The Forty-Seven Percent

Many years ago my three children and I were nearly homeless. Child support wasn’t coming and I was too sick to work. In addition, no jobs paid enough to pay child care for three children under five. We went from a two bedroom apartment to a temporary home in an old, unfinished, scarey basement. I searched for housing desperately, thinking at one time I had half a World War 11 hut where I couldn’t stand up straight except in the very center of the room and another time a tiny adobe house without heating. Both fell through and I cried from frustration and fear. Finally, we ended up on welfare and food stamps, and I was able to get an upstairs apartment in an old house. I began to work again, and with food stamps, our lives became more secure.

Years later I wrote a guest editorial for the Arizona Daily Star. It wasn’t published for some weeks, then I opened my paper on Easter Sunday and it was a lead editorial. In it I explained the circumstances under which my three children and I sunk into poverty and said that welfare assistance not only let us find a place to live, but seemed to save my sanity because I knew that at least my children would have shelter, food, and medical care. I was a much more effective mother when I was sure of those minimal conditions.

In the editorial I mentioned quickly that my children were adults now. One daughter is a family practice doctor who specializes in diabetes care, primarily for the under served; another daughter is a clerk of court in North Carolina; and my son is in IT management at the University of Sidney in Australia. They are all contributing to our social system, and my children and I have paid back in taxes the help we were given when they were small.

I also said it wasn’t necessary for children to end up being as productive as mine had been in order to make maintenance of a welfare-like system a moral and socially productive policy.

I got several supportive letters from people who read the essay. (This was before the wide spread use of the internet.) Then I also got what seemed like hate mail. They said, in effect, “You made your bed, you lie in it,” and that I was lazy, irresponsible, and generally had a view of myself as victim and entitled to other people’s money. The letters felt hot, like they were burning my hand. I wanted to say I am not lazy, that I have worked since I was ten, and that as a young woman I was as a responsible and a good mother as I could be.

All this resonates, of course, with Romney’s 47% speech. When he talked about people he wasn’t concerned with I pictured my children, the children of friends back then, and children I work with in a program for poor mothers. He just wrote them off.

I’ve been reading a book called, Why American Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy, by Martin Gilens. It was published in 1999, so, of course, he doesn’t have information from the Great Recession. But he has important things to say. He found that most Americans wanted to help the deserving poor, but what so angers people is the “perception that most people currently receiving welfare are undeserving. While no one factor can fully account for the public’s opposition to welfare, the most important single component is the widespread belief that most welfare recipients would rather sit home and collect benefits than work hard to support themselves.”

He also argues that “racial stereotypes play a central role in generating opposition to welfare in America. In particular, the centuries-old stereotype of blacks as lazy…” He says that politically motivated, cruel, and inaccurate stereotype has been reinforced by biased coverage of both black people and poor people in the popular press.” It certainly was reinforced when Reagan described the “welfare queen,” who received benefits from multiple identities. No such woman existed. The fact is that most people who receive what we call welfare do so only for a time and return to paid employment.

Hopefully, after the Recession, when so many people’s family members or friends have been out of work and partially dependent on food stamps, the characterization of them as moochers will be lessened. I hear real anger towards Romney in the 47% who know how hard they work.

The statistics are mentioned so often they almost fly away from us, but they are important. Nearly 22% of children living in the U.S. are in poverty. A higher percentage of American children are living in poverty today than in 1975. Median household incomes are falling. And “every day large numbers of American families get dumped out of the middle class and into poverty.” (12/12/11

Let’s hear it from the Forty-Seven Percent!

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Hunger (encore, on vacation)

I waited on our front porch in Colorado everyday, willing the mailman to bring me my child support check. The trees where the starlings roosted hovered over the porch roof. I was a single mother with three young children, and my funds were rapidly being spent for food. Day after day, our food supply lessened, and the child support check didn’t come. I had tried everything to get support and nothing seemed to work. Finally, I was down to $1.75 and a few cans of food. The mailman walked past me. Hundreds of starlings took to the sky as he said, “Nothing for you today.” I knew I had to go back down to the food stamp office.

I had been on food stamps for several months earlier, then I found work that allowed me to go off them. Now I was sick and couldn’t work, and child support was essential. But it didn’t come. I was so ashamed. Somehow I had to communicate to the welfare office that not only did I not have money but also that I had let us get so bad.

