Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Stop Blaming the Victims

We can thank Bernie Sanders that the wealth gap will be discussed during the 2016 election cycle. That gap has always been around, but over the last forty years has become almost insurmountable for most Americans. We don't yet know what the official party responses will be, but I suspect both will advance variations blaming the victim. It will be presented with compassion and civility, but after all the packaging has been stripped away, it will be the old bootstraps argument in a new package.

I just came across a wise-sounding link, now two years old, offering the following advice.
The fact is the poor are poor because they have too many Poverty Habits and too few Rich Habits. Poor parents teach their children the Poverty Habits and wealthy parents teach their children the Rich Habits. We don’t have a wealth gap in this country we have a parent gap. We don’t have income inequality, we have parent inequality.
Included was a string of statistics reflecting the lifestyle contrasts between rich and poor, none of which is controversial. For example "9% of the wealthy watch reality T.V. shows vs. 78% of the poor." Do tell! The list might well have included how many wealthy people have vintage wines with meals instead of beer among the poor.

GOP contenders position themselves in the "work your way up" camp while Democrats talk about "jobs, jobs, jobs" but neither side is courageous enough to argue (as does Bernie Sanders) that the way our of the quagmire requires more than just "work, work, work."

The way out and up must include some pro-active political moves having little or nothing to do with the behavior of the poor and much to do with attitudes of those who are already wealthy. A handful of rich people have set good examples, but even those who express admiration for them stop short of following their good examples. At the core of their reluctance is that nagging belief that if poor people would just shift gears and embrace better habits, make better choices, they would somehow escape the penalties keeping them down. 

Thanks to Bernie Sanders' stirring the pot once again, I'm getting flashbacks to thoughts that struck me following Hurricane Katrina. The following is what I posted then.
I can't remember a time of so much blaming. Attempting to make sense of the tragedy that has happened, nearly every voice is seeking to simplify a blindingly complicated scene, to finish every sentence, every paragraph, on a note of insight leading to understanding. Pundits, preachers, politicians and other word peddlers are busy trying to make themselves look good as they reel out ream after ream of empty words.

A lot has been said about those who are suffering because they failed to follow instructions to get themselves out of harm's way. It reminds me of the way we blame those suffering from substance abuse, obesity, gambling addiction, or any number of human problems, both medical and behavioral, because those who suffer most from those problems are not doing all they can to ameliorate their various conditions. Who has sympathy for the cancer victim still smoking, the morbidly obese patron going back to the buffet for yet another plate of food, for the panhandler wanting money because the bottle in his little brown bag is empty, for a laborer in line at the unemployment office instead of being out there in the street looking for work, for the young mother with two kids in tow and no dad in sight, pregnant again with another kid she can't afford?

Yes, it's easy to blame victims, to look past our own motes to those in other eyes. I have heard it for years, and I'm hearing it again.

The head of FEMA said the people in New Orleans shared some of the responsibility for their plight and the reaction was official indignation, but when I mentioned that remark to someone I know he replied "He's right. I know it's not good politics to say that, but he spoke the truth. I'm glad he said it."

A screaming headline over a picture of people at the Superdome had a quote about "They are treating us like animals..." and someone else said "Just look at that! Damn liberal paper trying to stir something up...I wish I could go down there and kick some butts."

Check any comment thread, look at most any weblog and find someone looking to assign responsibility for what has happened. Either the problem should have been averted or the response should have been more expeditious or both.

My take on the situation is more boring. What I am seeing is a clash of values, of lifestyle, of cultures. I'm not speaking of race or class in the popular sense. Or "lifestyles" in the magazine or homosexual or "extreme makeover" sense. I'm talking about what makes people get up in the morning and start their days. What makes people live and act as they do. Hard as it is for me to accept, a lot of people don't want to do the same as I, or work for the same goals.

My career has been in the public, serving cafeteria patrons, working with those who produce the food. I have met and loved many thousands of the public, their friends and families, watched their children grow, learned to admire their energy and accomplishments. I also understood that my job, along with those of fifty or a hundred others, depended on their discretionary spending.

Behind the scenes I worked with people who would never go "out to eat" in the cafeteria sense, at least not two or three times a week - or even daily - as our best customers did. They enjoyed pizza or other fast food. They might treat themselves to a full-service restaurant from time to time, but they had no use for places that charged more for service and image than for food.

But enough about me. And enough about you, for that matter. Let's back up and look at the picture. What we see is a contrast in values.

We see a population of people who would never eat in a cafeteria earning a living by working in one. It's not too different from any other workplace where people make new cars but drive to work in old ones, who clean houses for a living but live in a house with a rodent problem, who work in a grocery store but eat an unbalanced diet of starches, fats and carbs.

On the other hand, I once lived in a suburban neighborhood where substance abuse victims all happened to be "functional." They had good jobs, six-figures in some cases, but came home every day and organized their afternoons and evenings around their alcohol intake. They could afford it. They could also afford the resulting health problems and other consequences.

I watched a line of customers in a newly opened cafeteria in a very upscale community with family after family consisting of a grey-templed dad and his much-younger, fashion-conscious, pretty young wife and mother to his second family, all going out to eat. There were so many kids we had to order in another fleet of high chairs. All because they could afford it.

