The Welfare State

When President Franklyn Roosevelt initiated steps to thwart the depression his country was deep in, he cautioned against the real possibility that citizens would become dependent on the hand-outs the Federal Government was taking steps to provide. As he said at the time:

“Continued dependence upon relief indicates a spiritual and moral degeneration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

The possibility that Roosevelt alluded to had been noted years before by such intellectual giants as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky who both saw “socialism” as a step toward the destruction of human freedom. Indeed, Dostoevsky thought socialism was the bastard offspring of the Church which, by making moral decisions for mankind, had robbed them of their humanity. If the Church or the State take care of people they will stop taking care of themselves. And taking care of themselves involves a struggle and, at times, suffering; these are the things that make us fully human. It is a dilemma: on the one hand there are folks who desperately need help and all who are able have a duty to care for them. On the other hand, this care can become a habit and rob those folks of the very freedom that makes them human.

Robert Kennedy in a speech in 1966 echoed Roosevelt’s warning, adding that “higher welfare payments . . .often lead to lifelong dependency.” The problem is how to find a balance between meeting genuine human needs and creating a situation in which those who receive assistance become dependent on it and find themselves unable to take care of themselves. The obvious solution takes the form of assistance with strings tied to it, assistance that demands that those who receive it do so for a limited amount of time and then fend for themselves, frequently referred to as “workfare.” Presumably this is what welfare reform is all about.

It’s not a Republican/Democrat sort of problem either, though there are Democrats who support all forms of welfare and there are Republicans who oppose all forms of welfare, which they see as hand-outs to lazy ne’er-do-wells. In a country that ponders the possibility of spending billions of dollars building walls to keep “terrorists” out and spends more billions to build planes and ships that can travel the world with nuclear weapons tucked away in their bellies, the notion that spending millions to help those in needs wastes our hard-earned money is truly ironic. And the notion that those in need are lazy is incredibly insensitive and wrong-headed. It is not the fact that millions are being spent on those in need that bothers so many people, however, it is the fact that they see those millions as being better spent on building higher walls. Or they point to anecdotes about abuse of the system, those who take without needing. In a word, we have a serious problem with perception and a loss of a sense of balance between what is being done and what should be done. And this in a nation that prides itself on its Judeo-Christian heritage!

Clearly, a wealthy nation such as the United States can afford to take care of those in need — whose numbers grow daily. The money that is spent elsewhere could be reshuffled easily to cover all costs. But the real problem is that those who receive this aid, regardless of how much money it turns out to be, must be enabled to take care of themselves. Many who receive welfare admit this and insist that their own self-respect depends on their eventually earning a living, taking care of themselves and their families– even if the income they earn turns out to be less than the money they are receiving on welfare!  The notion that these people are all lazy ne’er-do-wells is twisted and distorted — and self-serving. These are folks like you and like me who have come on hard times. The issue is not whether we spend some of our tax dollars to take care of those who desperately need it; the question is how we do this while still making possible the retention of self-respect and a degree of human freedom that they require to go on with their lives and become healthy, productive citizens.

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Suffrage

The British fought with the issue of suffrage for much of the nineteenth century. How many people should be allowed to vote? It seems such a simple question, but it has numerous ramifications, twists, and convolutions. At the outset, when this nation was first founded, we followed the British example: men with property can vote, but no one else. The idea was that men with property had a vested interest in what their government did or didn’t do. It seemed to make sense. But like the English, we also fought with the issue of suffrage.

One of the best sources to read about this issue, oddly enough, is novel by George Eliot: Felix Holt The Radical. It focuses close attention on the issue of extending the vote in Great Britain to many who were disenfranchised at the time. But the key issue, which the hero brings into sharp focus, is why the vote should be extended to the illiterate and unpropertied (the question of extending the vote to women was shelved until later!). Leaving aside the issue of ownership of property, the question is central to any meaningful discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy. After all, why should those who cannot read and write, who cannot possibly become well informed about the issues of the day, be placed in a position to vote on those who make laws? In Eliot’s novel, Holt takes the “radical”position that all male citizens would be allowed to vote, since everyone has a vested interest in the laws his government passes, whereas his conservative opponents argue the contrary position: only those with the demonstrated ability to understand the issues should be allowed to vote on those who will decide the fate of the nation. As Eliot has one of her Tory clergymen say in the novel:

