Thoughts on poverty and homelessness in the U.S.A.

Posts tagged ‘poverty in the U.S.’

Life, Liberty, and…

Oh yeah, some people once thought we (Americans) should all have the right to pursue our own happiness.  But do we?

Unfortunately, we have a system here in the U.S. that is making it hard for people to “pick themselves up by their bootstraps.”  Chris Gardner (‘Pursuit of Happyness’) turned down minimum wage jobs so that he could pursue his dream of having a better life.  He then chose to work for free (as an intern) in order to “pay his dues” so that he could become a stockbroker.  That is why he became homeless.

If he’d given up on his dream and just taken a minimum wage job he wouldn’t have become homeless, but he, most likely, would have remained poor for the rest of his life.
We hear the Chris Gardner stories, but we don’t hear the stories of the thousands of people who, like Gardner, turned down the minimum wage jobs only to find themselves painfully unemployed and, in some cases, homeless. Yes, lots of other people have done what Gardner did but they didn’t get accepted into the internship program, didn’t get their big chance, so they ended up just staying poor.  So, of course, nobody makes a movie about them…

(Well, actually, I did.  It’s called ‘Rocky Mountain Homelessness,’ and it’s airing at independent theaters and cable access stations across the country. Right now, it’s airing at the Screening Room in Amherst, NY and on SCC-TV in White Bear Lake, MN.)
Current statistics show that economic mobility is not as common in the U.S. as many Americans assume.  Most Americans stay in the same economic class into which they were born.  Few people are able to work their way up the ladder.   We’re taught to blame the victim, blame the homeless for being in their situation, so that we are distracted away from the real cause–our faulty system.  As long as we continue to blame the victim, we’ll never look at the real cause–ourselves and the changes we refuse to make in our own system!
Look, I love Michael Moore dearly.  In fact, I believe he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to inform Americans (in a way our corporate media hasn’t) of the flaws in our system.  But I disagree with him on this point:  that capitalism is our biggest problem.  It’s not capitalism, socialism or communism we need to worry about.  It’s us–we, the people.  We have egos, and we act in our own self-interest.  We have trouble seeing the big picture.  We try to work for the common good, but it takes effort for us to put others above ourselves.  And when we’re given power, we are, therefore, prone to corruption.  Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

But we all know this, don’t we?  Yet we naively allow ourselves to be manipulated by propaganda that claims we are somehow “hurting” big businesses by making them obey the same laws the rest of us must obey.

Capitalism is a fine system–if it is regulated properly.  That means “checks and balances” over power.  Regulation over big business and big money provides accountability that prevents a take-over and ensures that resources are more fairly distributed.  It’s disturbing that so many Americans fail to understand this concept.  Accountability over power is necessary because power corrupts.  This is Political Science 101, folks.  Don’t ever let anyone get too much power over your society or they will take over.  We humans have egos.  We see the world through our own narrow lens.  It is naive, to say the least, to suggest we should just allow big business to do whatever it wants.  There is no “free marketplace.”  Big business unfettered will take over and stomp out the competition.  That’s just what a successful business does.  One doesn’t open up a business with the notion that “I will discourage customers from shopping in my store because I don’t want to hurt my competitors.” Ironically, capitalism fails for the same reason as does communism.  If not properly regulated, capitalism works against itself, becoming self-destructive, creating a system in which capitalism no longer is possible.

That is why socialism and capitalism co-exist together so well.  They work together and provide accountability over each other.  We have libraries and privately-owned book stores.  We have public and private schools.  We have public parks and private resorts.  Yes, socialism (government controlled industry) and capitalism (privately owned industry) exist together.  Each provides an alternative to and therefore a “check” over the other.

Sadly, the “free marketplace” is being destroyed by the very people who defend it so ardently.  If I want to stand on the street selling my hand-made widgets then I am doing no harm (provided the widgets aren’t dangerous to the public good.)  But if I become big and powerful, ala Walmart and Target, then I can stomp out the competition–if there is no regulation forbidding it.  That means that other people who want to participate in capitalism by selling their own hand-made widgets cannot because I have monopolized the market (if there are no laws against monopolies.)  Of course, when I decide I can increase my profits even more by outsourcing labor to third world countries, I do even more damage by eliminating jobs in my own country,  thus increasing the number of unemployed and the number of people who no longer can afford to participate in capitalism (if there are no tariffs charged on companies that outsource.)