My point is this: there are a great many lifestyles and choices in America. We can argue that they are all determined by income, but that is demonstrably untrue. It's not about income, it's about choices. And before you jump to the conclusion that I'm about to condemn those who "choose" to be poor, back off. I have a great respect and admiration for those who, whether by choice or circumstance, are living poor. They include old people who can no longer work, simple people who would rather live humbly and have more time in their life for travel and study, those who for religious reasons eschew wealth - I'm thinking of the Amish and Catholic Worker types. Remember the old saying about all work and no play. That, too, is part of the American Dream.

And there is a vast population of people in our society whom we can call the working poor. They work, but remain poor. Why? Is it because they like being poor? Why, no. If you could choose to be good-looking or in good health or respected would you choose to be ugly or sick or hated? Of course not. But often we are not who or where we are because of choice. We are there because that is where we are and being someplace else is not part of our imagination.

How can the person born blind understand about colors? How can the person who is deaf know about musical harmony? And how can the infant born into what we condescendingly refer to as an "underclass" know that there could have been some alternative? At what point does the toddler begin to make "choices" about whether or not he wants to continue a lifestyle? What are the dynamics that produce an occasional boot-straps success despite a "poverty" mentality?

I do not have an answer to these questions, and I do not propose to find any.

What I do propose, however, is that whatever the reasons, however it happened, there are a lot of people in America who do not have what I describe as a "suburban mentality." For them life is just as challenging, just as exciting, just as painful, just as rewarding as it is for anyone else. They know that when they get up in the morning they have to eat, live, love, worry, rejoice and rest just like everyone else. The family structure may not be ideal, they have more problems as the result of that lifestyle than they would elsewhere, but elsewhere is not where they are.

They have not come to America, like immigrants, with a vision of success, working to buy into the American Dream. Nor have they jumped out of bed one morning and said "This is the pits! I can't stand living like this! No matter what it takes, I'm gonna work my ass off til I get the hell outta here!"

No, not everyone is mad as hell and not gonna take it any more. It not only takes hard work, creativity and sometimes a good break or two, it also takes role models, encouragement and a stubborn resolve on the part of the individual that is rare in the human population. Remember, we aren't talking about third-generation college grads whose parents, grandparents and extended family would look good in a magazine article.

We are talking about people who have grown up very differently. "Work" is not something you do because you like it. It is something you do because you need the money. If you learn to like it later, that's great - maybe even necessary. But as soon as you learn to like what you do, where is the motivation to do something else? If you are in tolerably good health, get a cold beer from time to time, enjoy your tobacco, play cards, and have good sex, why in the world would you want to change? I know a lot of so-called "successful" people who would toss it all in to have that much.

Transportation, for the simple lifestyle, is walking, public transportation, catching a ride with someone else or driving some old piece of a car that will have to be replaced pretty soon. (If someone "orders" an evacuation that order is as alien as it comes. It presumes a car, and the means to buy gas, and a destination, and the means to feed and shelter yourself in a place you have never even seen. It presumes you know the way, and I'm not speaking of maps.)

Health care is getting over being sick. If you can't get over it you take over the counter meds. If it gets worse you go to the emergency room and hope they can help. Dental work is about the same. Get over it. Take something for the pain. And if it gets too bad, find a dentist to pull the tooth. If they get bad enough, have them all pulled and find a cheap lab that will make you some more for two hundred dollars. Then you can smile like you used to., with teeth again. [Obamacare has eliminated these conditions for many, but the number who live this way still number in the millions, which is why Bernie Sanders' call for universal health care still has meaning.]

I'm here to tell you that the people I have just described are not optional to our economy. Their lifestyle "choices" if you insist on calling it that, is as basic to the American economic infrastructure as coins and credit. Pay attention to this: Not everyone will make a good income. Somebody is going to work for low wages, the so-called "minimum wage."Somebody is going to work for even less. And those who do will not be drawn from the much exalted middle class, They will be drawn from the young, the inexperienced, the very old and those between jobs.

But I can tell you from experience that the best of them - the core of their respective professions - will be there, year after year, generation after generation, doing a good good job, putting in their days and weeks, teaching the more transitory around them how to do their work because those in a supervisory capacity are on their way elsewhere and have not been trained to be teachers. I have watched good poor people doing honorable work and doing it well for my entire career. When I think of what happened to those people because of the hurricane it makes me want to cry.

And this week I have watched those same people on television being blamed for circumstances over which neither they nor anyone else had any real control. [Just a few hours ago I came across a link referring to Jeb Bush advocating shaming unwed mothers and people getting public assistance. That was in his book published in 1995. He may or may not have "evolved" since that time. Time will tell.] 

I have watched helplessly as many who call themselves leaders grope blindly for remedies.

I have read endless words of blame and recrimination. And I am calling for an end to meanness and counterproductive arguments. Now is not the time to be lecturing poor people about their bad "choices." No one need tell them about the consequences of lifestyle. They understand better than most the problems of hypertension, obesity, substance abuse, unplanned babies, short age spans for black men, under-employment and unemployment, dependence on welfare, and everything else that goes with the picture. No need to beat anybody up any more.

The time has come for everyone to do or say something positive. Like we were taught as children, if you have nothing good to say, then please don't say anything at all. If you are sitting there reading from a monitor and think you have had a reality check, you are right. But your "reality check" is nothing compared to what happened this week to a lot of folks. Let's work to make it better, not worse.

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