“There’s no end to the mischief done by these busy prating men. They make the ignorant multitude the judges of the largest questions, both political and religious, till we shall soon have no institution left that is not on a level with the comprehension of a huckster or a drayman. There can be nothing more retrograde — losing all the results of civilization, all the lessons of Providence — letting the windlass run down after men have been turning at it painfully for generations. If the instructed are not to judge for the uninstructed, why, let us set Dick Stubbs to make the almanacs and have a President of the Royal Society elected by universal suffrage.”

In this country we insist upon testing those from other countries who wish to become citizens, but we allow that any child born in the United States can vote upon coming of age, regardless of any other qualifications. In days long gone by, young people growing up in this country took a civics class as a normal part of their high school curriculum in which they learned about the machinations of the government. But no more. In fact, many high schools have gone away from any requirements whatever and allow the students to select most if not all of the courses they want for the four years they are within their hallowed halls. Civics is no longer taught and as result, the young not only do not know how to read and write, they know nothing whatever about the history of their own country or how the government works — the government that they will help select when coming of age.

The situation is complex, but the issues it raises are worth pondering at a time when the democratic system we are all so fond of is beginning to show signs of breaking down. It becomes more and more apparent each day that large numbers of disaffected people simply don’t want to have anything to do with politics (for  good reasons, in many cases) and that by default the wealthy who have hidden agendas are placed in a position to “call the shots.” This hardly amounts to a democratic system; as I have noted in past comments, it is more like an oligarchy, government of the wealthy.

The problem of suffrage, therefore, gives birth to the interesting question whether everyone should vote and if so what qualification they should have, if any. As things now stand, in the interest of –what? — equality, we allow anyone at all to vote as long as they were born in this country or have passed their citizen’s test. That, in itself, is a problem. But added to it is the thought that despite the fact that it is so easy to vote (too easy?), more and more choose not to do so or vote based on the promises, soon to be broken, of some clown who has no qualifications for office at all.

The Filthy Rich

A recent story on AOL News is worth pondering:

Many conservatives have accused unemployment insurance of creating a population of slacker, couch-bound stoners (several states have made drug tests a requirement of benefits). But an analysis by Bloomberg has found that the ultimate pinnacle of hard work and success — millionaires — raked in almost $80 million in jobless benefits during the recession.

At its 2010 peak, the country paid out $150 billion in unemployment benefits, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And $29.9 million of that went to millionaires, according to Bloomberg. That year, almost 3,200 households that reported an adjusted gross income of more than $1 million received unemployment benefits, with an average take of $12,600. That’s 56 percent more than the $8,050 received by the average household filing for benefits, unsurprisingly so since jobless insurance is hitched to past salary.

At a time when there are thousands of folks in this country who don’t know where their next meal will come from and worry that they will soon be forced out of their homes and on to the street (if they haven’t been already), there are so many unsettling aspects to this story it is hard to know where to begin. It’s bad enough that the filthy rich continue to exploit their fellow humans as well as the earth in their single-minded determination to accumulate more money than they can spend in a lifetime. It is also disturbing to realize that these are the same people who complain that the lazy and unmotivated poor (as they see them) are the ones milking the governmental cow until it is dry when, in fact, they are filling their pails as fast as they can! These folks also complain about higher taxes at a time when the taxes for the wealthy in America are historically, and comparably, low — thanks to “trickle-down” economics. Further, these are the people who want to dismantle the EPA and other regulatory agencies so they have a clear path to more and more wealth while many of them are hiding their filthy lucre in Swiss bank accounts and planning to leave the country and live elsewhere when the bottom finally falls out.

In a word, many of the very people who complain the loudest and are the most aggressive in pressing Congress and legislators around the country to let them have their way are the ones who are doing everything they can to eliminate the middle class and cripple the economy that has made them wealthy. It’s time for Dante to come back from wherever he is spending eternity and write an updated version of The Inferno. It’s clear that these people will be there, it’s just not clear what their punishment will be. My suggestion is that they be forced to climb a tall mountain of hot lava in bare feet with heavy bags of gold on their backs only to reach the top and be required to go back and climb again. Forever.

