Warning: The following is more of a “rant” than a structured argument for economic justice or any particular policies.
I originally wrote the following before the current recession (and other economic crises) which has led to far more populist class consciousness than previously. I thought reprinting it now might lead to more discussions about how, as we recover from the recession, we can make sure that the economy is also more just. I don’t want just a recovery for the wealthy or upper middle class, but a recovery for everyone: an end to homelessness; quality public education available to ALL; universal healthcare as a fundamental right; a stronger labor movement; a reversal of the widening gap between the ultra-rich and everyone else. This autobiographical segment shows why this is not a new concern for me–and shapes the way I read the Bible on economics.
The great historian, Howard Zinn, has an essay somewhere called “Growing Up Class Conscious.” Boy, do I relate. I grew up in a working class home and when my parents divorced, we slipped to the working poor as my mother worked two jobs trying to keep us from losing the house. I remember my sister, Dottie (there were 6 of us kids before I turned 18), and I trying to figure out creative ways to make dinner when the bills outstripped the paychecks. True, in a few years Mom remarried and, with my adoptive father’s help, we worked our way back into the lower middle class. By the time I left for the military (17), my parents were even enrolled in evening classes at the local junior college.
But growing up as I did meant that I was singled out in grade school because we had free school lunches. We needed them, and I am grateful for this government program, but I resent the teachers that called attention to our poverty by placing us “free lunchers” at the front of the line. It meant that I had no idea growing up what a “vacation” was. It meant that everyone other than myself (the oldest) wore hand-me down clothes and mine were bought second hand. (This finally paid off when the “faded jeans” look became chic in the ’70s because every pair of jeans I owned was faded.) My mother and adoptive father wore their shoes until they were too old to patch–we kids grew too fast for that. I watched my family count out change on the kitchen table as they decided which bills to pay on time, which to put off, which to send partial payments–robbing Peter to pay Paul, they called it. In addition to work outside the family, mom sewed as many of the girls’ clothes as she could and they tried to be proud of her (quite wonderful) work, but were teased because they had no designer labels–not even from K-Mart.
It meant that every kid in the family got a job as soon as they could to help with the family income: By the time I was 15, I had a job in a local vetinarian’s office, plus a paper route, plus 5 families for whom I mowed lawns once a week. All my sisters started babysitting at 13 and got other part-time jobs. Those jobs paid for uniforms for sports teams, too. I started my homework at 10 pm most nights after work and family chores. Usually I finished my homework around 1 a.m. and then could go to sleep. I started drinking coffee at age 10 to stay awake in school. I couldn’t afford to date and most nights I had to stay home to take care of my siblings while my parents went to 2nd, evening jobs. The good thing was that for most of my childhood we had no TV to distract us and so we finished homework and read many, many books–including classics not assigned by any school curriculum.
I was proud of my parents for all they did for us, but society told us they were bad. We were “latch-key kids” who had no parent waiting for us at home after school and supposedly we were what was wrong with the country according to pundits and TV preachers. They ran down my mother for working outside the home (especially the Religious Right did this constantly), but constantly wanted to cut welfare programs used by “lazy welfare queens.” Notice the catch-22: If Mom accepted aid and stayed home, she was a “welfare queen,” but if she worked, she was bad for making us “latch-key kids.”
Most of the time we accepted no government aid in terms of food stamps or housing assistance, but I sure took advantage of the CETA program (I forgot what it stood for) to get a better job as a teen. It was one of many programs cut out during the Reagan years. Can’t be giving handouts to poor people, because then where would we have the money to give in corporate welfare to companies, right?
(Years later, I saw the movie Caddy Shack. There is a scene where the teen hero comes into his family home after caddying for rich golfers and puts money into a jar marked “college fund.” The audience laughed, knowing that college funds are supposed to be investment portfolios. I saw nothing funny in that scene.)
It meant that I never believed the American myths:
- Anyone can be rich who just works hard. I knew plenty of lazy rich people and plenty of hard-working poor people.
- There is no need for government assistance or wealth re-distribution because everyone starts off equal and those who get ahead deserve it. I cannot print my response to that one on a family-friendly blog. I knew the special treatment and “welfare for the rich” programs that gave the upper classes enormous advantages all too well.
