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Posts Tagged ‘money’

How Shame Keeps the Poor in Line

September 1, 2011 4 comments

Home Sweet Home

While I was in Detroit earlier this summer I had a conversation with a wonderful old woman who had been just at the bottom of the middle class all her life. She had gotten by working two, sometimes three hard and under-appreciated food service jobs, making just enough to get by. Now 62 and suffering from several ailments, including diabetes, she was waiting patiently for her unemployment to kick in, so she could stop standing on her feet sixteen hours a day. She had acquired a tiny bit of debt along the way, not enough to amount to lunch money for a rich person, but for her it was like an insurmountable mountain.

As the story goes, she had been almost starving in order to pay those bills, until a good friend convinced her to buy food first, and tell the companies that she was indebted to that they would just have to wait. Like many of the poor and almost poor, she was conscientious to a fault, and had to be convinced to take care of her own basic needs. Never mind that the interest rates she was paying were usurious. Never mind that there are whole industries in the business of exploiting people like her. It had never even occurred to her to miss a payment or negotiate a better deal.

This is just one of the ways that the poor are kept stuck. I have been traveling the country writing about the economic collapse of 2008 and the depression that has followed. It is amazing to me the number of people who have been harmed by these events, or even had their lives destroyed that will not speak out about it. The overwhelming emotion is shame. Shame in the face of a groaning table full of riches meant for others that they will never partake in.

And why are they ashamed, when the abominable condition they find themselves in in clearly not their fault? I believe it comes from an ugly strain of neo-Calvinism that the rich use to justify behavior that no true Christian would tolerate in themselves, and which the poor internalize. The result is massive shame instead of the appropriate emotion-galvanizing rage!

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What is the American Middle Class Anyhow, and Why Should We Care?

January 14, 2011 2 comments

The American Dream

First, a little history: In Feudal times, there were three classes, or estates. They were the aristocracy, the clergy, and the peasants.  These classes were conferred at birth and the amount of social mobility was nil. As the market economy began to emerge in Europe and the New World this began to change. For the first time a moneyed merchant class rose up from the peasant class. These merchants came, for the first time, not from the landed aristocracy but from the common people. As their buying power increased so did their influence on the affairs of the day.

But, even at that, there were still large income inequalities. These inequalities lasted through the gilded age and continued into the 1920s.The American middle class as we know it today rose up as a result of the economic policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. This is the origin of the American Dream, which consists of home ownership, a decent education, and a job with a future and a large enough salary to enjoy the good life. The social safety net created by the New Deal made this dream possible for millions of people.

Though poverty was still endemic in certain areas the overall condition of the people was lifted up. The middle class also provided something to aspire to if you weren’t there yet. Every year there were newly minted graduates of universities that could say “I am the first in my family to finish college.” And the implied promise of the social contract was fulfilled-as graduation rates went up, so did incomes. The professions, formerly the bastion of rich white males, were forced to open there doors to everyone else.

They bounty was not confined to white collar workers. Through strong unions and a powerful manufacturing base the working class too joined into the American Dream. As did small business owners of all kinds. This new middle class were able, due to increases in standard of living, to pay more taxes, which built up cities, counties, and states. It also funded the safety net to protect those who were still behind in the game from real destitution. Neither hunger nor homelessness were big problems in those days. In fact, they were almost non-existent.

It would seem that having a large powerful middle class forming the glue of society would be considered a good thing all the way around. But there were those that thought differently. I am not going to discuss reasonable criticisms of the American Middle Class in this post, for instance the criticism of American over-consumption and waste, though I will discuss these in future posts. In this instance I am speaking of the elite class, defeated (in their own minds at least) by the New Deal policies that allowed the middle class to rise up to begin with.