Dodging Taxes

A recent story in Yahoo News caught my eye. Apparently there is movement afoot among the very wealthy to renounce their citizenship and skip the country to protect their filthy lucre. The story reads, in part:

According to a 2012 study published by the Research Institute of Industrial Economics that examined the mobility of billionaires over the past two decades, “70% [of those billionaires] have migrated from a higher to a lower capital gains tax country … One-third of the billionaires that moved went to small countries defined as ‘tax havens,’” including Switzerland, Bahamas and Singapore.

Presumably these billionaires are all Americans. In any event, we can infer from this that the exodus has been going on for some time. But apparently with the new tax increases  that have raised the taxes among the very wealthy a huge 4.6% the number of people from this country who are seeking asylum elsewhere in places where their money is safe from the IRS has increased. In the state of California where Proposition 30 has added to the tax burden of the very wealthy — and where millionaires like Phil Mickelson can be heard crying poor — the number of people thinking about leaving the country is even larger.

There are several interesting ramifications of this exodus. To begin with, one must question these people’s patriotism, which involves both rights and responsibilities. They obviously see taxes simply as a burden — as though the state and the Federal government are stealing their money; they recognize no obligation whatever to the state and country that have provided them with the opportunity to accumulate this huge wealth. Nor do they see themselves as part of a larger inter-dependent community. Rather, they see themselves, on the whole, as self-made men and women who didn’t need anyone’s help along the way. We noted that when Romney was running for President. It is apparently an affliction which the vast majority of wealthy in this country are stricken with, a kind of moral blindness. We might call it the “self-sufficient syndrome” (S.S.S.) They are blind to their obligations to others.

But this tax money can do so much good in the states and the country at large to improve the infrastructure, assist the poor to get back on their feet, improve the schools which are near the bottom of the world’s educational heap, and improve the lot of those who are in need of proper health care. None of these things seems to factor in with those whose lives are focused entirely on the effort to accumulate and protect their (often) ill-gotten gains.

The hope of the founders was that the Republic would encourage public virtue, the desire of all people to place the common good above self-interest. Their hope was that this form of government, of all the kinds the world has ever known, would involve its citizens in the effort to build a community of kindred spirits who would pull together to make the country strong and vibrant. Instead, many U.S. citizens see nothing but the opportunity to gain wealth and continue to do so until they die  (“the one with the most toys when he dies wins”) — at which point they will hand as much of it as possible over to their children to give them the same sort of head-start they almost certainly had themselves. So those lofty ideals of apparently naive thinkers in the eighteenth century who founded this nation have been replaced by the reality of greed and self-interest (the very things they feared). And those of us who will be left behind after the exodus is over will have to clean up their mess.

Fallout From the “Deal”

I don’t pretend to understand all the ramifications of the “deal” struck in Congress recently to keep us from going over the fiscal cliff. But the complaints from the political right-wing suggest that the deal was a good thing for the rest of the country. I figure if the Tea Party doesn’t like it, it must be a good thing for the majority of people in this country.

I do wonder, however, whether it might have been better in the long run if we had fallen off the cliff — on our collective butts — in order to force this country to eliminate some of the fat in our budget (starting with defense spending, of course) and make all of us pay more taxes — given the fact that we are taxed at a very low rate compared with the rest of the “developed” world, and also given the fact that our economy thrived when we were paying more in taxes. I was especially hoping for tax raises on the wealthy who have benefitted mightily from the Bush tax cuts. As I understand it, the new deal will raise taxes on individuals who make above $400,000 a year and that will help reduce the deficit somewhat. But a great many people who make a great deal of money will still avoid paying their share.

