Monday, February 06, 2012

We have an unhealthful dependence on the "working poor"


This Monday morning, AlterNet led off with a “single” with an article by Bill Quigley, “Why don’t we pay people enough? 8 Facts about America’s struggling working people, here. Yes, the byline is true, “Millions of people in the U.S. work and are still poor”.   

The big eight reasons are pretty familiar, having to do with minimum wage, and also accusing employers of theft, or of classifying workers as independent contractors (for “piecework”).  But many of the jobs are in the service industry.  You can have this sort of thing because many people don’t have to “pay their dues”.  It really is an extension of the problem of depending on products made with almost slave, barracks labor in China and other southeast Asian areas.

The Washington Post has an important story Monday, front page, “Black women in America: Amid downturn, a cracked foundation: For some, economic woes and willingness to aid family members strain personal finances”, by Ylan Q. Mui and Chris L. Jenkins, link here. The article compares black and white women, but doesn’t say much about women compared to men as a whole. 

The article depicts African American women as sacrificing not just for their spouses or their own children, but also for siblings or more distant relatives.  Some of the women don’t have children of their own.  In other communities (in the yuppie world) this would sound like sacrificing to subsidize the sexual intercourse of others.   It’s interesting how the notion of personal responsibility, opposed to belonging ti a community or family, plays out, depending probably more on social class and income than just race.  But in Europe, immigrants from Muslim countries often send money home to relatives, and there is a lot of social tension over this.

On my forays to the Occupy sites (the latest was Sunday afternoon, right after Church and a pot luck lunch downtown), I’m struck by the variety of experiences there.  A few people don’t have to be there but want to be.  A few are coming to take pictures and blog – and I wonder if bloggers don’t make the protestors look foolish when their stories are placed alongside other issues in blogs—making the bloggers and photographers seem like gawkers, not interested in having to share the experience and live it personally.  In one or two cases, professionals or graduate students whom I know from “the clubs” were there watching.  The protestors now will probably wind up leaving unless others put them up or bring them food, since they can’t cook in the parks. The "tourist attraction" will go away. As to some of the people who tried to live there:  There are a lot of people who simply can’t negotiate a modern world so predicated on individual competitiveness, when it is conflated inconsistently with the group-oriented culture that raised them (often with families not able to stay intact).  Nevertheless, a lot of the “competition” in the past was based on bad impressions.  People bought homes they couldn’t afford because they thought they had to in order to remain in the game – and they “believed” the banks.  And, true, the bailouts seemed to save the better off (preserving the value of accumulated investments and pensions) rather than younger working people. 

And what about “volunteerosity”, a new vocabulary word on one of the protest signs?  At First Baptist Church about ten blocks away, the congregation, after First Sunday pot luck, used to make sandwiches (with gloves) for the homeless, and then I understand that was shut down for potential health liabilities.  Food and Friends has always been a great charity – but I found (in my recent day delivering for them) that there are some clients who really shouldn’t be on it – so if you volunteer, how much help are you really giving?  Very short term efforts don’t seem to mean a lot. 

One of the “fundamental theorems of compassionate conservatism” is that government intrudes less when individuals do more to take care of one another, in concentric fashion starting with the family unit.  Conservatives maintain that weaker families lead to poverty and government interventionism, so individualism must be mediated somewhat to maintain family and local institutions.  Social conservatives like Santorum (more than Romney) preach that poverty results from indifference from individuals, not just from corporate abuse or "class struggle".  The same conservatives, however, turn their “family values” into tribal battles, “my family (or tribe) is going to prevail over yours”.  Some evangelicals, and especially special denominations like the LDS church are great at consistent volunteering and providing faith-based social services (how about the Vatican, too), but at the “cost” of having the right and duty to proselytize, personally.   

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