The class war actually began around 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan. It was slow and quiet at first, and always surreptitious. Slowly the market was deregulated, the jobs outsourced, the safety net eaten away. The apotheosis of the “free market” created a new body of “common knowledge”. The mental institutions shut down and the inmates were ‘set free’ to freeze and starve on America’s streets. And the price of education shot through the roof, as did the cost of medical care. As a new, now global, class of corporate elites formed, the luster of the American middle class began to fade.

The coup de grâce came in 2007 with the completely avoidable sub-prime crisis and the collapse of the economy, at least for us ordinary folk. The stock market itself came back very quickly, as did the million dollar bonuses. But not the jobs or the tax base. Now the rest of the safety net is in great peril, both from attacks by the elite and from being overwhelmed by millions of new ‘customers’. The middle class, once the greatest source of funds for services to the poor are now in need of such services themselves. And the elite class is not willing to foot the bill. They believe, along with Marie Antoinette, that we should “eat cake”

Here are some informative links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kwA-CwFK5A Paul Krugman discusses the origins of the American Middle Class

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akVL7QY0S8A Elizabeth Warren on the coming collapse of the middle class

http://www.alternet.org/economy/41192/ Thom Hartmann on the war against the middle class

Being Poor is Hard Work

January 5, 2011 8 comments

The Money Problem

Contrary to the popular opinion that “poor people are lazy”, the truth is that every aspect of life becomes much harder when you are poor. And the learning curve if you suddenly become poor is staggering. It is hard enough for those who understand the system. For the newly poor, life is fraught with peril. There are so many things where the solution was once money, and now it is waiting in line, or filling out forms,  or figuring out how to do it yourself. Sometimes the solution is to just do without. For the poor, a great deal of time is spent just fulfilling basic needs that could be obtained easily with money, or dealing with the effects of needs that can’t be met at all, such as, in many cases, medical care.

For the moneyed, getting food is as easy as deciding what to get and getting it. Cooking is an option, and ingredients are no problem. The very people who have the greatest access to medicine also have the pick of healthy food choices. For the poor, at a certain point, getting food requires standing in long lines for assistance, which is often inadequate. With or without food stamps there may be few healthy food choices in the neighborhood. To get healthy food if you are not lucky enough to have a garden plot or live near a community garden, it may be necessary to go a long distance, possibly without a vehicle, and then get the provisions home. This takes a lot of effort, and that is before the stove gets fired up.

Then there is the question of transportation. Car ownership, even an old beater, is expensive and wrought with peril. If you are not a mechanic and have no mechanics in your immediate circle, there is always a chance that things can go wrong. Buying car insurance can cut into money for food or heating, and fuel prices are spiraling upwards. It may be impossible to get the car registered in a timely fashion, which drives up the cost in the end. In that case it is necessary to take evasive action every time you spot a cop on the road. And when you finally get caught the fees can exceed the value of the vehicle, or make it so you can eat nothing but peanut butter for awhile.

Without a car, in many areas, getting anywhere takes a lot of time, and some money unless you walk. This can be mitigated by living in a place with good public transportation, especially if there is a program for a low-cost monthly pass.

Money management presents a problem. At a certain point, having any kind of bank account becomes a liability. The few bills that must be paid by mail not involve a trip to the store for a money order, one of the most insecure and difficult ways of paying. God help you if it gets lost in the mail…

If you get sick or injured enough to absolutely require medical attention there is always the emergency room. You will be hounded for an outrageous amount of money for years afterwards, and may get substandard treatment, but will likely survive. For lesser ills, you can try to get an over the counter remedy or just tough it out. And if is a dental problem, just forget it. Teeth are not considered part of a poor person’s body.

These are just a few examples of situations where poverty creates the need for massive amounts of work just to survive. It is not laziness that keeps the poor impoverished, but rather a system that is completely stacked in favor of maintaining the status quo. There is the ever present chance of stepping on some rich person’s “property rights” and there by incurring some mountainous expense at law. For instance, if you park on private property and get towed, the initial fee may be hundreds of dollars and increase by fifty or more dollars (a week’s groceries) each day. The towing yards are full of cars that could not be retrieved by their owners. These vehicles may have been keeping their former owners employed. And the private towing company gets to KEEP this unconscionable profit.