There’s more: one of the more interesting ramifications of the deal is the complaint we are hearing from some of the wealthy who have threatened to discontinue giving to charities. A recent story on HuffPost focusing on this issue caught my eye. In that story we are told that

Legislation passed by the Senate late Tuesday night will limit the amount wealthy people can claim for charitable deductions on their taxes. While some say donors shouldn’t be motivated by the amount of money they can write off, others –- including some nervous nonprofits –- argue that tax breaks for charitable giving should have been left untouched in the deal.

One such dissenter is Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary under President George W. Bush. Fleischer tweeted his distaste for the deduction decision on Tuesday:

“I increased donations to charity in 2012. This deal limits my deductions so I, & many others, will likely donate less in 2013.”

— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) January 1, 2013

When I was a kid I loved playing marbles. We played “keepies” where the winners get to keep the marbles they hit out of a ring drawn in the dirt. Every now and again a kid would see that he was losing and grab his remaining marbles and refuse to play any more. This is what Fleischer’s complaint reminds me of. Wealthy people like Ari Fleischer don’t want to play any more because they won’t get the tax breaks they are used to getting for giving some of their money to those less fortunate than themselves. Poor Ari. I expect he cries all the way to the bank. I thought the idea behind charitable giving was to help others, not to get tax breaks. Great wealth seems to cloud the brain.

Buying A Government

The wealthy Republicans who recently attempted to buy the government of the United States for millions of dollars are sitting and licking their wounds. If you look quickly you can see them over there sulking behind the trees. There’s no doubt their attempt to buy the Presidency and the majority of the Senate didn’t work out as they had planned — this time. But they will be back and next time they are determined to spend more money and win. A recent article by Robert Reich gives the details of the last political campaign and the plans the Republicans have for the next go-round, but there are a few things I might add.

As Reich notes, Sheldon Adelson, who owns the Las Vegas Sands Corporation and has a net worth reported to be $21.5 billion spent around $100 million of his pocket change  mostly on lost causes this time around. But he knows about gambling, he has bottomless pockets, and he has pledged to win the pot next time. He has already started interviewing Republican candidates for the next run at the Presidency. Hold on to your hats.

Adelson (like the Koch brothers who spent $400 million of their own money in the last election) is determined to get a government in place that will make sure people like him are permitted to increase their already obscene wealth even more — to rid themselves (and the rest of us) of those pesky Federal agencies like the E.P.A. and regulations that are, from their point of view, an expensive nuisance — and from our point of view necessary for our  health and well-being. The Koch brothers reportedly support an organization called the “American Legislative Exchange Council” that funds politicians around the country to make sure they get into key positions in state governments and then in return push the items on the Koch agenda. The end justifies any means.

Money is power and it always has been. And there have always been wealthy men and women (mostly men) who push their own agendas and do whatever they can to get weak people they can control into positions of power. But the game has changed in this country after the “Citizens United” decision by the Supreme Court that eliminated spending limits on political candidates by individuals and corporations in the name of “free speech.” This has raised the stakes considerably.

It does appear we are playing with a stacked deck. Not only that, but the game that is now being played follows house rules and the house is owned by people like Adelson and the Koch brothers. It really isn’t fair, but our cries of outrage and anger will almost certainly fall on deaf ears. As Reich says in concluding his article, there really are only two viable alternatives to help us avoid the coming purchase of our government by the very wealthy:

As income and wealth become ever more concentrated in America, the nation’s billionaire political investors will invest even more.

A record $6 billion was spent on the 2012 campaign, and outside groups poured $1.3 billion into political races, according to data from the Federal Election Commission and the Center for Responsive Politics.

That’s why Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission has to be reversed – either by a Supreme Court that becomes aware of the poison it’s unleashed into our democracy, or by a constitutional amendment.

It’s also why we need full disclosure of who contributes what to whom.

In a word, if we want to stay in the game, “Citizens United” must either be overturned by the Supreme Court (unlikely) or we must hope that a Constitutional amendment can be passed to throw out the ridiculous decision that ruled corporations to be persons. And, clearly, there should be spending limits in all political elections. I guess the ball’s in our court.

Is Romney Slipping?

