In 1979 an actor turned president coined the phrase “Welfare Queen” in an attempt to promote tax reform. Ronald Regan’s ploy worked. Welfare reform began and was continued by successive administrations. Unfortunately the tax cuts went to the top, benefiting the upper class at the expense of the middle class. Never mind that the welfare queen never actually existed.
Reagan had created a composite, a mythical woman who registered for welfare under multiple identities and was earning $150,000 a year. The public was outraged. Welfare benefits were cut, keeping our tax dollars safe for the people who earned them honestly. Or so we thought.
What most Americans weren’t paying attention to is how the largest employers were benefiting from our welfare programs. Walmart, McDonalds et al were paying many of their employees less than a living wage, forcing them to seek compensation from food stamps and medicaid. Not to mention the military.
But most of us didn’t see what was happening. We were too busy trying to make ends meet and too busy labeling the poor are as lazy moochers to realize that the super corporations were taking advantage of hidden subsidies. Aid for the poor was and still is stigmatized whereas aid for the rich is seen as an entitlement.
Pundits began pointing out that the real Welfare Queens were super corporations who underpaid their staff. As noted in last week’s blog, General Motors was paying their employees the equivalent of $37 an hour in 1955 compared to an average pay rate of $8.80 for Walmart employees today. People poured out into the streets as part of the occupy movement.
Fortunately, inequality and how it has come to be is becoming more and more visible due to the efforts of protesters, nonprofits, educators, columnists, writers and some of our lawmakers. Americans are beginning to see how unfairly the deck is stacked. What I see ahead is a revolution, hopefully not as bloody as the recent happenings in the Ukraine, and the redistribution of power. We need to bring back the middle class!
I’ve been watching a lot of videos lately, mostly because I recently discovered the fun at Upworthy.com. All of which have gotten my philosophical juices flowing. This one in particular featuring Senator Bernie Sanders and Secretary of Labor Robert Reich fed a pet theory of mine which I’ll call the Kingdom of Serfs.
Things haven’t changed much since the middle ages. The majority of people still serve the minority, those kings and overlords who sit up there in their castles enjoying the fruits of our labors. Just like in the past, today’s masses want to believe their overlords have their best interests in mind. We call ourselves “The Middle Class” knowing full well that it’s unlikely we actually do fit into this vanishing category. Ultimately, we know in our hearts that those folks at the top are only looking out for themselves.
I’m sure you’ve all heard it before, how the top 1% is way richer than the bottom 99% and how one family, the Waltons is worth as much as the bottom 40%. Their company, Walmart is the largest employer in the country and according to Reich pays their employees on average $8.80 an hour. What was news to my ears was the concept that our welfare programs are actually subsidizing Walmart’s bottom line. Which makes sense because when their employees depend on medicaid or food stamps they are actually being supported in part by our tax dollars.
And yet the notion of raising the minimum wage of $7.25 closer to a living wage is deemed radical and unsafe. As Robert Reich points out in the video above, in 1955 the largest employer in the country, General Motors was paying their employees 37.00 in today’s dollars. Those employees made a living wage in a way that many of Walmart’s employees do not and therefore did not require help from the State.
So in effect, the big companies that don’t pay their employees a living wage are all on what might be termed Corporate Welfare and all of us who want to believe we are part of the kingdom are in reality only serfs.
When I was a kid, there was a woman in nearly every house. Their children ran together in packs, laughing and getting bruised. We played baseball, football, cops and robbers, cowboys and indians and “Who Dies the Best,” an East Coast version of hide and seek. We rode our bikes and skateboards without helmets, climbed trees and jumped off roofs. When someone got hurt, we ran to the nearest house and brought back an adult.
Today’s landscape looks a lot different. The middle class has all but vanished and the majority of households have become two-income families. The kids stay after school, enrolled in supervised activities or come home to play video games, do homework or watch television while their parents are at work.
Nowadays, there are few women at home and the sound of laughter on the street is an anomaly. Helmet-less children are regarded as victims of neglect. Baseball happens under the watchful eyes of a coach. It’s rare to see a kid in a tree. A new phenomenon called Play Dates has replaced the pack dynamic.