There are whole industries that prey on the poor, raising the prices that they are likely to pay for everything from milk to tires. The worst are the predatory lenders offering quick cash at fees that are beyond usury.

And, if there are any infractions of government codes, such as rolling a stop sign, a choice must be made whether to lose the vehicle, risk jail, or just stop eating for a month. A moneyed person would just pay the bill and drive on.

In many places there are laws about sitting or standing on the street without obviously being in the process of buying something. Even going to the bathroom when not at home costs money, to become a “customer” and therefore eligible to use the facilities. The list just goes on and on. It is safer, when poor, to never leave your house. But then you will just get evicted and join the ranks of the homeless.

Yes, being poor is very hard work and it will likely get much harder as the ranks of the former middle class start to press in on available services while the government struggles to keep up. At the same time the tax revenues that used to be paid into the system by the former middle class are drying up as millions of people either remain unemployed or replace (at long last) high paying jobs with minimum wage jobs. The mean streets are about to get a lot meaner.

 

Annabel’s Odyssey Initial Itinerary

December 30, 2010 4 comments

Planning the Journey

I am looking at the Rand McNally Road Atlas for the USA, that first big map of the lower 48 in the very front. I am concentrating for the moment on the southern states. The even numbered highways go east-west, and the odd ones go north-south. I am trying to stay on I-10 and I-20 for the most part. How long I stay in each place will depend mostly on luck and the people I meet. And if I hear of a contact with a good story I will veer off course temporarily. That is the beauty of the Discovery Pass.

The route is a concession to the weather, though I gather it has been freezing the last few days at some points along the route. Being poor is hard work, much harder when is is freezing cold. And I am not talking about the homeless necessarily. Taking public transportation, getting food, and standing in line are all harder in the winter in the north.

If you know someone around those parts that is a member of the new poor that I should meet or if you know any local news jockeys that would talk to me about the project please let me know in the comments.

San Francisco January 9th, 10th

Santa Cruz January 11th

Los Angeles January 12th, 13th, 14th

Phoenix January 15th, 16th

Flagstaff January 17th, 18th

Albuquerque January 19th, 20th

Dallas January 21st, 22nd

Austin January 23rd, 24th, 25th

New Orleans January 26th, 27th, 28th

Mobile January 29th, 30th

Panama City January 31st, February 1st, 2nd

Miami February 1st, 2nd, 3rd

Jacksonville February 5th, 6th

Savannah February 7th, 8th

Fayetteville February 9th, 10th

Raleigh February 11th, 12th

Atlanta February 13th, 14th, 15th

Memphis February 16th, 17th, 18th

Little Rock February 19th, February 20th

Oklahoma City February 21st, 22nd

Las Vegas February 23rd, 24th, 25th

Project Overview-In Search of the “New Poor”

December 30, 2010 5 comments

Welcome to Annabel’s Odyssey, the story of my trip across America in search of the “new poor”, formerly the great American Middle Class. The purpose of this trip is to create a book/documentary of the current depression. I know that the media has, for the most part, been calling the economic events since the financial melt-down of 2008 the “Great Recession”, and that they are claiming that the recovery began in June of 2009. Apparently no one notified Main Street USA of this recovery.

There are some well known economists that are calling this a depression, or at least hinting at it. Paul Krugman of the New York Times, on July 27th 2010 stated “We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression.” He goes on “… unemployment — especially long-term unemployment — remains at levels that would have been considered catastrophic not long ago, and shows no sign of coming down rapidly.” People around the country are still looking for work for years sometimes, only to find a “job” that pays one tenth of what the lost job paid, not even a living wage. People that bought houses, all full of hope and belief in the American dream are being foreclosed upon, sometimes completely illegally. And the statistics that are used to calculate unemployment don’t even include self-employed people that are down by 60% or lose their businesses completely. Bankruptcies are on the rise across the country.