And so, capitalism ends up destroying itself, in a sense.  There needs to be oversight.  One way of providing that oversight is to impose a tax on companies who outsource labor.  (Our government has been doing the opposite–giving tax breaks to encourage big businesses to outsource labor!)

Whenever I hear the “free marketplace” propaganda I am reminded of how hard it is for ordinary middle class or poor people to start their own businesses in this country.  Regulations have been put into place that make it nearly impossible for anyone who isn’t wealthy, or at least upper middle class, to start their own business.  For example, it is against the law in most cities to stand on a public sidewalk to sell your hand-made jewelry (or anything else.)  You’ll need to get together thousands of dollars and take the risk of renting out (or buying) a storefront.  If you want to sell your hand-made chocolate, you need to rent a separate kitchen and use “professional” grade equipment in order to manufacture and sell that product legally.  Yes, some of those laws make sense in terms of public safety, but some just exist to prevent ordinary people from participating in the capitalist process.

My point is, one is not “free” to market his/her product.  The process is regulated, supposedly, for public safety.  But in reality, adequate regulations don’t seem to be in place over large corporations.

We hear stories of large corporations dumping toxins in our air, food and water and they seem to get away with it.  And when anyone points out the need for laws regulating those activities they get accused of being “communist” or “socialist.”  Yet we all live with regulation–why should corporate America be any different?

Do you see my point?  There is no “free marketplace,” at least not for the rest of us.  The only “free marketplace” is the one that exists for corporate America. Because they have the money to lobby and put pressure on politicians to pass laws that favor them.  Most of us don’t have thousands of dollars to donate to political campaigns, but corporate America does.  They have literally bought our government.

Please, people, face reality.  There is no free marketplace.

There is no free marketplace.  There is no free marketplace.  There is no free marketplace.  There is no freemarketplace.  There is no free marketplace.

Unless, of course, you are Walmart.

When Poor People Cheat

Why do poor people cheat?  It’s an age-old question.  Yet we hear about it all the time:

The homeless guy who spends the dollar you gave him on a beer.  The welfare mom who works (secretly) as a babysitter on the side and makes an extra $20 (or more!)  yet doesn’t report it to the welfare office.  The man who is physically fit and able-bodied yet is begging for spare change on the street.  Doesn’t he know that there are lots of great jobs out there?  Why doesn’t he just go out and get one?  Or what about the woman who “chooses” to live in a shelter even though she has a nice house somewhere because she likes hanging out with all the fun, homeless folks at the shelter?  “All my friends are here!” she says happily.

Oh, if only rich people could be so happy.

With all the horror stories you may have heard of poor people cheating on us and our system by collecting public assistance then working on the side and not reporting it, or  worse, begging for money then mismanaging it by spending it on things we don’t think they should—like beer, for example—you might be sitting back in your comfortable chair, sipping your own beer, watching your flat screen TV and wondering…

Why do poor people cheat?

Is it out of jealousy?  Are they purposely earning an extra $50 per week (or more!) by begging for money or working “under the table” so that we end up supporting them with our taxes because they want to prevent us from having the extra cash we need to buy that brand new car, iPhone, or flat-screen plasma TV?

Maybe they’re jealous of us because while we’re driving around in our car, they’re standing on the street waiting for a bus in the rain.  Or maybe they’re jealous because while we’re in our house asking these important questions, they’re renting out a tiny room and sharing a house or apartment with a bunch of strangers, waiting for the kitchen space to become available so they can eat.  And while we’re eating healthy, nutritious food of our own choosing, they’re eating stale, moldy food they’d gotten from a food shelf or processed food that lacks both flavor and nutrition they bought cheaply at the dollar store.

