Poverty in America: Why Can’t We End It?

Excerpts from “Poverty in America: Why Can’t We End It?” By Peter Edelman, New York Times, July 28, 2012

RONALD REAGAN famously said, “We fought a war on poverty and poverty won.” With 46 million Americans — 15 percent of the population — now counted as poor, it’s tempting to think he may have been right.

At the same time, we have done a lot that works. From Social Security to food stamps to the earned-income tax credit and on and on, we have enacted programs that now keep 40 million people out of poverty. Poverty would be nearly double what it is now without these measures, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

With all of that, why have we not achieved more? Four reasons: An astonishing number of people work at low-wage jobs. Plus, many more households are headed now by a single parent, making it difficult for them to earn a living income from the jobs that are typically available. The near disappearance of cash assistance for low-income mothers and children — i.e., welfare — in much of the country plays a contributing role, too. And persistent issues of race and gender mean higher poverty among minorities and families headed by single mothers.

We know what we need to do — make the rich pay their fair share of running the country, raise the minimum wage, provide health care and a decent safety net, and the like. But realistically, the immediate challenge is keeping what we have. Representative Paul Ryan and his ideological peers would slash everything from Social Security to Medicare and on through the list, and would hand out more tax breaks to the people at the top.

A surefire politics of change would necessarily involve getting people in the middle — from the 30th to the 70th percentile — to see their own economic self-interest. If they vote in their own self-interest, they’ll elect people who are likely to be more aligned with people with lower incomes as well as with them. As long as people in the middle identify more with people on the top than with those on the bottom, we are doomed. The obscene amount of money flowing into the electoral process makes things harder yet.

But history shows that people power wins sometimes. That’s what happened in the Progressive Era a century ago and in the Great Depression as well. The gross inequality of those times produced an amalgam of popular unrest, organization, muckraking journalism and political leadership that attacked the big — and worsening — structural problem of economic inequality. The civil rights movement changed the course of history and spread into the women’s movement, the environmental movement and, later, the gay rights movement. Could we have said on the day before the dawn of each that it would happen, let alone succeed?

We have the ingredients. For one thing, the demographics of the electorate are changing. The consequences of that are hardly automatic, but they create an opportunity. The new generation of young people — unusually distrustful of encrusted power in all institutions and, as a consequence, tending toward libertarianism — is ripe for a new politics of honesty. Lower-income people will participate if there are candidates who speak to their situations. The change has to come from the bottom up and from synergistic leadership that draws it out. When people decide they have had enough and there are candidates who stand for what they want, they will vote accordingly.

I have seen days of promise and days of darkness, and I’ve seen them more than once. All history is like that. The people have the power if they will use it, but they have to see that it is in their interest to do so.


Let’s Draft Our Kids

Excerpts from “Let’s Draft Our Kids” by Thomas E. Ricks, New York Times, July 9, 2012

A revived draft, including both males and females, should include three options for new conscripts coming out of high school. Some could choose 18 months of military service with low pay but excellent post-service benefits, including free college tuition. These conscripts would not be deployed but could perform tasks currently outsourced at great cost to the Pentagon: paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, and generally doing lower-skills tasks so professional soldiers don’t have to. If they want to stay, they could move into the professional force and receive weapons training, higher pay and better benefits. And we could raise the retirement age for the professional force from 20 to 30 years of service. There is no reason to kick healthy 40-year-olds out of the military and then give them full retirement pay for 40 years.

Those who don’t want to serve in the army could perform civilian national service for a slightly longer period and equally low pay — teaching in low-income areas, cleaning parks, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, providing universal free day care, or aiding the elderly. After two years, they would receive similar benefits like tuition aid.

The pool of cheap labor available to the federal government would broadly lower its current personnel costs and its pension obligations — especially if the law told federal managers to use the civilian service as much as possible, and wherever plausible. The government could also make this cheap labor available to states and cities. Imagine how many local parks could be cleaned and how much could be saved if a few hundred New York City school custodians were 19, energetic and making $15,000 plus room and board, instead of 50, tired and making $106,329, the top base salary for the city’s public school custodians, before overtime.

And libertarians who object to a draft could opt out. Those who declined to help Uncle Sam would in return pledge to ask nothing from him — no Medicare, no subsidized college loans and no mortgage guarantees. Those who want minimal government can have it.