The Chinese symbol for “an” meaning “peaceful, tranquil, quiet” is represented by the combined symbol for woman and house. The woman is in the house, representing security and peace. I realize this sounds sexist and old-fashioned, but we need more women in the house. Were the economic barriers lifted, I believe many women would choose to stay at home to be the center of their families.
My sister-in-law lost her job about a year ago and has become invaluable. She takes care of my mother, her mother and is there for her children and nine grandchildren. Likewise, a long time friend, recently unemployed finds herself running her father-in-law to the doctors several times a week and picking up her two grandsons after school with little time left over for gainful employment.
Both women feel financial pressure to return to the work force. Neither feels they can afford to stay at home and yet, with so many depending on them, the family cannot afford to see them go back to work.
When people ask me what I was doing in Ghana, I blush. “Oh, I just cooked, cleaned, gardened and shopped” I say. Their response is invariably an awkward pause before I jump in with vivid descriptions of a typical National Geographic day in Sub-Saharan Africa. Both of us slightly embarrassed as I talk about markets and menus, wishing I had said I were working on a degree, managing a nonprofit, starting up an export company or something equally compelling.
When it came time to fill our our exit forms, I hesitated to print “housewife” in the box marked “profession.” The word looked so lame on paper. Even “Tourist” would have looked better.
Yet we all knew my contribution to the household was of value. The shared evening meal, counters laden with fresh fruit, clean floors and windows, trim lawn and gardens all brought continuity, comfort and cohesiveness to the house. Everyone was grateful and visitors commented on the nourishing ambiance we were able to provide them.
And now our dear daughter Amy finds herself playing the same, time-honored role of Woman in the House. Between jobs, she has been called on to care for her family because her sisters are too entrenched in their jobs to switch gears. At twenty-four, she is young to accept the caretaking mantle and yet she realizes it is her duty.
We are grateful to Amy for her quiet strength, her sacrifice, her willingness to act as family caretaker. She has joined the undervalued legion of capable women who are there for us. Women who one day discover they are worth more to society as a non-wage earner, knowing full well that their contributions will be marginalized in today’s culture.
These past few days were bubbling over with social stimulation of the very best kind. Thanks to Tami and The Abundance Foundation, Bob and I found ourselves involved in a series of activities designed to get our activist juices flowing. On Wednesday we joined Tami, Lyle and four guests for dinner at their kitchen table. We went to The Barn at Fearrington Village Thursday evening for a salon style discussion of global and local perspectives on climate change adaptation. Friday featured a full day of impassioned speakers at the second annual Farming Adaptation Conference.
Dinner on Wednesday was the perfect kick off for this triptych of events. I was humbled to find myself at the dinner table with Michiel Doorn of Ecoawarness and Albert Bates, founder of Global Ecovillage Network and long time resident of The Farm in Tennessee. Albert, Michiel and Lyle would be joining Liane Salgado on Thursday’s discussion panel and Albert was here as the keynote speaker for the conference.
There wasn’t much small talk that evening. We dined on beans, rice and stewed squirrel (Bob and I passed on this) while chewing on a wide range of forward thinking topics. Albert treated us to a hair raising story about a Colombian death squad which gave us nightmares. Bob and I told our tale about the Coke Boat that beached on Little Corn Island during a storm and sparked a gold rush, turning the island culture overnight from tranquilo to bandito.
I’m tempted to describe the past three days as a Progressive Love Fest but the salon and conference drew people from all walks of life; from young activists to old farmers, from legislators to entrepreneurs. It was a multi-hued crowd, a rainbow of political perspectives and professional credentials. A diverse group focused on planning a sustainable future for mankind. I know that sounds kind of grand but it’s true. The adaptation strategies we explore in our region will be of use globally as climate change descends upon all of us. The political steps required to shift our culture from consumer to survivor are a path all communities must navigate.
Albert stoked our fires with his presentation. He showed how they keylined their fields at The Farm, adding a slurry of biochar and compost tea to rebuild topsoil. His gentle enthusiasm was reassuring and inspiring. Wow!” I thought, “For once here’s something we can add to the earth.” Linda Booker held an intimate discussion about industrial hemp which also brightened up my day. Again, here was a natural path towards restoration.