Now the report is that the state and local governments are being forced to dismantle the social safety net and cut services to the poor, because they too are going broke. This, just as the former middle class are turning to the system for basic needs, such as food.

I will be setting out in early January, the heart of winter, in search of the failed American Dream. I fear I will not have to look hard to find it.

I will be criss-crossing the country by bus and rideshare, couch surfing and researching the book. I will seek out and interview people that were doing fine just a few years ago, were comfortably middle class, and are now struggling to make ends meet. They may have lost a job or a house or both. Many are just a paycheck away from being homeless. The savings that were meant for retirement have been used for survival, and are almost exhausted.

Where there are strong-holds of the uber-rich along my way I will check those places out as well. The income disparity between the richest and poorest in this country has not been this great since the Gilded Age. For the uber-rich, there is no depression. In fact they are profiting from the pain of the middle class in unimaginable ways. No, this story cannot be told without including the super-rich.

If this project resonates with you, check back as I post my stories and pictures along the way. If you know someone, including yourself, with a story to tell, let me know. And if you would like to help, check out the donate button. Even five dollars will help. I sold the only asset I had left, my car, to make this happen. I hope to see you here as I check-in along the road. The first stops will be Santa Cruz and Los Angeles, then on to Phoenix and the Gulf States. Eventually I will visit every state. I hope to see you on my journey.

So, Why is This Story Important Anyhow?

December 29, 2010 5 comments

Two questions. Why should this book be written and this story be told? And why should I be the one to write it?

First, the book should be written because it is a story with many facets and huge implications. In the last depression it was not clear to some that there was a deep intractable problem until it was well under way. It is the same in this depression. We are losing a whole class of citizens, the middle class, the one that provides the backbone of the nation. We are on the cusp of a new gilded age which is causing untold misery for millions of Americans. This is a big story, one that will be told many times and in many ways.

Second,the fact that from the point of view of the new poor it is an untold story provides the moral imperative to tell it. These people need a voice, and this book will provide it. There is a great pent up need to talk about this. The millions of people who have gone from comfortably middle class to poor have each been through a real trauma, but no one is treating it this way. This project will begin to fill this gap in the public discourse.

But, why should I write it? Because I am able to synthesize the data and run it through my mind and pour out words that are easy to read yet convey the complexity. But there is more.

I am one of the “new poor” In 2006 I had been married to a contractor in the wine country of northern California for nine years, and I was in law school getting good grades. I wanted to be an environmental lawyer. The illness and death of my husband intersected with the financial melt-down and crash. There was no money to finish law school. I sold what little was left of my former life. I started a small business to support myself, but it was like trying to dig through rock. The business was professional organizing, and I joined every networking group I could, went to meetings, perfected my pitch, and got a few clients, all of whom were pleased with my work.

A very few clients. The problem was that my potential clients were losing their corporate jobs and not only didn’t need me, they couldn’t afford me anymore. Worse yet, a not insignificant number were becoming competitors. Where organizers had been getting about $70 an hour in my area, suddenly we were lucky to get half that. I started cleaning houses, just long enough to pull out of the hole. In the end I cut all my expenses to the bone, got rid of all services except the phone, stopped going anywhere or doing anything, and started to write. It turns out I am good at this, but freelancing in tough times is even harder than it usually is. I am now looking for completely new solutions to the economic problem that work around the corporate world and mainstream markets entirely.

But, the main reason I am the right author for this book is that I am willing to write it. Which in this case means being willing to undergo a certain amount of discomfort. I am an extremely frugal traveler because I have to be. This will be a rough and tumble journey. As exciting as a road trip can be this is going to be work. But, there is that moral imperative again. There is a great and terrible thing happening to my country. If that is not enough to get me out of my comfortable chair perhaps I don’t deserve to call myself a journalist at all.