Speech to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Keene NH 3/21/10
First, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak about economic and social justice, a subject close to my heart. As a legal aid lawyer representing exclusively poor, elderly, and disabled people, I see the effects of poverty everyday.
I chose my career as a legal aid lawyer with a notion of doing something to eliminate poverty. Just to give you a little background on myself, I have worked at New Hampshire Legal Assistance (NHLA) for almost 25 years. Most of the legal work I have done has been on behalf of individual poor clients who were denied a public benefit like unemployment insurance or Social Security Disability. I have also done eviction defense, some Chapter 13 bankruptcy and some representation of domestic violence victims.
Over the last 14 years, I have worked as the lobbyist for NHLA in the NH state legislature lobbying on issues of concern to poor people such as raising the minimum wage. That effort took 10 years and 5 legislative trys before it succeeded.
I mention that because one lesson I have learned is the value of persistence on economic justice issues. I guess I would like to lobby all of you to consider being activists and organizers for economic justice.
I firmly believe that poverty could be eliminated in the United States. No political party is currently advocating that but I think it is entirely possible that could change. Or a new party could be created that would advocate that change.
In Europe there is an aggressive movement to end poverty. For whatever reason, our media has not reported on it. In 2000, heads of state in Europe pledged to make a decisive eradication of poverty by 2010. There is a renewed effort because the initial effort fell short. A coalition of European NGOs’ organized by the European Anti-Poverty Network is behind this. 2010 is being called the European year for combating poverty and social exclusion. The Europeans involved define poverty as follows:
“Poverty is a multidimensional phenomenon: it is not simply the lack of resources and income, whether through employment or social benefits. It also encompasses the notion of vulnerability, precariousness, lack of opportunities and denial of rights, such as access to education and health, culture, housing, employment services and infrastructure as well as access to information and political participation.”
We need a new abolitionist movement in the U.S. – this time against poverty. Our task is to make poverty morally and politically unacceptable. We have reached a sad place when our society accommodates the kind of rampant inequality and poverty that is a staple of life in the U.S. now.
Instead of outrage at poverty, our society provides multiple spectacles and passifiers so that distractions control us. Who is going to think about poverty when there is the Super Bowl, the Oscars, Wrestlemania, the Final Four, Tiger Woods, Dancing with the Stars, Avatar, American Idol, and 24? And that barely scratches the surface.
I should probably confess I am a huge football and baseball fan. I grew up in the Philadelphia area and have a lifelong love of the Eagles and Phillies. I don’t want to give that up either and I can totally relate to the desire to tune out bad stuff. Also, I liked Avatar in 3-D.
Unfortunately, the tuning out tendency has proved self-destructive for the American people. We have been snookered and victimized with only a dim awareness of the cause of our exploitation and who is doing the exploiting.
I want to touch on some of the economic realities going on now. While the U.S. has been the richest nation in the world, it has the highest poverty rate in the industrialized world. Over 50 million people in the U.S. are now using food stamps. Hunger is at an all time high.
The unemployment rate is officially 9.7% but the government doesn’t count discouraged workers or those who are involuntary part-time workers when it figures the tally. If all the unemployed were actually counted the number of unemployed would be closer to 20%. That is over 30 million unemployed or underemployed.
There are six people applying for every job opening. To get back to the 4.6% unemployment rate we had in the U.S. in 2007, we would need to create 10 million new jobs.
The massive unemployment has caused enormous human suffering and anguish. I recently had a 55 year old man in my office who had lost his job as a prison guard. In the last year, he lost his home to foreclosure;his wife left him; and he lacked money for rent. He was crashing with a friend. He cried his eyes out in my office. I wish I could say that he was unusual but I don’t think he is at all unique.
In the last couple years, 5 million Americans lost their homes to foreclosure. 13 million more are expected to lose their homes by 2014. Everyday another 10,000 homes enter foreclosure.
There are approximately 3 million homeless in the U.S.. The fastest growing segment is single parents with children.
Over the last 30 years there has been an absolute explosion of inequality. Between 1980-2006, the richest 1% of Americans tripled their after tax percentage of the nation’s total income while the bottom 90% have seen their share drop 20%. The top 1% owns 70% of all financial assets.
If anyone wonders where the data I cited comes from, I am quoting from a series of articles by the writer David DeGraw that appeared on the website http://www.alternet.org . I cite these statistics not to be discouraging but to keep it real.