February is typically a month of malaise. The landscape is dead. The novelty of winter has worn off and Spring is too slow in coming to our rescue. There is much work to be done, yet this is the time of year we tend to poke along listlessly. The conversations and presentations we enjoyed over the past three days really brightened up our month. Thank you Tami, Jenny, Charlotte and Laurel for putting these events together and adding a splash of hope to an otherwise drab and listless time of year.
On Wednesday we woke to a Winter Wonderland in North Carolina – snow blanketed lawn and dozens of birds queued up for birdseed at the two feeders outside our office window. Cardinals brilliant against the white sky, perched in the leafless willow oak. Every now and then a car hums by on the icy road in front of our house.
Front page center is a news story about Atlanta describing the sad state of affairs on the city’s commute paths. Twelve hours to proceed 5 miles, people tweeting for a Samaritan with drinking water, a woman giving birth, homeowners distributing flasks of cocoa – this sort of thing. People who no doubt were just on their way home from work or picking up the kids from school.
Not to be critical but, geez – an inch of snow in Atlanta triggers a crisis for hundreds. It’s hard to believe that we’ve evolved culturally to this point of helplessness. I say this with full awareness that we could easily have been one of those hapless motorists trapped on an icy highway for a day.
“Sakachilan!” is what our Mayan co-workers in Belize called we white folk who couldn’t just walk into the jungle and build ourselves a house of palm fronds, trap a gibnut, harvest some mammy apple and jack assed bitters.
It literally means White Chicken. Rolando explained it this way; the boony chickens were savvy and resourceful but the white chickens were stupid and unable to fly, they’d fall to their death if they tried to fly off a roof top. Poor sakachilan, they’d cluck at the tourists or at us if we didn’t know how to tie a certain knot, or which plant prevented malaria.
The car culture works great until it doesn’t. Our systems seem designed to fail unless all optimal conditions are met. If I were paranoid, I’d posit the possibility that World Oil Barons, the Bushes’ etc. were intentionally keeping us on the teat. But I’m not paranoid.
No, this is not the fodder of conspiracy theorists. This is about evolution, not design. Sure, the oil and auto industries kicked off our precipitous climb up the Industrial Highway. But they haven’t been the only ones shepherding our American lifestyle into the shape it’s in now. We are all complicit. In the name of convenience, freedom, safety and choice we steered ourselves into oil slavery, trapped in our daily commutes. Yankee ingenuity is only a dim memory.
Still getting around in 1920.
It’s been a long haul since the 1800′s when people got around on foot, by train, in horse-drawn coaches, carts, sleds and astride saddle horses. Or side-saddle. Wearing a brimmed hat and perhaps an ostrich feather or two and within walking distance of an Inn. Were we stranded on an icy highway in 1800, we might have driven our sleigh through the woods to the nearest inn or home. Or we might have climbed down off the buckboard, unhitched our horses and ridden or walked a mile or two.
Most likely, we would not have been on the road in the first place. We would have stayed home enjoying the fruits of the fall harvest, perhaps some peach cobbler with a can of summer soup to warm our bellies. In the 1800′s only the most important business would have lured us beyond our chicken yards or outside our neighborhood in town with the General Store a short walk away. Today, every day is filled with important business. Poor sakachilan.
A few years ago I went looking for a doctor to give me a tetanus shot. What should have been easily achievable turned into a difficult task because I did not have health insurance.
The first clinic outright refused me because I had no insurance. I called the health clinic a few miles down the road and they told me that there was a six month waiting list for new patients without health care. The third clinic quoted me $170 for the office visit and exam required before they could administer any health care.
Luckily, a practitioner in the third clinic overheard my inquiry and informed me that I could get a free tetanus shot at the County Health Department. So I made an appointment with them and received the vaccine for free. No insurance required.
Things have changed since then. Through sheer force of will President Obama pushed the Affordable Health Care act into legislation and four years later, it’s come time to comply with the new law. Bob and I were leery of a law mandating that we pay for health insurance but he went ahead and explored our options and last month signed us up for Obamacare.
