This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 6/3/2015 under the title “The art of hating the poor”.
Being hostile to poor people is a long American tradition. Historically, the American people have fluctuated between a desire to help the deserving needy and an alternating desire to castigate and punish the undeserving poor. The tension between these conflicting desires lies behind public policy disputes about poverty and what to do about it.
Nationally, in the state legislatures this session, it would appear that anger at the unworthy poor had the upper hand. Here I am thinking about a new Kansas welfare law signed by Governor Sam Brownback that restricts Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients from accessing more than $25 of their monthly benefit money per day from ATMs.
The Kansas law contains many other restrictions including a prohibition against spending TANF cash assistance in retail liquor stores, casinos, tattoo parlors, massage parlors, body piercing parlors, nail salons, lingerie shops, movie theaters, swimming pools and cruise ships.
Kansas is not the only state that introduced legislation like that. A Missouri bill introduced by Republican state Rep. Rick Brattin outlaws the use of TANF funds to purchase chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood and steak. The Missouri bill has not yet passed.
Questions arise about these restrictions. How are TANF recipients, who often do not have bank accounts, going to pay rent or utility bills if they can only take out $25 at a time? What about ATM fees? Won’t TANF recipients get hit up on every withdrawal so they are losing precious and needed dollars? And as for purchases, is buying seafood bad? How about paying to go swimming? I guess the worst thing you can be is a welfare swimmer who loves tuna fish.
The laws do wreak havoc on lingerie-wearing, tattooed, energy-drinking TANF recipients who are getting massages, gambling, and watching movies on cruise ships. If you are from Kansas, I can understand that you would want to go on cruises.
Seriously, these type laws, whatever their intentions, reflect a mean-spirited mentality. The view is not one that sees poverty as a result of misfortune or social class. It is about bad persons. Poverty is seen as a willful result of personal deficiencies, laziness, and vice.
In his book The Undeserving Poor, the historian Michael Katz fleshes out the long historical consistency of this view. He quotes an 1834 sermon preached by Reverend Charles Burroughs, who spoke at the opening of a new chapel in the poorhouse in Portsmouth, New Hampshire:
“…Pauperism is the consequence of willful error, of shameful indolence, of vicious habits. It is a misery of human creation, the pernicious work of man, the lamentable consequence of bad principles and morals.”
The anger in this view is palpable and it is still with us today. Many Americans direct their anger downward on the poor rather than upward at the superrich. Possibly that is because most Americans are physically closer to poor people whether in supermarkets, other stores or nearby neighborhoods. They personally observe the poor. The superrich live apart in a rarified world beyond direct personal observation. It is easier to be mad at someone you see and experience than people you may envy who are a distant abstraction.
Overlooked in the welfare discussion is the national decline in the number of people on TANF. States everywhere have dramatically pared down their welfare rolls. Yet, an almost irrational hatred of welfare lives on. In its new legislation, Kansas also lowered the lifetime limit recipients could stay on TANF from 48 months down to 36 months. The original 1996 welfare reform legislation allowed states up to 60 months.
I would suggest that anger at the poor reflected in the Kansas and Missouri welfare laws is misdirected. Whatever their faults, the poor have minimal power to shape our political world. The same cannot be said of the superrich. Their wealth translates into inordinate political power . They buy politicians to do their bidding and their priorities do shape our world.
So why do the poor get blamed so much? I think there is a lack of understanding of social class and our class structure. Many are uncomfortable with talking about it but class is the dirty secret of American life. Even with our increasing economic inequality, talking about it is a little taboo. I do think that class has a pervasive influence on the way we live, work and think.
Americans are conditioned to think we are all middle class. Maybe there are some really rich people and some poor people at the ends of the spectrum but most people are alleged to be in the middle. This view is part of the mythology of America. I would argue that most Americans are working class. Unlike Europeans, we do not generally look at the world through a class lens and class consciousness is not recognized as a virtue.
This is too bad because, among world views, I think class provides a powerful tool for making sense of the world. Not everybody starts in the same place in this life. The prep school-attending child of great wealth is in a way different place than the inner city, public school-attending poor child. The advantages for the child of extreme wealth are profound, multi-faceted, and lifelong.
Those born into a family on welfare are near the bottom of the class structure. Focusing on their vices obscures their social class position. It is their class position – not their personal qualities – which largely dictate their life opportunities. One unfortunate feature of our increasing economic inequality has been the decline in social mobility. While there always are exceptions, class is a more important determinant than has been recognized.
I know there are different ways to define class. I should say that I am defining class based on the power and authority people have at work. Working class people typically have little control over the pace or content of their work.
Over the last four decades, the American working class has experienced lower real income, longer hours at work, and fewer protections by unions and government regulation. Big business shipped many of the formerly good paying manufacturing jobs overseas as they sought cheaper labor elsewhere outside the United States.