Or maybe they’re mad at us because when we get sick we can afford to see specialists, have testing done, get treatment, surgery, or whatever we need in order to heal the illness or injury, while they go to free health clinics where they wait for hours, then are seen by a nurse for five minutes, told they’re not really sick, that they should just go home and get some rest and maybe just take a pill if they’re still uncomfortable.   (Ironically, many of them don’t have a comfortable home to go to, and they can’t rest because they have to work so much just to afford what little they have.)  Sometimes there’s no free clinic available to them or the free clinic is unable to provide the treatment they need so some of them get worse.  Some become permanently disabled by maladies not treated on time.  Some might even die without treatment they need.  One friend-of-a-friend has diabetes and can’t afford the insulin.  She may very well die one of these days.  Or end up in the hospital and then with bills she can’t afford to pay which will cause her to end up homeless.  Sure, she may qualify for Medicaid but that’ll make her homeless too because the government might take her house.  (People who collect Medicaid aren’t allowed to own homes in the U.S.)

Is that why they’re jealous of us?

Maybe they’re jealous because we spend a lot of our money on beer and drugs and some of us party way too much, but no one seems to notice how we mismanage our money.  Because we have so much money, everyone just assumes we manage it well.  Even when we waste a million dollars a year on stuff we don’t need, society doesn’t notice.  Besides, we don’t “mooch” off the government because we don’t need to, right?

But wait–maybe that’s why they resent us.  We do ask for assistance from the U.S. government whenever our businesses fail or our homes are damaged from natural or other disasters.  We also get tax breaks and tax cuts that poor people can’t get.  In fact, no one even suggests that poor people be able to write off the cost of their bus fare to and from work, for example, but a millionaire can write off the cost of his company car on his tax form.  And no one questions that.  Tax breaks for the poor would only cost this country a fraction of what the tax breaks given to the rich are costing—yet no one ever talks about this.  Because no one is even thinking about the fact that the rich get assistance from the U.S. government all the time and often waste that extra money on drugs, parties, more big houses, more big cars, etc., and no one notices their waste.

We notice it as a waste of money when a poor person spends a few dollars on a beer but we don’t notice when a millionaire wastes thousands of dollars on cocaine, homes not lived in, cars not driven, clothes never worn–or only worn once then thrown out, or the myriad of material things not needed but just purchased to pass the time away or perhaps just to show everyone how rich someone is.

We notice it when a poor person “cheats” by collecting a few hundred dollars a month from welfare then makes a few dollars more by working “under the table” but we don’t notice when a millionaire takes thousands of dollars per month in tax breaks he or she doesn’t need (which costs our country a lot more) then wastes it by spending it on cocaine, trips around the world, buying another bowling alley, tennis court or another building—not because he needs it but just to make himself look more rich to the outside world.  Nor do we feel “ripped off” by a millionaire manufacturer who over charges us by sometimes several hundred percent of the manufacturing cost when their products are made by children in third world countries who work for pennies a day, all day.

And really, isn’t it a form of stealing to pay your employees half (or less) than what they’re worth?  So that they can’t afford to buy their own homes or cars, to get married and have children of their own–even while they are, in good faith, working hard for you?

Isn’t it a form of stealing to manufacture a product and charge your customers 100 times (or more!) for what it cost to manufacture that product–especially when you are already an overpaid multimillionaire yourself?

Hmm…  Why do poor people cheat?  And what should we do to stop them?  Should we raise their taxes?  Lower the minimum wage even more so that they have to work twice as many hours per week?  Eliminate more jobs by downsizing and outsourcing to third world countries?  Prevent them from getting an education by making college costs outrageously expensive so that they lose all hope of ever advancing and creating a better future for themselves?  Prevent them from getting health care when they get sick so that they get sicker and just spread disease as their health deteriorates to the point where they become permanently disabled and unable to work anymore?

No, that’s already been done.  Yet the poor continue to ask for our help.  Some of them are continuing to get married and have children too, and they’re expecting us to help them do that.  Many of these poor children are disabled by the age of five and already collecting social security checks as a result of the rampant pollution in poor neighborhoods as well as the malnutrition they suffer from years of eating processed or stale food their parents can barely afford to serve them.  Yet the poor want to continue to live their lives at our expense!  So what can we do to stop poor people from cheating?

I suppose the question is timeless, from the days when a homeless man named Jesus walked the earth in sandals preaching that we should not be attached to money and material things, that those “who have not sinned should cast the first stone,” that the “meek shall inherit the earth,” and that it is harder for a rich man to go to heaven than it is to “stick a camel through the eye of a needle,” to our current era when we spend thousands of dollars on things we don’t need, complain our houses and cars aren’t big enough yet worry about giving a dollar to a homeless person.

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