manual laborer can be fired for one simple mistake, with no “severance” package at all, while utter failures as CEOs such as Carly Fiorina can be given $40 million or more in “golden umbrellas” just to get them to leave the company?
The great socialist Eugene Debs, upon being convicted under the Sedition Act for his opposition to World War I, put things succinctly with, “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.” It is hard to improve upon this wonderful description of how our marketplace works.
Free enterprise, if it ever existed, is long gone, replaced by a globalist form of crony capitalism. Horatio Alger stories, if they ever existed, exist no more. My research has shown conclusively that the overwhelming majority of our wealthiest citizens came from at least upper middle-class backgrounds. The path to upward mobility is simply not there for all but a chosen few. The meritocracy that Thomas Jefferson dreamed about is just an unfulfilled dream from the eighteenth century.
The times are right for another Huey Long, to make the sinful disparity of wealth into a national campaign. Huey would be mortified at how America has fallen back to pre- Great Depression levels of inequality. The “new normal” preaches “sacrifice” from the bottom 80% of the population, the ones forever outside the corridors of power. Meanwhile, the top 20%, and especially the elite One Percent, are devising new methods daily to abscond what’s left of the wealth from the emaciated masses.
The statistics vary according to the source, but however you slice it, the mass of people in America have virtually no wealth. Over 60% have no savings at all. One in five homes have no people working in them. Yet all our leaders can do is to add more incredibly impoverished immigrants into the mix, who serve to further lower wages at the bottom of the employment ladder, and eliminate benefits. The Visa workers serve the same purpose at a slightly higher level; working for less and being happy with what, for them, is an increased standard of living.
For the rest of us, the aging Baby Boomers, their children and grandchildren, we must confront a selfishness, a greed that is difficult to comprehend. All people my age can do is hope they don’t steal our pensions, if we’re lucky enough to have them. For our children and grandchildren, the American Dream is dead. As George Carlin said, “They call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Our leaders are preaching austerity measures, and lowered expectations, which of course lead to a lowered standard of living. For us. For them, everything is cool.
Few people, even the most “liberal” among us, actually believe in human equality. After all, they live in guarded estates, safe from the impoverished hordes who considerately never wander into their neighborhoods. They preach gun control and have armed bodyguards. They talk about “education” and send their own children to expensive, lily white private schools. Their clubs and organizations display a startling lack of “diversity.” They simply don’t like the poor, but don’t want to publicly admit it.
Are we headed back to the days of Jack London’s abyss? It took me quite a while to realize just how uncharacteristic my childhood era of the 1960s-1970s was. The post- war boom, with unions at their peak of power, and the distribution of wealth as egalitarian as it has ever been, was a lovely aberration. We’re back to the “good old days” now, where a man was a man, and women were glad of it. If you don’t work, you don’t eat, and all that. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. The advice is endless, from those who are comfortable, and don’t ever have to avail themselves of it.
In a 1934 “Share Our Wealth” radio address, Huey Long described a situation that mirrors our own: “God told you what the trouble was. The philosophers told you what the trouble was; and when you have a country where one man owns more than 100,000 people, or a million people, and when you have a country where there are four men, as in America that have got more control over things than all the 120 million people together, you know what the trouble is.”
Indeed, we know “what the trouble is.” But those who have hoarded all the wealth simply will not “sacrifice” any of their ill gotten gains. The overriding political issue is the fact the majority of people do not have the money to meet the increasing costs of living. The answer is, as Huey Long knew, to share the wealth.