If you consider the 2016 presidential candidates, with the notable exception of Senator Bernie Sanders, the candidates have precious little to say about our class system. Republicans usually say people who mention social class are promoting class war. They ignore the reality that our Big Business class is far and away the most class conscious about pursuing its interests. When Big Business advances its interests at the expense of labor that is not called class war. That is business as usual.
While the Republicans are a coalition of interests including Big Business, social conservatives, and libertarians, from a class viewpoint, they consistently reflect the interests of the superrich.
Democrats generally do not talk about the working class any more. Now they talk about appealing to the middle class. I do not think it is an accident that Democrats have lost some appeal to working class voters. If your appeal is more to rich yuppies and professionals, working people notice. To their credit, the Democrats do offer some support for raising the minimum wage and addressing income inequality.
The writer Michael Lind once wrote:
“The American oligarchy spares no pains in promoting the belief that it does not exist, but the success of its disappearing act depends on equally strenuous efforts on the part of an American public anxious to believe in egalitarian fictions and unwilling to see what is hidden in plain sight.”
Demonizing and being angry at the poor reflects a deep misunderstanding of American politics.
Lesean McCoy, Chip Kelly and the Trivialization of Racism – posted 5/17/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 5/20/2015
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on May 20, 2015 under the title “The Racism Game”.
The obsessive Deflategate scandal aside, probably no story in the football offseason was more surprising than the trade of Lesean McCoy. The Philadelphia Eagles traded McCoy, a star running back, to the Buffalo Bills for linebacker Kiko Alonzo. In 2013, McCoy was the leading rusher in the NFL and in 2014 he finished third.
The whole episode would not be worthy of much discussion if not for McCoy’s public comments since the trade.
McCoy accused the Eagles’ coach Chip Kelly (former New Hampshire guy, by the way) of racism for making the trade. He said Kelly did not like or respect stars and he felt Kelly was getting rid of all the good Black players. In this connection he mentioned Desean Jackson, a former Eagle, who was a star wide receiver. Kelly had released Jackson the previous season. Jackson signed with the Redskins.
Others in the media like Stephen A. Smith of ESPN also accused Kelly of racism. He pointed to Kelly’s handling of wide receiver Riley Cooper after Cooper’s drunken, racist comments at a Kenny Chesney concert. Kelly let Cooper stay on the team. He gave Cooper a chance to make amends.
Since there may be no worse accusation than being called a racist, what is the evidence behind McCoy’s accusation of racism?
It appears to be that Kelly traded him. The Eagles did not want to pay the many millions McCoy wanted. The Bills signed McCoy to a 5 year, $40 million contract that includes $26.5 million in guaranteed money.
But what about McCoy’s accusation that Kelly is getting rid of all the good Black players? In free agency in 2015, the Eagles signed, among others, linebacker Brad Jones, cornerback Byron Maxwell, cornerback Walter Thurmond, running back Ryan Matthews, running back DeMarco Murray and wide receiver Miles Austin. In the draft, they took wide receiver Nelson Agholor and cornerback Eric Rowe. All are Black.
As for the rest of the team, Darren Sproles, Demeco Ryans, Fletcher Cox and Jordan Matthews are all fine players. Maybe not stars like McCoy but very good football players. They are also Black.
I think McCoy’s accusation of Kelly being racist was utterly unfounded. He was sliming a reputation out of anger because he was traded. But even worse, McCoy was unintentionally trivializing the meaning of racism.
False accusations rebound to the detriment of the accuser. They also are confusing because they point in the wrong direction. They do not direct attention to the real racism that does exist.
What McCoy said presents an unfair view of Kelly and his approach to coaching. Although McCoy is a great football player, he appears to be a narcissistic, self-centered multi-millionaire. I would guess that along with the salary cap McCoy’s exit from the Eagles had more to do with his not buying into Kelly’s system. Kelly is putting together his own team that has almost no leftovers from the Andy Reid era.
The most insightful article I have seen about Kelly’s unique approach to football coaching was from Philadelphia Daily News reporter, Paul Domowitch. In a piece wriiten on May 8, Domowitch argues that what Kelly wants has nothing to do with race or color.
“It is about work ethic and intelligence and commitment. It is about wanting smart players who, regardless of race, creed or salary-cap number, will buy into the Chip Kelly Plan and have an unquenchable desire to get better, no matter how much success they’ve already achieved.”
Domowitch cites a book by a Stanford psychology professor, Carol Dweck, as important to Kelly. The book is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck contrasts what she calls a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Domowitch says Kelly wants players with a growth mindset. That is players who believe they can expand their potential through years of passion, hard work and training.