Two of my kids stayed with friends and one daughter went with me. In the waiting room, I took a number and sat with other women and children. We avoided each other’s eyes. The same bouquet of faded beige flowers sat on the counter. My little girl read instructions from the pop machine. In the time between my two experiences with food stamps, she had learned to read. Finally, my name was called.

An hour later, my daughter and I skipped down the sidewalk on our way home. I was so happy, and she was happy with me. Food stamp officials were kind, had given me an emergency allotment of $64, and more would be coming. We were hungry and couldn’t wait to go to the grocery store.

Food stamps, what is now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has been an emergency source for similar families for the last five and a half decades, beginning under President Kennedy. According to Lisa Sharon Harper (Sojomail, e/22/12), “one of the reasons SNAP works so well right now is that its funding has the flexibility to fluctuate up and down when there is a change in need.” That made it extraordinarily helpful during the Great Recession. Not only has it fed millions of hungry families, but I know during my time of troubles, it kept me sane. I knew that if I proved how desperate we were, there would be at least minimal food for my children.

That source of help is in serious danger now. Senator Paul Ryan has proposed a radical, reverse-Robin Hood plan that would cut funds from SNAP and give even larger tax breaks to the rich. It would block grant SNAP and send a fixed amount of money for it to the states. I live in Arizona now and certainly don’t trust it to fairly administer an inflexible amount of reduced funds.

Brad Plumer, in a blog from the Washington Post, says that over the next decade, Ryan plans to spend about 16 percent less than the White House on “income security,” which includes programs for the poor that range from food stamps to housing assistance to the earned-income tax credit. That means millions of people will go hungry.

Lee Sharon Harper declares, “Ryan, as a Catholic, has flagrantly disregarded the moral counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which released a statement on March 6 affirming the following:

Congress should base decisions on the federal budget on whether they protect or threaten human life and dignity, whether they put the needs of the hungry, the homeless and the unemployed first, and whether they reflect the shared responsibility of government and other institutions to promote the common good of all, especially workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult times.”

We must fight against Ryan and Romney and other forces that would slash funding for the poor and those struggling to make it through this period of difficulty. We can write letters, we can raise our voices in public, and we can work on campaigns that oppose the Ryan budget. And most of all we can vote and register others to vote. Why do we in the United States attempt to punish our poor? Is the fact of their existence so terrifying to us?

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The New Jim Crow (encore, on vacation)

I first saw the title six months ago., “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (1210).” Could it be that the author was comparing our current prison system to the notorious system of segregation that I’d written about, a system that likewise trapped millions of people in blighted lives? While I knew whites warehoused in the prisons, most of those I pictured were black or brown.

When we traveled to California, we drove past a state prison at night. Spot lights from watch towers glowed in the darkness, bathing the barbed- wire-topped fences with yellow. Huddled in the center were cell blocks with no windows. What is it like to be unable to even glimpse the mountains or the stars?

I thought of an African American boy I’d helped care for when he was little. Unlike those trapped in urban ghettos, he grew among mountains, the sun shining and the wind blowing in his face. Once we climbed to a barn high in the foothills, then the clear bright air changed and a summer thunder storm blew in. We cut out holes in plastic garbage bags and, laughing, slipped down the mountain.

Within a few years, Peter acted according to community expectations and was caught with drug possession. It started a landslide in his young life. He went to juvenile prison, then prison for adults. He was released with no skills and an attitude, offended again, and was in for good. What must it be like, raised in the hills, to never feel the wind in your face?

Finally, the day I ordered The New Jim Crow, my agent sent me a copy. The author compares the prison system of today to slavery and life under Jim Crow. She says that for black and brown men, as will as many whites and women, mass incarceration is a well-designed system of racialized social control.

She states that: “Most people assume the War on Drugs was launched in response to the crisis caused by crack cocaine in inner-city neighborhoods. This view holds that the racial disparities in drug convictions and sentences, as well as the rapid explosion of the prison population, reflect nothing more than the government’s zealous–but benign–efforts to address rampant drug crime in poor, minority neighborhoods. This view, while understandable, given the sensational media coverage of crack in the 1980s and 1990s, is simply wrong.” (5)

Ronald Reagan announced the War on Drugs in 1982, years before crack became a crisis in the black community. Alexander says that “people of color are actually no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes and many other offences than whites.” (17) She states that the War on Drugs was launched to appeal to lower-income and middle-class whites, especially those of the South, who had been Democrats and were now being enticed into the Republican Party.

