Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Tough Luck for the Poor

Republicans in the House just voted to cut food stamps for poor Americans. They say the program is too large, because so many Americans need food stamps to help them buy groceries. Too large means too many tax dollars are being spent to feed poor Americans. The Republicans want to cut taxes, and they mean to do that by cutting programs that spend money on the poor.

Why does rich America have so many poor people? The answer cannot be found in the recent economic disaster from which we are slowly recovering. The problem of the American economy is much older.

The typical American household, right in the middle of the economic spectrum, is making the same real income as in 1988, 25 years ago. The per capita size of our economy has grown 40% in that time, but none of the gains have gone to middle Americans. Even worse, the real net worth of the middle American family has fallen 6% since 1989.

Over the past 15 years the number of full-time year-round workers has barely changed, as more and more corporations offer only part-time work in order to reduce the need to pay benefits. Even for those with full-time work, like factory workers, real wages have fallen since the 1970s. Adjusting for inflation, the minimum wage has fallen steadily since the 1960s; it is now only two-thirds of the value it was 45 years ago.

In fact, the vast majority of Americans, the real 99%, have seen little improvement. Since 1993, real income for the 99% has grown only 6.6%, about one third of 1% a year, barely noticeable.

For the top 1%, on the other hand, the past 35 years have been a bonanza. In 1978, the top 1% made 9% of the total income in the country; last year their share was 23%. In the last 20 years, their incomes nearly doubled. The top one-hundredth of 1%, the richest 16,000 families, have increased their share of total income from 1% in 1978 to over 5% now, the highest it has ever been. These 16,000 families make about the same each year as the bottom 16 million families.

While the very rich have been increasing their share of the American economy, the number of poor Americans has been rising. Although the social programs and economic expansion of the 1960s reduced the number in poverty from 40 million to under 25 million, the number began to climb again after 1978 to over 46 million in 2012. But the so-called poverty rate of 15% of Americans for 2012 is misleading about the nature of American poverty. Over the three years 2009 through 2011, nearly one-third of Americans experienced a spell of poverty lasting 2 or more months. Only 3.5% of the population were poor for that entire span. So the spending on anti-poverty programs like food stamps works to help the millions of Americans who fall into poverty to stand back up again.

You wouldn’t know any of this from listening to Republican politicians. They blame poverty on the poor. Of course, they don’t actually make that argument openly, because nobody could really believe that the poorest Americans have caused the rich to get richer and the rest to stagnate. They make the argument behind closed doors, like Mitt Romney did when he was caught on videotape during the 2012 campaign.

In public, they talk a lot about the national debt, and then try to reduce it by cutting every program that helps the poor. Here’s how they connect the dots. The biggest problem in our economy is the national debt. That is caused by too much taxation and too much government spending, but not every big government program needs to be cut. The programs that need to be cut are the food stamp program, unemployment compensation, and Head Start. Programs that need to remain or even grow are tax breaks for the rich, tax breaks for corporations, and subsidies for agribusiness.

None of those programs can possibly help the poor, or the sinking middle class. And that’s the whole idea. The Republicans are not trying to use government to make life better for most Americans. They don’t believe that government should help most Americans.

The Republicans don’t even have to pretend that they care about the economic plight of the majority. In Owsley County, Kentucky, over half the population gets food stamps, but this nearly all-white county voted 81% for Romney. Of the 254 counties whose number of food stamp users doubled since 2007, Romney won 213.

So tough luck for the poor. Republicans are trying to slash the programs which have allowed most people who fell into poverty during the recession to get out of it. And for the rest of the middle class, whose incomes are going nowhere, they can watch the very rich eat up more and more of our national wealth.

Maybe the trickle down will start tomorrow.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 24, 2013

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Litterbugs don’t care about community. They indulge their laziness and display disdain for their neighbors. Every morning I find fast food packaging and cigarette butts in the gutters and on the lawns around my house, tossed there by the same people each day, oblivious to the wider world which they pollute.

They rarely litter in front of us. They know that they are breaking our social rules. They know they could be named for what they are if their acts were done openly. So they litter secretly, stealthily opening their car doors in a parking lot to dump out their ashtrays, rolling down their windows to throw away their cups and wrappers, pretending they are alone in their own dirty world. Of course, smokers create the most litter.

Litter is expensive for the rest of us. Cleaning up litter is estimated to cost over $11 billion per year. Litter reduces property values.

Other kinds of litterbugs pollute our political life. Too lazy to discover the truth, too disdainful of others’ beliefs to care about listening, so unconcerned about community that they would rather create division than reach consensus, political litterbugs toss their junk into our public lives every day. It’s impossible to avoid their garbage.

You can usually recognize them by their reluctance to identify themselves. Hiding behind the anonymity of the internet, they say whatever they want: Obama is a Muslim, the earth is actually cooling, liberals are traitors.