Depending on whom you read — and whether or not you listen to Mitt Romney himself — the Republican candidate is not doing well in the race for the highest office in the land. He spends a great deal of time these days taking his large foot out of his mouth and trying to unsay the stupid things he either did or did not say. He seems inept on such a large stage. As some wag recently noted, it’s remarkable that even with the golden spoon he was born with in his mouth he still finds room for his foot.

In any event, a recent editorial in the New York Times was speaking to this point when it mentioned in two key paragraphs what seem to be the central issues in Mitt’s slippage.

To some extent, Mr. Romney’s diminishing stature is because of two recent statements that revealed his deficiencies to a newly interested audience. He falsely suggested that the Obama administration was sympathetic to the violent Muslim protests in Libya and Egypt, illustrating his ignorant and opportunistic critique of foreign policy. And he was caught on video belittling nearly half the country for an overreliance on government handouts.

These moments, though, were not fumbles or gaffes. They were entirely consistent with the dismissive attitude Mr. Romney has routinely shown toward non-Americans or the nonrich. Now even long-undecided voters are starting to catch on and dismiss him.

The two points referred to in the first paragraph have received a great deal of attention, as well they should. But it is the reference to the “dismissive” attitude that caught my interest. I think this is right on. Apologists for Romney have been quick to explain that Romney’s comments have been taken out of context and that may well be the case. But the attitude that is reflected in the comments doesn’t require a context: it reappears in numerous off-the-cuff remarks and even in prepared statements and they reveal a man who really doesn’t care about those who are different from him and his wealthy friends. Such people don’t seem to appear on his radar — except as something to avoid as much as possible. And this is deeply disturbing.

We cannot expect politicians to be compassionate, I suppose, or to care for all of the people in this country — given the extreme heterogeneity of our teeming masses. But one can expect that a man or a woman who runs for the highest office in the land would include under the umbrella of his or her concerns large numbers of the people who will make up their constituency. I speak about the poor and disadvantaged. And the president assuredly must also be vitally interested in and knowledgeable about those in other countries whose fate is closely woven into the interests of the country he or she hopes to lead into a shrinking world. One would like to think that even politicians can show concern for people different from themselves.

But Mitt Romney does seem to give off the aura of a man who has led a protected life with all the advantages enjoyed by the wealthy in this country — with his tunnel vision focused on jobs and the economy and his delusions about how the rich make it on their own and the poor must lie on the bed of their own making.  And this despite the fact that he likes to present himself as one who worked his way through college and knows how the other half lives. If in fact Romney is slipping in the polls and in the end he loses this election, this editorial comes as close to anything I have read to an explanation as to why the undecided voters in this country are finding it hard to cozy up to this man and think of him as the one  they want leading their country in uncertain times. And this despite the fact that a weak economy has historically meant a change in leadership in this country. We seem to be witnessing something new in American history.

Unequal Opportunities

The number of words that have poured forth after Romney’s gaffe about the 47% of Americans who don’t pay taxes (the “Obama supporters”) makes me somewhat reluctant to add my two cents worth. This is especially so since I have already addressed this issue. But that has never stopped me before, so I will push ahead!

Any number of commentators have mentioned that the 47% of Americans who supposedly don’t pay taxes do, in fact, do so — including payroll, sales, excise, and property taxes; the benefits they receive, such as social security and medicare are from money they paid in when times were better. The people who don’t pay taxes, relatively speaking, are the wealthy folks like Mitt Romney who have a smaller percentage of their income taxed than do the folks like you and me. But that being said there was the other part of Romney’s speech that was equally troubling. I speak about the conviction of Mitt Romney and the wealthy in general that they made it on their own — you know, born on third base convinced they hit a triple. That of course is hogwash. No one makes it on his own and studies have shown that those who make it big time in this country are the ones who had a foot up at the start — the rich just get richer. This is no longer a country of equal opportunity, though the Romney camp would insist that the poor are simply lazy and could make it if they just got off their collective butts and borrowed $20,000 from their parents to open their own business. [He actually said that and please note his assumption that the average young person out there can simply ask Mom and Dad for $20,000! This tells us a great deal about the world Mitt Romney lives in.]