I was good in school, but I joined the army at 17 partly out of family tradition, but partly for the college money. There were scholarships I would have qualified for, but I didn’t know them and had no idea how to fill out a scholarship application. I graduated near the top of my class, but had no idea that one was to apply for universities in one’s senior year. No one in my family had been to university, so they didn’t know to advise me. When I became a conscientious objector before my military term was over, I didn’t feel proud of standing up for my beliefs, I felt like a failure–because I had just left the only route out of poverty I had ever been shown. (The military isn’t a cure-all for poverty, either, but I didn’t know that, then.)
Growing up class conscious meant that I could never buy the argument, popular on some blogs I read, that concentrations of wealth translate into concentrations of power only through government and that if we just adopted libertarian economics with minimal government and regulation, the huge and growing income gap in this country would be completely benign. Right. What have ya’ll been smoking?
Further, since my career as an academic theologian failed, I have been returned to the working class. My wife, Kate, and I have worked a minimum of 3 and sometimes 5 jobs between us since 2000–and we still lost a home and a car and became very close to bankruptcy. I say this not to poor-mouth. We made some mistakes and also had a string of bad luck. But the process destroyed an American myth I had believed: that a university education was an automatic ticket to economic security. I have a Ph.D. and my wife has 2 masters degrees–and we struggle every month to keep from slipping into poverty (something that has baffled my parents and grandparents). While our particular circumstances are unique, we are not alone. The “free trade” policies that shipped good paying manufacturing jobs overseas in the ’90s are now shipping hi-tech jobs elsewhere, too. As universities and colleges struggle with their own financial crises, they have created an “academic underclass” of highly educated professionals who teach part-time because schools are shrinking the number of full-time academic positions available.
When our first daughter was born in ’95, I was reminded of much of this. We had a false alarm that we believed was a medical emergency. We immediately jumped into the car and drove to Kosair Children’s Hospital. Molly was fine, but the next day as I took the bus across town to teach, I met a man for whom riding the bus wasn’t an option. He had just dropped his wife and kids off at the hospital emergency room (taking twobuses) and couldn’t stay with them. He was trying to get to work on time or risk being fired. He had to transfer twice and wondered if he’d make it. They had no health insurance and so had not taken the baby to the doctor when first ill, but waited until it was an emergency–but not because they had no “family values.”
And draconic drug laws have made the prison system the fastest growing industry in the U.S., thanks to “privatized prisons.” The system is now fast-tracking young Latinos and African-Americans directly to prison– a new slavery.
It is a middle class and upper class luxury to believe in libertarianism, to believe that de-regulation is good and that companies will “voluntarily” curb their pollution, voluntarily provide safe working conditions, and voluntarily NOT rip off the public or their workers. The view from the working classes shows a different picture.
No one had to explain to me the need for universal healthcare, publicly financed campaigns, unions and strong labor laws, regulated marketplaces, progressive taxation, trial lawyers suing companies to get them to do right (vs. “tort reform” that strips away the ability of harmed persons to hold companies accountable), or strong public schools. I didn’t learn these things from liberal university or seminary professors. I learned them growing up class conscious. While never having been a pure Marxist (I can find the real flaws in Marx faster than capitalists can), I understood point about the worker’s alienation from his or her labor the first time I read it. I had already lived it.
The Right does not intimidate me when it labels every move for worker justice (higher wages, a more progressive tax structure, stronger labor laws, etc.) as “class warfare.” The wealthy declared war on the poor and the working class long ago and have been waging an undeclared war on the Middle Class since 1980. As a Christian pacifist, I am committed to nonviolent struggle, but I have no illusions that the wealthy in this country are on the same “side” as the rest of us. The sooner we wake up to the fact that we are already in a class war and every class except the wealthy are losing, the sooner we can forge winning coalitions between the desperately poor, the working class, and the middle class.
The Katrina disaster exposed the poverty and racism of 21st C. America–although media attention was notoriously brief. And the slow pace of reconstruction shows that “compassionate conservatism” still has other priorities. But the nation is, I think, at last waking up. The various Rightwing ideologies (Libertarianism, “compassionate conservatism”, neo-conservatism) all took a hit in the Nov. 2006 elections (although too many Democrats are still playing defense). Conditions are right to put these failed nightmares out of commission for good in the years to come. It’s about time.
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