Racially coded language, such as “welfare recipients” and “criminals” now are code terms for African Americans, and those whites who would be too embarrassed to express racism out loud can now despise the welfare mother or be terrified of criminals without guilt.

Today, Alexander claims, the “American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history. . . In 1972, fewer than 350,000 people were being held in prisons and jails nationwide, compared with more than 2 million people today.” (8) People are trapped in the total systems when little more than children and lose rights of citizens for life.

I visited in a prison once and heard doors clang behind me and locks slam into place. I picture Peter as an exuberant child, sliding down a mountain, now a broken man closed in a cell with no windows.

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After a Lifetime of Work

My friend desperately needs a divorce, but she lives on $500 a month and can’t afford to move out. Disabled by back surgeries and an auto accident, she receives social security disability, which is her only source of income. She worked throughout her life, beginning at age sixteen, but the jobs paid poorly. As comparison, her husband, who worked in a factory jobs, earned more and receives $1300 a month. Her house payments are $500 a month. Even if she was able to convince her husband to move out, that would give her nothing more for food stamps, utilities, home repair, and medical co-pays.

Fortunately she is on Arizona’s version of Medicaid, but when she sees a specialist, which is necessary given her injuries, she must pay $40 toward the bill each time. Consequently, she remains in a dangerous situation, in terms of her health and her husband. Occasionally, as she is speaking, her face flushes and tears swell up. She asks herself why, after a lifetime of work, she is in her circumstance.

Gender bias and the cruelty of our social safety net shaped her situation. These are forces stronger than her will power no matter how hard she tries.

We sit together in my living room pondering her fate. The dog wags her tail next to us and rests her head on the window sill. Late afternoon light etches our faces. I feel powerless as my friend’s companion. I am able to help her in emergencies but by myself, I am unable to change our system. The best thing I can do for her now is to work hard on the election. If Romey and Ryan have their way, even her food stamps and Medicaid will be drastically cut.

I contemplate her situation if Obama doesn’t win reelection. Yesterday, I heard a supporter of Ryan say that a safety net was not a government responsibility but should be provided by private charity. Private charity would have to be massive if such a change would be made, and the reason why we have a government safety net is because private charity was totally inadequate. Systems of charity use the most attractive cases to appeal to donors, and many people are bypassed because they do not appear to be socially worthy. Yet, in the proposed cuts, even the most vulnerable and attractive, the nation’s children, disabled, and the elderly, would tragically lose benefits.

The country really does stand in a cross roads. Thousands more will die if Medicaid and food aid are cut. Senator Bernie Sanders estimates that 45,000 people are already dying because they do not have health care. We lost three thousand in the September 11 attacks. Imagine that figure multiplied over and over. If medical care and food stamps are cut drastically, children will again have swollen bellies and rickety legs.

I hold my friend’s hand. What can I say to comfort her? There is nothing. She is fully aware of her situation.

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The Holy Mission

Lilly Baker came from a Kentucky coal working family of thirteen and only went through the fourth grade, but as a child, she helped her mother care for others. At fifteen, she began working with a mountain nurse, and from then on, she walked throughout the mountains and hollows where people lived. She stayed with and nursed the sick, cared for their families, and comforted their kin. She served as a midwife when necessary. Lilly married a coal miner and gave birth three times and cradled her “blue baby” with a heart defect in her arms until the baby died. She also cared for her husband throughout his life and death from black lung.

I stayed with her when I interviewed other women in Appalachia in 1980. Lilly, a tiny and slightly stooped, seventy-six-year-old, had an oval face, dark brown eyes, fair skin, and heavy black and white eyebrows.

I remember a specific morning. Lilly’s face glistened as she said, “I got baptized in the creek when I was fourteen. God came down in a cloud and said, ‘Lilly, visit the sick and the afflicted. It’s your holy mission.’” Six decades later, Lilly had not forgotten her charge. She told me she would take me to one of the afflicted, and we climbed up the hollow. She carried a bag of food.

We smelled the house before we reached it, a terrible stench of human waste and illness. The green, eight foot square house stood on titled brick stilts. Rotten debris was piled under the base, and a thin, limping gray kitten crawled among some trash.

The elderly woman Lilly took me to see leaned against the decaying doorway, holding herself against the frame with her hands. She looked like she was starving. Her skin was almost as white as her hair, and large, orange-brown freckles lay across her nose and under her eyes. She smiled at us, but her eyes looked confused and wary. A wide-eyed skinny blond boy of about nine watched us just outside the door. Lilly looked at the boy, “It’s OK. We’ve brought food and have just come visiting.”