One of the people to shed the most light on this subject is Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who wrote the following paragraph as part of a lengthy rebuttal of Romney’s speech to well-healed Republicans:

…, many of those receiving benefits are our young — providing them education and health (even if they or their parents don’t pay taxes) are investments in our future. America is the country with the least equality of opportunity of any of the advanced countries for which there is data. A child’s life prospects are more dependent on the income and education of his parents than in these other countries. While the American Dream may have become a myth, it doesn’t have to be that way. Children shouldn’t have to depend on the wealth of their parents to get the education or health care they need to live up to their potential.

This is an important point in my mind. I have remarked before about the death of the Horatio Alger myth but wasn’t aware of the studies Stiglitz refers to. We need to think about the fact that this country was conceived as a community of persons brought together by common interests and hopes. We need to take care of one another when we are down and out — not turn our backs on each other. The founders deeply believed in the notion of “public virtue” which takes us outside of ourselves and leads to selfless acts of kindness — all of which strengthen the community as a whole.

But by 1816 Thomas Jefferson, for one, was already beginning to worry about the lack of public virtue in the form of narrow self-interest exhibited by the increasing numbers of corporations hell-bent on making as much money as possible. He hoped “that we shall take warning and crush at its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of the country.” To which Mitt Romney replies: “Corporations are people too.” In any event, those who run our largest corporations are the immensely rich who do not care in the least about community and would insist they made it to the top of the pyramid on their own.

However, if someone makes it big he assuredly owes it to those — in addition to his parents —  who made it possible. To turn one’s back on others who fall on hard times and ignore them as lazy and unmotivated is to ignore the fact that as a community each of us depends on others along the way. Romney’s attitudes, reflected in numerous comments he has made (in or out of context) reveal him to be a man with no sense of history and no awareness of the innumerable people who have helped him get where he is today.

Cold-Hearted Politics

In a “secret” taping of a speech to a group of fundraisers which everyone and his dog has heard about by now, Mitt Romney revealed a side of himself that he might not want us to see. As I say this, I am aware that he makes no apologies so I guess we must conclude that he is proud of his lack of concern for nearly half of this country’s voting public — the poor half who “pay no taxes.”  Consider the two following paragraphs from Yahoo News if you will:

[In explaining his position] Romney seems to be referring to the estimated 47 percent of Americans who did not owe federal income taxes in 2011 because their incomes were so low that they qualified for a tax credit, or because they didn’t work at all. Last year, 22 percent of people who didn’t owe income taxes were elderly people on Social Security, and an additional 17 percent were students, disabled people or the unemployed. More than 60 percent of the group were low-income workers, many of whom qualified for the child tax credit or the earned income tax credit. (These workers did pay payroll taxes for Social Security and other programs.)

Romney campaign spokeswoman Gail Gitcho released a statement about the video Monday evening. “Mitt Romney wants to help all Americans struggling in the Obama economy,” she said. “As the governor has made clear all year, he is concerned about the growing number of people who are dependent on the federal government, including the record number of people who are on food stamps, nearly one in six Americans in poverty, and the 23 million Americans who are struggling to find work. Mitt Romney’s plan creates 12 million new jobs in four years, grows the economy and moves Americans off of government dependency and into jobs.”

The second paragraph was written by a Romney “spokeswoman,” not Mitt himself. She gets paid to help Mitt get his foot out of his mouth. It’s getting to be a full-time job! But Mitt sticks by his guns. He cares not in the least about the poor in this country — we must believe this because this is what he keeps saying.

There are a number of problems with this scenario, of course, beginning with the cold heart that leads anyone to brag about the fact that he doesn’t care about the many poor people in this country — despite what his spokeswoman says. And it’s not just the poor vote he ignores, his policies are also designed to bypass the poor and favor the wealthy. But the attitude reflected here is not peculiar to Mitt Romney, sad to say. It is shared by a great many other people who see the poor as bloodsucking leeches who simply take and take and never give back. These stereotypes are more prevalent than we might like to admit in a country in which millions of Christians embrace the New Testament which preaches compassion for the poor.