Not all of the political litterbugs hide in the shadows. Some use outrageous claims to maintain their celebrity. Donald Trump has recycled his repeated claims that Obama was not born in the US to keep himself in the limelight of Republican politics. Despite his inability to produce any “evidence” for his claims, he remains a star among conservatives, a featured speaker at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference.

Alan West, former Republican congressman from Florida, tried to outdo Joe McCarthy by claiming during his 2012 reelection campaign about his fellow members of Congress, “I believe there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party.”

Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma produced a book in 2012 about climate change called “The Greatest Hoax”, and has compared the Environmental Protection Agency to the Gestapo and EPA Administrator Carol Browner to Tokyo Rose. In July 2010, in the middle of the hottest summer on record since 1880, he said, “I don't think that anyone disagrees with the fact that we actually are in a cold period that started about nine years ago.”

As with all of these ridiculous claims, the immediate refutation by America’s climate experts made no difference. Inhofe can keep polluting our political atmosphere with his intellectual litter because, unlike the paper litter on our streets, political litter can serve a partisan purpose. Many Americans gleefully absorb and recycle this litter because it fits into their political ideology, whether it has any basis in fact or not. Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and others repeat anything that anyone says which makes their political opponents look bad, without taking responsibility for its veracity.

Litterbugs destroy community by polluting our neighborhoods and our airwaves, our streets and our conversations. Litterbugs of both kinds feel no responsibility for the consequences of their actions. The more litter there is around, the more gets tossed.

The organization Keep America Beautiful offers some suggestions for reducing litter, which can also be applied to political litterbugs. Choose not to litter; don’t trash our public discourse. Remind others not to litter; discourage political littering by naming the litterbugs and choosing not to follow their example. Set an example for others; make positive contributions to our political community.

The Town Brook organization is planning a local clean-up for October 26th. If we use the same energy to clean up our political discourse, we could have a more beautiful America.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 10, 2013

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Dreaming of Moral Leadership

When Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a short speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago, nobody guessed it would become an iconic statement, a speech with a name, the “I Have a Dream” speech. Many leaders of the March on Washington wanted to speak early in the program, thinking that the media would leave before the end, when King was scheduled. King had written out a speech, but there was nothing about his dreams, about which he had often spoken before. Near the end of his speech, Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel singer, who had just performed two spirituals, shouted “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” King spontaneously improvised the heart of that speech, repeating “I have a dream” eight times.

Many people were not thrilled by the speech. Two days later, William C. Sullivan, the head of the domestic intelligence division of the FBI, wrote in a memo to J. Edgar Hoover’s assistant that King’s speech was “demagogic”, and that he was “the most dangerous Negro in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security”. Sullivan noted that Hoover had compared King to Fidel Castro as a hidden Communist. Four months later, Sullivan proposed that the FBI discredit King as a “fraud” and “take him off his pedestal and to reduce him completely in influence so that he will no longer be a security problem and no longer will be deceiving and misleading the Negro people.”

The FBI planned to discredit King by using wiretaps of his phone calls that had been requested by Hoover in October 1963, six weeks after the speech, and approved by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The interviews that Arthur Schlesinger recorded with Jackie Kennedy in 1964 show that she also feared and disliked King.

Since 1963, the arc of the moral universe has curved toward justice. As Americans recognized the hatefulness of discrimination and the ethical superiority of the movement for civil rights, King’s dreams have become plausible goals. On Sunday afternoon, CBS broadcast the tennis match between Serena Williams and Sloane Stevens to an audience of millions. They demonstrated they are by far the best American women players, whose reflexive speed and controlled power are what’s important in their profession, not their skin color. That is one of a thousand examples of how much has changed since King’s speech and at least partly because of that speech. Race is everywhere, and everywhere we look, we see a profound shift since 1963. Some impossible dreams have come true.

Many dreams are still unfulfilled. King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” The continuing salience of race as a negative feature of white Americans’ judgments about black people, shown in a hundred studies about every aspect of life, still prevents that dream from being realized.

One thing that has not changed since 1963 is the demonization of black moral leadership. King was accused of being unfit, a supreme deceiver, in order to distract attention from the profoundly disturbing issues he raised. Today our black leader, now elected twice as President, is also unpopular among conservative white Americans, who claim he is socialist, a foreigner, a great deceiver, unfit to lead anyone. A recent poll of Louisiana Republicans asked a question designed to test such prejudice. Those who describe themselves as “very conservative”, nearly half of the respondents, were twice as likely to blame President Obama rather than President Bush for the “poor response to Hurricane Katrina”, although Katrina struck in 2005, more than three years before Obama took office. Partisanship substitutes for logic, the black leader is to blame.

Those people may have no interest in listening to what President Obama said at the Lincoln Memorial a few days ago. But the rest of us could heed once again the voice of moral leadership.

“Because they marched, America became more free and more fair, not just for African-Americans, but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, for Catholics, Jews and Muslims, for gays, for Americans with disabilities. America changed for you and for me.

“And so as we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life. The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call -- this remains our great unfinished business.”

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 3, 2013