The woman in the doorway still seemed confused to have us there, so we stood outside her house talking with the boy. He spoke brokenly about a road being built up their hollow, grabbed the kitten, which tried to crawl under the house, then held the animal awkwardly by one leg and smiled and lifted it up to us. As he did it, the emaciated woman muttered, “You got to watch the kid. He’s a little off. He don’t get things straight. Hard on cats.” She then turned slowly toward him and continued, “It’s good to have him though. He’s my company boy.”

It seemed as if speaking made her more at ease, and she sank away from the door, holding onto a walker, and eased down into a hard chair in the corner of her shelter. We took it as an invitation and stepped up and inside the door. I looked around and saw the old chair she was sitting on, a single bed with soiled blankets, a small wood heater, and a table with an empty can of peaches. There was no toilet inside the house, and a pan of dirty water sat against the wall. Lilly put her food on the table. “There’s enough for the boy too.” She turned to me.

Suddenly the other woman spoke. “My Lewis was a corn popper. We popped corn for carnivals. He’s gone now, I’m all alone, except for the boy.” Then she sat silently, smiling at us and nodding to our questions as she and the boy ate.

Eventually Lilly said, “We’ll say goodbye now. I’ll bring food again soon.” We left the old woman sitting quietly in the corner of the room, but the boy waved at us from the doorway. As we walked away from the door, the smell of honeysuckle replaced the scent of decay. I contacted a nun in public health and told her about the starving woman and child. She assured me that they would try to get them services. I could not do much because I was leaving town the next day, but I left some money with Rosie for food. If public health did get food and care to the woman and child it would be because Lilly, even when losing her memory, acted out the basic values of her life.

Several government programs have been designed to help the vulnerable, such as Mrs. Lewis and the child. Social security, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, and what was called Aid to Dependent Children and is now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families all have problems, but, theoretically, they could have helped Mrs. Lewis and the boy. Nevertheless, these measures themselves are in danger today. Jim Wallace, in the magazine, Sojourners (8-2-12), claims that the current proposed Republican budget is immoral because it devastates such programs. “In particular,” he states, “to roll back tax credits for the poor to help fund tax breaks for the rich is morally reprehensible, and the faith community has to speak out.”

I still remember Mrs. Lewis and the boy. When I came back to visit a year later, Mrs. Lewis’ house was gone, and Lilly had gone to live with her daughters in Indiana. I hope their need back then inspires us to political activity now. (The story told here is part of an unpublished manuscript called Memory, Meaning, and Resistance: Oral Histories of Working-Class Women. by Fran Buss.)

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Environmental Racism

Rose Augustine, born in 1936, leaned toward me and said, “I always lived on the Southside, the part of Tucson that is Mexican American. In 1985 a newspaper reporter did a series on water contamination on the Southside. The Hughes Missile Systems, now Raytheon, had dumped their toxic waste here. Trichlorethane, TCE. It causes gene mutations and almost everybody I knew was sick.

“One day my friend Marie called me and said, ‘Rose, go pick up the newspaper. Read the story about contamination and call me. Read it carefully.’

“I was washing that day, so she called me three times before I went to the store and bought the paper. Then I said, ‘Oh, my God. Now I know what happened to us. . .’ I started reading about all these sick people I know. Then Marie told me people were going to have a meeting to discuss the newspaper articles.”

Rose went and was elected leader. She said, “I didn’t ask for it. I wasn’t out to make a name for myself. It’s just that my children were all sick, and I was just angry and I wanted to fight back. How can this be allowed when we trusted our government?”

They had another meeting, expecting maybe forty people to come. Nine thousand came. Rose was overwhelmed. “Through it all,” she says, “I asked people why they thought this was happening, and they answered, ‘Because we are Mexican’s, that’s why.’”

What Rose and her community were experiencing is often called “environmental racism.” This includes choices about where to locate such hazards as waste site dumps, wastewater systems, and wastewater run-offs. The people in such locations are usually poor and often include people of color.

Rose’s community’s pollution might have been the result of deliberate or intentional racism on Hughes Missile’s part, but such situations also are the consequence of structural racism. This is racism built right into institutions so that members of society participate in it even if they have tolerant attitudes. Such structures are part of our government, economy, and religious and cultural systems.