Kelly is a sports science guy. He very carefully looks at things like sleep regimen and nutrition. The team creates personalized performance smoothies for each player. Players wear sleep monitors so that coaches can correct poor performance due to lack of sleep. Kelly and the Eagles have invested heavily in strength and conditioning coaches. To quote Domowitch:
“Kelly wants players with a growth mindset who believe the harder they work the better they will continue to get. Contrary to what McCoy believes, he has absolutely no problem coaching stars. He just doesn’t care much for coaching players with star mentalities, black or white.”
When I heard about McCoy’s comments, I recalled another story I had read about Kelly from Dave Zirin, a sportswriter I respect. In 2011, Zirin was touring the country with Dr. John Carlos, a former Olympian and anti-racist campaigner. Carlos was one of the two Black athletes who had raised a clenched fist on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics. That was an iconic and electrifying moment that galvanized anti-racists world-wide.
Zirin wrote how on the 2011 tour they were trying to speak to student-athletes in big-time NCAA football and basketball programs but overwhelmingly they got no response or a negative response from these programs. Only one coach from a big university sports program asked Carlos to come and speak to his team. That was Chip Kelly at Oregon.
In the piece, Zirin says he called John Carlos to get his recollections of the experience with Kelly. Carlos recalled that Kelly introduced him to his players as a person of principle and resolve and Kelly said that any successful team needed to share those kind of principles if they wanted to rise above being ordinary. Carlos remembered Kelly being passionate in having his players know the history of 1968 and the sacrifices made by Dr. Carlos and his generation of Black athletes.
Now does that sound like someone who is a racist?
I would suggest that trying to read in racist motivation to a football trade is a waste of time.
Most people seem to think of racism as something bad that someone says. While it certainly can be that, I would suggest quite a different understanding.
Racism is institutionalized in America. It is deeply embedded in our social structure with roots going back to slavery. We have ghettos in every major city; discrimination in housing, employment, health care and education; mass incarceration of young Black men; and, blatant police misconduct directed at minorities.
Racism is not about an unhappy football-playing multi-millionaire. We should be looking at the living and working conditions of the millions of everyday people who are struggling with little or no financial security. It is those conditions that need to be addressed.
Even with some good initiatives, the ascendance of the Obama presidency has not changed much for the masses of Black people in America (this is also true for poor and middle income people of all races). Obama’s presidency has been important symbolically but on issues like income inequality, it is hard to argue poor and middle income people have gained ground.
In surveying the field of potential Presidential candidates for 2016, I would say no candidate has distinguished him or herself by staking out a strong anti-racist platform. We remain in a dishonest period of denial and unconscious racism. We still pretend to phony colorblindness.
Accusations like McCoy’s do a disservice to the real struggle against racism. We need some truth tellers in the political arena and right now, they are lacking.
Conflict Over Heavy Industry in Wilmot – posted 5/6/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 5/9/2015
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on May 9, 2015 under the title “Fuel Facility out of Place in the Wilds of Wilmot”.
I have lived in Wilmot for 26 years. It is the longest I have lived anywhere in my life. I grew up in Lower Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia. Wilmot cannot be mistaken for a suburb. It is rural, located roughly between Mount Kearsarge and Ragged Mountain, in central New Hampshire.
Living in Wilmot, you have some elbow room. That space, a feature of country living, correlates to a decrease in anxiety. You can breathe a little more freely. Wilmot is free of the congestion and density typical of urban areas.
I own a tee-shirt that says: “Welcome to fabulous Wilmot, New Hampshire. What happens here stays here…But nothing ever really happens here.” It captures the feel of the town. Wilmot is quiet and located in the middle of nowhere. Part of its charm is its out-of-the-wayness.
When you tell people from outside New Hampshire – or even within New Hampshire – that you are from Wilmot, most of them have never heard of it.
The town of 1400 residents covers a pretty big geographic area and it is spread out. It has three distinct areas: Wilmot Flat, Wilmot Center, and North Wilmot. Where I live in North Wilmot is the boondocks. A neighbor once described the drive in the spring up Teel Hill to North Wilmot as like entering a long green tunnel.
In the background stands Mount Kearsarge. During foliage season last year, my friend Steve, my dog Shady and I all hiked up Kearsarge. We took the longer trail down. It was nothing short of spectacular.
There is no shortage of wildlife. We co-habitate with bears, deer and moose. Over the years, two of my golden retrievers have been porcupined. I just noticed the top of a hard plastic compost container in my backyard has been ripped in half and tossed. The likely culprit was a bear, one of my neighbors.
North Wilmot is a great area for hiking around and walking dogs. There are plenty of dirt back roads and virtually no traffic. In the summer you can find swimming holes and big rocks to lie on and sun yourself.
Other than an occasional new home going up, development has been slow. We are so far from most businesses that it is hard to find much local employment. Many people travel far for work. They choose to live in Wilmot because of the place.