We chose a catastrophic policy. Basically, if we get hit by a car or find out we have cancer, we won’t lose our house. Depending on how much income we have at the end of the year, premiums may come entirely out of our tax liability. Our out of pocket costs will be co-pays equaling no more than $11,000 for the calendar year.
We noticed that the Moncure Community Health Center was listed as a first tier provider which meant lower co-pays if we went to the doctors there. I called the center and found that yes, they are accepting new patients as early as mid-February. All I had to do was come down and fill out some paperwork.
I arrived late in the day to a crowded clinic and stood in line for a few minutes until a woman called me over to her window. She listened to my request, asked for my drivers license and insurance card and quickly got to work typing my information into the computer.
I looked around the spacious clinic. A brightly colored banner proclaimed, “You qualify for Obamacare!” The room was alive with people, old and young, mothers, fathers and a bustling staff. I read a letter displayed on the counter from a physician who said she was shifting her practice to focus entirely on seniors aged 60 or older. “Why would anyone do that?” I wondered.
And then it hit me. The people who worked here really wanted to help. A feeling of relief washed over me and my eyes grew moist. I was about to qualify for medical care! Grateful and humbled, I watched the threat of medical bankruptcy recede.
A moment later I was handed a registration card and appointments for me and Bob on February 13th. “How much will this cost?” I asked. “$15″ she said with a smile. I thanked her and turned away from her counter before new tears could reach my eyes, walked to the parking lot and drove the three minutes home.
There is nothing more exciting than turning the page of my calendar and discovering a new set of numbers. 2014, Year of the Horse! The promise of a fresh, new start beams at me from google calendar. According to the Chinese Zodiac, this will be a significant year for all those who, like me, were born in the year of the horse.
Outside our office windows, Bob is filling the bird feeder for the first time since our return. They are getting a fresh, new start, too.
My inbox is full of links to cute blog posts about New Year’s Resolutions. My favorite is Wait But Why’s “200 Peoples New Years Resolutions” which included this gem:
I promise to stop farting in public–particularly at bars–then walking away swiftly before it is noticed, displacing the blame on strangers and creating awkward situations between them and their friends of significant others. I’ve been doing this since college. Something about just sneaking away and watching the looks on people’s faces from a distance. It gets me every time.
I was on the fence regarding the whole New Year’s Resolution thang, but after reading a few lists and conversations I decided to draft something up. One friend promised to take a specific amount of time for herself every day. My brother promises to do something fun every year. Last year he vowed to buy a banjo (and did) and this year he aspires to complete one or two finished watercolor paintings.
Here’s my list:
- Improve my Spanish
- Curb my Sweet Tooth
- Master my Sling Shot
- Focus my energies on those people and causes dearest to my heart, giving a lot to a few as opposed to a little to many
Regarding that last one, it might seem like a no-brainer but this is important because I tend to spread myself too thin. I reach out to acquaintances, get myself involved in a wide variety of commitments and later realize I don’t have as much time as I’d like for myself, Bob, my family and close friends.
Last year I took this cool personality test recommended by BJ and learned that I have a strong urge to be helpful. The Classic Enneagram test pegged me as a Reformer (Type 1) with a strong Helper wing. The description of helpers begins with “People of this personality type essentially feel that they are worthy insofar as they are helpful to others.” As BJ and I discussed our personality profiles, our behaviors really came into focus.
I was spending a significant portion of my time ‘helping’ people solve their problems. Unsolicited. Upon some introspection I found my motivation was less about altruism than I wanted to believe. I had to admit that I was also motivated by the need to prove myself.
I recognized a well-established pattern, brought into startling detail by the challenge of building a social capital account from scratch in Kumasi. Since I’ve moved close to 50 times in my life, I have highly developed social capital building skills. And my ace in the hole is helpfulness.
Yet here I am, back in the arms of my beloved community with no need to start from scratch. For the first time in twenty years, Bob and I returned to the place we left. I’ve been humbled, grateful and astounded to find myself rich in social capital. The energy we had put into this community was still sitting in the bank, just waiting for us!
No need to cast a wide net and see what comes to me. No need to earn my place in the community by trying to help everyone I come in contact with. I’ve already done that here. This year I will stand on the foundation we built and continue giving back to the people and causes that really matter. 2014 is going to be the best year ever!