Caring About Politics

Excerpt from “Caring About Politics” by David Brooks and Gail Collins, New York Times, July 11, 2012

David Brooks: I was going through the decades of the 20th century to try to see which of them were primarily political decades. That is to say, was the most important thing that happened that decade political or not? In at least half the decades, politics was the most important thing that happened, though to be fair in the happier decades politics took a back seat. I think this vindicates my feeling that anybody who is not paying close attention [to politics] is not paying attention to the one of the main arenas of life in their time.

You can try to ignore politics, but it won’t ignore you.

My results follow:

1900s — Industrialization. Not Political.

1910s — World War I. Political.

1920s — Consumer culture and beginning of mass prosperity. Not Political.

1930s — The New Deal. Political.

1940s — World War II. Political.

1950s — Suburbanization. Not Political.

1960s — New Frontier, Civil Rights, Vietnam. Political.

1970s — Feminism. Not Political.

1980s — Reagan Revolution. Capitalist Revival. Semi-Political.

1990s — Silicon Valley. Not Political.

2000s — 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq. Political.

Personal Politics

I was sitting in the living room yesterday evening, enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of a really pounding rain, the kind of rain Gordon Jennings (an old Imperial Valley desert rat) used to call a “toad strangler.”  My early-warning system, Cooper the Dachshund and Lily the Boston Terrier, let me know that someone was coming to the door.

My visitors were a young man and an older woman — I can say that because I’ve been around since dirt was new — canvassing for Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO. We chatted about the rain briefly and then they asked what I thought was the most important issue for the upcoming election season: the economy, healthcare, the war, or something else. I told them that I thought continuing the positive efforts toward fairness and equality for the LGBT community was pretty high on my list, but the big one really has to be jobs. I said that I think if we can get Americans working in good-paying, stable jobs — the kind that provide solid benefits, opportunities for career advancement, and pride in the work itself — we’d relieve a lot of the stresses that are first fracturing and then paralyzing the country. They beamed, I took their flyer, and off they went down the street.

This afternoon I went to the Organize for America, AKA Obama, headquarters to perform my data entry duties. Another old geezer and I were pecking around on our keyboards while a group of kids painted a mural, set up chairs for a video screening, kept up a stream of about a dozen separate conversations, and generally multi-tasked to beat the band. I’m so glad that we have energetic, engaged, enlightened young people supporting our president.

When I got home, I had a sweet note (with a family photo) from Michelle Obama asking me to keep up my good work. Enclosed was a foldable, laminated wallet card providing answers to the question “What has President Obama accomplished in the last three years?” The five main points, each with a few sub-bullets, are 1) commitment to women and families, 2) health care, 3) rebuilding the middle class, 4) creating an economy that is built to last, and 5) ending the war in Iraq.  Oh, there was a donation form, too.

Also in the mail was a pledge card from Working America — no grass growing under their feet!

So, on payday I’m going to put a couple of checks in the mail. Tonight I’m going to fold up the First Lady’s answer card and put it in my wallet. The photo of Barack, Michelle, Malia, and Sasha is already on my fridge.

What’s a Socialist?

Excerpts from a NY Times article (June 30, 2012) by Steven Erlanger 

What’s a Socialist?

And what does it mean to be a Socialist these days, anyway?

Not very much. Certainly nothing radical. In a sense, socialism was an ideology of the industrialized 19th century, a democratic Marxism, and it succeeded, even in (shh!) the United States. Socialism meant the emancipation of the working class and its transformation into the middle class; it championed social justice and a progressive tax system, and in that sense has largely done its job. As the industrialized working class gets smaller and smaller, socialism seems to have less and less to say.

Center-right parties have embraced or absorbed many of the ideas of socialism: trade unions, generous welfare benefits, some form of nationalized health care, even restrictions on carbon emissions. The right argues that it can manage all these programs more efficiently than the left, and some want to shrink them, but only on the fringes is there talk of actually dismantling the welfare state.

“As an ideologically based movement, socialism is no longer vital,” says Joschka Fischer, who began his career on the far left and remains a prominent spokesman for the [German] Green Party. “Today it’s a combination of democracy, rule of law and the welfare state, and I’d say a vast majority of Europeans defend this — the British Tories can’t touch the National Health Service without being beheaded.”

Even in the United States, Mr. Fischer says, “you have a sort of welfare state, even if you don’t want to admit it — you don’t allow people to die on the street.”

So why the prospect of “European socialism” is so frightening to some Americans puzzles Europeans, a mystery as deep as the American obsession with abortion or affection for the death penalty.