Robert Slayton, a history professor at Chapman University, talks about a study to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences. In that study, the authors polled “subjects using pictures of Barack Obama where his skin color had been alternatively lightened and darkened.” The subjects were then asked which image depicted his ‘true essence.’ “The study found that those who chose the lighter images were also more likely to have voted for him for president, with the reverse equally true.”

Rose Augustine continued to speak, “Our group (against the TCE dumping) was invited to the Southwest Organizing Project. I was prepared to tell them this whole story about Tucson, and I just sat there with my mouth wide open. The same toxic dumping was happening in other parts of the country. It was all communities of color. My story was everybody’s story. African Americans, Asians, and Mexican communities. Native Americans. All were there. I was dumbfounded.”

As I search for the multiple causes of structural racism, such as forms of economic exploitations that have been built into the fabric and history of our nation, I need to look at the ways my relatively easy life benefits from such inequities. What comforts do I need to examine? How do I react to the fact that poor people and people of color are often considered disposable?

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Class Warfare

My parents believed in the American dream so fervently that when it collapsed for me, they decided that the fault lay within me, not their vision of the world, and they cut off contact. I slowly became aware of social class during my childhood, long before I had words to describe it. I was white, and when I was young, my parents were working class. My father worked at a packing house. My parents decided they would never get ahead that way, and my father took a second job and a course to be a radio engineer. For awhile he also worked as a janitor. In order to own a home, he and my mother got a book and built a house from scratch. We lived in Iowa, and during the summers, my parents would dig and cement in a basement and erect and insulate the outdoor walls. As fall came, they put in plumbing and electricity, and we moved into the shell of the house before cold weather hit. During the winter, they divided it into rooms and finished it off. They built three houses that way and paid off some of their bills.

We lived on the edge of town near a community that had makeshift, tar paper houses and broken-down cars. One of my close school friends came from those homes. I took my used clothes and shoes to school for her. Her mother, not much more than a child herself, waited for us after school, and the three of us played hopscotch in the school yard.

One day, my mother told me and siblings that we all had been invited to our dad’s boss’ house for a picnic dinner. Other workers would be there too. For days, Mom drilled us on manners, then dressed us in our best. We went to the largest house I had ever seen.

My parents were part of the post-war generation, a time of great and growing prosperity for the nation. My dad believed with his whole heart that anyone, with hard work, could rise to the “good life.”

When, later, after a divorce when I was a single mother of three young children, his world seemed shattered. I had worked hard, but we were very poor. How could this be? He clung to his world view for years and rejected me until shortly before his death.

If he were living now, how would he explain the financial crash and the Great Recession? What about his small pension? What would he do when the value of his house plummeted? Would he think he failed?

Sometimes when I talked about the need for more equal distribution in income, he would answer, “If you gave everybody the same amount of money today, within a year some would be rich and others would have none. It doesn’t do any good to try to change things.”

I have been reading Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer–And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson (2010) This book explains what happened over the past decades that caused both a financial collapse and an inequality that would have astonished people like my dad.

I learned about the book by reading a Bill Moyers article in The Nation (8-23-2011). He said, “The rise of the money power in our time goes back forty years. We can pinpoint the date. On August 23, 1971 a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell–a board member of the death-dealing tobacco giant Philip Morris and a future justice of the Supreme Court–released a confidential memorandum for his friends at the US Chamber of Commerce. We look back on it now as a call to arms for class war waged from the top down.”

This class warfare from the top has gradually permeated our political system to such an extent that today we have the highest income inequality in the advanced world.

Hacker and Pierce ask, “What were the motives behind public policies that fostered [an economy in which] winner-take-all? How, in a representative democracy, could public officials favor such a small slice of Americans for so long?” (41)

They find the culprit in the organized politics of the right, rather than massive economic forces. Right wing think tanks and commentators developed battle plans. Interest groups with millions of dollars lobbied congress. Using conservative social policies, the Republicans bought the support of white working-class voters from the South. They repeatedly defeated labor. They also used the filibuster to block reform. Gradually, those opposed to such developments have been purged from power, and Democrats have been co-opted. Mostly, those opposed to a rule by the rich have been politically out organized.

Hacker and Pierce believe it is in hard fought organization that the current inequity must be fought. They say that it is not overwhelming economic events that have shaped our class division in this country but political choices. And as hard as it is, with long term organization, we can affect political change.

I reflect on my father’s belief that there can never be progress. I have fought that idea throughout my life. We have to believe it isn’t true. I am old now and call on younger people to continue the fight. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

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