But more to the point is the fact that the stereotype is built on a half-truth. To be sure, there are those in this country who have become dependent on the largess of the government and who will vote for a Democratic candidate in the hope that they continue to receive benefits from the large hand of the government. But there are also many poor — growing numbers in fact — who are in want not through any fault of their own, but because things simply didn’t go their way in an economy that is struggling.

But even if this were not the case, how can we condemn those in need for wanting help from their government when so many of the very wealthy receive even greater handouts in the form of tax breaks, bailouts, and subsidies that allow them to expand and protect their immense wealth? Talk about “paying no taxes”! And the people in this group are able to directly affect the way the government is elected in ways the poor simply cannot — by buying themselves politicians who are then obliged to see to it that the rich be allowed to continue to amass great wealth and avoid paying their fair share of taxes to help the poor and educate our children. Those people Mitt apparently cares about.

The Rich Get Richer

As the gap widens in this country between the rich and the poor — and as mentioned before the middle class gradually slips into that gap — it behooves us to consider what the hell is going on. I recently blogged that 26 U.S. companies pay their CEOs more than they paid in taxes in the year 2011. The following chart tells the bigger story:

The standard excuse for this incredible disparity is that CEOs have to be paid huge amounts because of the competitive nature of Big Business — if we don’t pay the man or woman at the top enough $$ they will go elsewhere. In fact, that has become an excuse for hiring people at the highest levels not only in business but in such seemingly unrelated activities as coaching college football. But that’s a topic for another time.

The sad truth remains that the very rich in this country are becoming so at the expense of the middle classes who are, as a consequence, becoming poorer and poorer. While the rich grow richer and increasingly stash away more of their wealth in off-shore bank accounts (thereby giving the lie to the claim that they will create jobs with their tax breaks and subsidies and help the economy recover) the number of poor increases. In fact, the poverty levels rose 15.1% (46.2 million) in 2010 and 15.7& in 2011. As a recent story in Huffpost tells us:

WASHINGTON — The ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net.

The number of homeless grows daily and those who find themselves suddenly out of work  struggle to find a minimum wage job — or two — in order to keep their homes and feed their kids. We need to consider who these people are. They are our friends and neighbors who have tripped over a weak economy. And increasing numbers of them are joining the ranks of the poor who need our help. Yet all we can think about is cutting taxes and eliminating social programs because we know of a few extreme examples of welfare abuse.

Those who work with the hard-pressed and homeless have a perspective that the rest of us can learn from. One such person is a blog-buddy who made the following comment on a recent post I wrote about the “typical pauper.” He said: ”

The homeless have no greater propensity toward substance abuse than those who are housed. Throughout my volunteer work with homeless families beginning in 1999, I have witnessed people who try to paint all of the homeless people with a broad brush based on the image of a panhandler on the street. The panhandler is just a small percentage of the homeless population. The agency I do most of my work reported in its July 30 fiscal year-end results – 84% of the homeless families they help are employed with a median average family wage of $9.00 an hour. A living wage for an individual is just under $10 an hour and for a family is just under $17 an hour (note this statistic varies by region).

Imagine yourself working at a well-paying job with a happy spouse and two kids in private school. Your home is mortgaged to the hilt and you have a fairly fat Visa bill to pay each month. But you can manage because you have a good paycheck coming in each week. Then imagine that one day you are called into a room by your boss who sits you down with the H.R. person and the company attorney and tells you that he deeply regrets he will have to “let you go.” You are given severance pay and there is always unemployment benefits to tide you over, but they will run out. In this economy it is quite possible that you will not be able to find any job at all except one that pays minimum wage with no benefits. While all this is happening to you and several of your fellow-workers, your boss is given a raise and more stock options and is now among the enviable 1% — those in the yellow box above. How do you cope?  Suddenly, it’s not someone else’s problem!

My example is fiction, of course, but in the world “out there” this sort of thing is happening with alarming regularity. In fact, I have a friend to whom this very thing has recently happened. He is a man with a Master’s degree and years of experience who now finds himself homeless and without an income. It is a serious problem. The gap between the very rich and the very poor is widening and while our anger over the obscene wealth of the few is perfectly justified, our attitude toward the poor needs to be tempered with compassion and the spirit of charity.