The Immortality of Poverty
We’ve all heard the saying, “nothing is certain in life but death and taxes. I would add a third inevitable item to this list: poverty. Lyndon B. Johnson waged a phony war on it, and liberals have raged against it for ages. And still it remains. Poverty is inexorably tied to human greed, and as long as one exists, so will the other.
In the Middle Ages, the poor were labeled peasants. Being a peasant under the harsh realities of feudalism must have really, really sucked. While the lords got the best of everything, peasants swore an oath on the Bible to not only their lords, but the dukes, earls and barons who owned those lords’ properties.
The peasants were also called serfs, clearly differentiated from their superiors, who were also referred to as nobles. The nobility had a great deal- the serfs performed all the physical labor, while they reaped the rewards of that labor. The peasants still had to pay not only rent for a tiny share of land to live on, but a special tax called a tithe which went to the all-powerful Church. This 10% tithe still has an enduring popularity in the world of Christian fundamentalism, which falsely claims it is mandated somewhere in the Bible. It isn’t. The Church collected so much “tithe tax” (peasants often had to pay in produce, since they had little cash), that some of the massive barns they built to store it can still be seen today.
Some of the most unfortunate souls in past times were forced to stay up all night and beat the lily pads outside the castles of royalty, to drown out the croaking frogs that might otherwise keep those kings, queens, princes and princesses awake. The poor in Elizabethan England didn’t share in even a Reagan-style trickling down of the wealth from such legendary figures as Queen Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, Sir Francis Drake or Sir Walter Raleigh. Before the Reformation, the extensive monastery system in England would assist the poor, but this was not available in the later part of Tudor England.
Charles Dickens and other reformers attempted to illuminate the awful conditions of the poor in Victorian England. The East End of London was more abysmal and dangerous than any modern American ghetto. A large percentage of females of all ages were forced to resort to the world’s oldest occupation in order to eke out what passed for an existence. Homelessness was so rampant that doss houses- pathetic group dwellings which sold a filthy cot or even a spot on the floor for the night, littered the East End’s landscape.
In nineteenth century America, as in much of Europe, there was at least a partial sense of responsibility for the poor, that was reflected in state poor laws, which mandated that towns take care of their own poorest residents. By the 1870s, the term “tramp” had become familiar to all; describing poor, rootless men who traveled by foot or illegally rode the railroads in an effort to find work. Some families were so strapped for food they sent their children out to scavenge through garbage, in a precursor to today’s dumpster divers.
Outright slavery, indentured servitude, sharecropping, squatting, unpaid interns, illegal immigrants- the desire on the part of those with money has always been to get the cheapest labor possible. I sincerely believe that the One Percent personally wants to bring back slavery. Illegal immigrant labor is about as close as they can come at this point. Around the world today, there are actually still some 30 million slaves. 10 million are in India alone, which provides so many of those H1-b visa workers, who are bringing down wages in IT in the same manner illegals helped to bring down the wages of those on the bottom rung of the employment ladder.
The longest war in human history is still being waged. The rich have always waged war upon the rest of us, especially the poor. Class warfare isn’t something that will suddenly happen if the wealthy actually have to share in all that “sacrifice” they keep demanding of everyone else. It’s been happening forever, and it’s really happening now.
When a minimum wage worker ends up paying more taxes than a billionaire (which has happened far too many times), that’s warfare. When a wealthy driver with a bad record pays less for insurance than a poor driver with a good record (which is common), that’s warfare. When a poor person who can’t keep up payments on a loan has their interest rate raised, making it even harder to pay, that’s warfare. When a poor person is caught with crack and gets a much harsher sentence than a wealthy person caught with powdered cocaine, that’s warfare.
When the CEO making $40 million in compensation cuts the remaining perks and benefits of his non-management workforce, that’s warfare. When a student who rolled up a huge loan debt that can only be repaid with a high-paying job, is offered only low-paying positions that never even used to require a degree, that’s warfare. When politicians demand that recipients of truly minimal government aid be required to work or volunteer, thereby cutting into any time they might have to actually look for a paid job, that’s warfare.
When companies hire interns and don’t pay them, often for extended periods of time, that’s warfare. When business owners lie about not being able to find workers when all statistics show there are far more job seekers than jobs, that’s warfare. When politicians look to slash bottom-tier social programs that grant modest benefits to very poor people, while supporting the building of stadiums for billionaire sports team owners at taxpayer expense, that’s warfare.
When anyone loses a job or a home because of the costs of a catastrophic illness, that’s warfare. When a homeless person is forced to “move along,” even though he has nowhere else to be, that’s warfare. When the price of a small apartment is beyond the means of the average worker, that’s warfare. When the cost of living continues to skyrocket in all areas, while companies increasingly refuse to give any pay raises to non-management personnel, that’s warfare.
When pensions are being eliminated, and aren’t even a possibility to average workers under the age of forty, that’s warfare. When debtors prisons are making a comeback, as they are, that’s warfare. When layoffs and outsourcing go hand in hand with incomprehensibly lavish executive pay, that’s warfare. When the minimum wage isn’t raised for years, and an increasing number of politicians actually want to abolish it, that’s warfare.
This subject is foremost in my mind now, with the upcoming July publication of my second nonfiction book, Survival of the Richest. I am about as anti-war as a person can be, but I’m going to the front lines on this one. We need more people to fight back, against the relentless onslaught of the One Percent, as it continues to do what it has always done.
Abraham Lincoln said, “The Lord must have loved the common people. He made so many of them.” This kind of aw shucks, disingenuous “pro” poor rhetoric, which seeks to persuade the poor that their awful financial circumstances is actually some kind of blessing, has always been popular with politicians. Religious types love to quote the Bible and remind us, “The poor you will always have among you.” This little gem is supposed to assuage our concern for the poor, just like the “you will hear of wars and rumors of war” quote is supposed to make us resigned to perpetual war.
There is nothing sacred, or spiritual, about being poor. With all the wealth at our disposal, it’s criminal that poverty still exists. I truly hope that my new book will be an effective weapon for our side in this eternal class warfare.