It seems like the only thing we, as a society, seriously invest in is the military. I think that is a colossal waste. No one talks about that but the money spent on the military is both ridiculously underquestioned and it is utterly disproportionate to any actual threat to the U.S.
When it comes to budgeting, education and social welfare dollars are squeezed to the max but Democrats and Republicans unite in throwing lavish money at the Pentagon. It is our excessive militarism which is scary dangerous and almost completely unchallenged. The historian Chalmers Johnson has written about our over 700 military bases around the world but no one pays attention to that.
The problem as I see it is that the business class in America is extremely class conscious about its interests but that is not true of working people. Working people have been getting hammered. So many jobs have gone overseas or have been eliminated. Workers are encouraged to be self-blaming rather than class conscious. Also, there are so many divisions among workers because of racial, sexual, national, and sexual preference differences that it is hard to see commonality as workers. It is easier to fight a poor neighbor who happens to be Black, Asian or Hispanic than a faceless CEO who lives in a gated community you maybe can’t see or even visualize.
I once heard a liberal described as a person who leaves the room when the fight begins. Whether that is fair or not, it has to change.
I would suggest that liberals and the Left could learn a lot from studying the Right. While their ideology is odious, they are persistent. Their well-financed think tanks have generated many reactionary ideas that have put the Left on the defensive since the Reagan era. In my opinion, they have largely controlled political debate or at least the discussion of what could be considered acceptable reforms.
On a wide range of issues from a public jobs program to financial regulation to cutting the defense budget to global warming, progressives need to articulate a new set of long-range goals and then we need to be serious about achieving them.
Abolishing poverty is going to take many years. If it is not articulated and forcefully presented, it will be on no agenda.
One great thing about living in New Hampshire is that we are closer to the levers of power than people in many other states. New Hampshire has come an incredibly long way in the last decade. The state is no longer controlled by neanderthals at the Union Leader and far right Republicans. That is a sea change. When the Democrats gained control of both Houses in the state legislature as well as the Governor’s corner office in 2006, it was over 100 years since that had happened.
There remain great opportunities in our state legislature. Whether as advocates or as legislators, we should be bringing forward progressive legislative solutions. All that is required is some thought, organizing, political savvy, and creativity. And the ability to get our candidates elected.
Over the last four years, many positive things have been accomplished at the state level by the Democratic majority. I mentioned raising the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour. That was a very hard fought accomplishment. It was continuously opposed for 10 years by an array of business interests. The persistence of advocates made it an issue, framed it, created NH-specific data for it, wore down opponents, and ultimately led to a hugely consequential victory for low wage workers. By raising the floor, legislators gave more wage leverage to thousands of workers who were earning a little above minimum wage.
Since the legislative accomplishments of the last four years are not sufficiently appreciated or, in part, not known, I want to mention them.
– In 2008, putting an interest rate cap on payday and auto title loans. These predatory lenders would have made a killing at the expense of consumers during this recession. This anti-usury reform saved NH consumers millions of dollars.
– Modernizing and extending unemployment benefits, including making part-time workers eligible. Again, considering the recession, this reform was incredibly timely and beneficial for NH workers, especially women.
– Legalizing civil unions and then gay marriage. This reform put NH in the front ranks of states and frankly it probably blew many minds of people who saw NH as a sexless cold Yankee outpost. Take that, California.
– Eliminating the developmental disability waitlist. This is again in jeopardy but getting this critical reform for developmentally disabled people given the perennial state budget shortfall was a wonderful achievement.
I am afraid there are no short cuts for progressives.We need a long-term perspective and we need to be in the fight for the long haul. Working people have every reason to be upset with the political status quo. It is ironic that the Tea Party movement captures political outrage. Progressives need to reach out to tea partiers and others who are legitimately outraged. I do not like the snootiness and condescension toward working people that is evidenced among liberals who are upset at the tea partiers.
In closing, I would like to suggest a point about economic inequality that has been insufficiently made. Inequality is often presented as being about the poor. I would suggest we are all poorer for living in grossly unequal societies.
A new book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, argues that case. People living in more unequal societies live significantly shorter, less healthy lives than people who live in societies where wealth is more evenly spread. Inequality leads to poorer health, lower educational attainment, higher crime rates, lower trust and cooperation.
I think warmth, humor, and humility are the approprate stance for building a new new left. Also, tolerance for different perspectives. Given the weakness of the left, posturing and negative judgmentalism are not the way to go. Much commonality can be forged simply by defending workers’ needs.
Thanks again for the chance to share these thoughts.