Nobody has captured our sense of place better than Donald Hall. He began writing poetry about life in Wilmot during summers spent working at his grandparent’s farm. Now in his 80″s, he is still writing essays about life here, past and present. In Here at Eagle Pond, he has an essay entitled “Why We Live Here”. He wrote:
“We live where we live for landscape and seasons, for the place of it, but also for the time of it, daily and historical time.”
So it was a total shock to learn about the new effort to locate heavy industry in Wilmot, a project of jarring inconsistency with history and tradition. Huckleberry Oil and Propane Company plans to build an above ground storage and distribution facility with four tanks of propane holding 120,000 gallons, a 20,000 gallon heating oil tank, a 10,000 gallon kerosene tank and a five bay garage. The potential site is on Route 11, next to Scott’s Yard Care.
At present, there is no heavy industry in Wilmot. While inappropriate, profit-seeking development often seems like an almost normal part of modern life, I, for one, must say that I did not expect an attempt to bring a piece of the New Jersey Turnpike into our collective lives in Wilmot.
Part of what makes this effort surprising is that Wilmot residents previously voted to prohibit heavy industry in the town. At town meeting held in March 1968, Wilmot residents approved an ordinance banning the storage of flammable and explosive materials in the town. That ordinance has never been repealed.
I would suggest it is not knee-jerk environmentalism or some form of NIMBYism to have very serious reservations about this project. I have three concerns.
My first concern is environmental. The projected location is poorly conceived. It is too near critical water resources. The drainage from the proposed site flows under Route 11 and very near Whitney Brook which is connected to Chase and Tannery pond and the Blackwater River.
It is hardly paranoid to be concerned about water quality. Wilmot residents have wells and swimming areas connected to the same watershed near the project. Contamination of the groundwater could be disastrous.
If you were a property owner in the vicinity, I doubt you bargained for nearby fuel storage tanks. In spite of Huckleberry’s assurances to the contrary, there is a history of fuel tanks leaking at many sites in New England. What would even one bad leak or accident mean for this small town?
I do think the town has an obligation to assess the risk before it goes farther down this road. Town officials should look carefully at Huckleberry’s safety record at its other New Hampshire facilities. More generally, they should consider other communities’ experience with contamination from leaking storage tanks to understand the risks this facility poses to Wilmot’s water, air and soil.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has published quite a bit on source water protection. It reports that there are currently 3,000 contaminated sites across the region that still await clean-up. Here is an apropos quote from a 2010 EPA publication about above ground storage tanks.
“Storage tank releases can contaminate soil and drinking water supplies. Petroleum products are composed of volatile organic compounds. Even a small spill can have a serious impact. A single pint of oil released into the water can cover an acre of water surface and can seriously damage an aquatic habitat. A spill of only one gallon of oil can contaminate a million gallons of water. It may take yers for an ecosystem to recover from the damage cause by an oil spill.”
The EPA goes on to say that the location of a facility must be considered in relation to drinking water wells, streams, ponds, and other navigable waters. Factors like the distance to drinking water wells and surface water, the volume of material stored, worse case weather conditions and drainage patterns must be considered.
I personally think it would be wise for the town to hire an impartial expert to explore all the environmental issues raised. Apparently the Planning Board is going to do that.
My second concern is aesthetic. By any measure, the project is an eyesore. While Wilmot does need fuel, it doesn’t need such an ugly industrial structure in a place of high visibility. It would be the equivalent of a Blakean satanic mill. Just what Wilmot needs in a prominent location – a potential Superfund site!
The storage facility will be lit 24 hours a day. The lighting will be on 20 foot poles. Because the site is raised well above the road, nearby residents are concerned about the night light being cast far and wide.
There are some other unanswered questions. How tall would the fence be around the project? What kind of security would there be? Would tanker trucks be coming and going at all hours, 24/7? And what about fire fighting in the event of an explosion? Can Wilmot’s small volunteer Fire Department handle that?
My last concern is procedural and legal. Stepping back, I hope town officials do not feel compelled to rush through any process of approval. The questions are too serious, the risks too high.
From my perspective, the fact that the Wilmot Zoning Board of Adjustment granted a variance to allow the project to move forward should be of little consequence. That was before almost the whole town knew what was happening.
Without getting into the particulars, I will say the early part of the process has, at the very least, an appearance of impropriety. I have wondered how a town ordinance approved by the town voters could be trumped by a highly questionable approval of a variance that had zero public participation. If anyone were to take the time to read the variance application submitted by Huckleberry I believe they will see it is a bad joke. The lofty conditions that must be met before approval is granted require both public input and buy in, which never actually happened, and is unlikely to.
In thinking about what is happening in Wilmot, I am reminded of the famous Thoreau quote from his essay “Walking”: “…in Wildness is the preservation of the World.” Maybe Wilmot is not too wild but it does not need to foul its nest. Not every assertion of private profit-making corresponds to the public interest. Sometimes it is better to simply leave things as they are.