Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.
Call me Debbie Downer, but the general jubilation among liberals over Justice Roberts’s ruling makes me shudder. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, writing in her lengthy dissent puts it this way:
THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s crabbed reading of the Commerce Clause harks back to the era in which the Court routinely thwarted Congress’ efforts to regulate the national economy in the interest of those who labor to sustain it.
Writing right here, Leslie Savan’s correct. There are booby traps in the Court’s Commerce Clause reading. Those traps are baited and ready for tripping in the Medicaid part of the ruling. The huge obscuring shadow of the debate over the individual mandate left this part of the healthcare case in almost total media darkness. It was always the part of the ruling that had me most concerned, and Dr. Margaret Flowers of Physicians for a National Health Plan too. (The transcript’s here. Full video at GRITtv.org.)
Here’s how Flowers, with whom I had a chance to talk last week, answered my very first question:
Where we stand right now is that there are two things that we need to consider. One, of course is the decision around Medicaid and this is a very important decision, this is much more crucial. If the Supreme Court says that the federal government’s giving states money is tantamount to coercion, that’s a real problem because where does that end? If the federal government says you must meet minimum guidelines for education and we’ll give you money to help your schools, is that coercion? We really rely on government to provide a basic social infrastructure that takes care of people.
George Zornick laid out the dystopian possibilities for healthcare for the poor ahead of time. My friend Steve Rosenfeld, over at Alternet calls it the Outrageous Medicaid Ruling:
Roberts decreed that states that did not want to implement the ACA would not face the fiscal penalty of losing all of their federal Medicaid funds—as envisioned by the law. Instead they would only lose funds for the Medicaid expansion, such as for covering more poor people and creating medical clinics in underserved areas.…
GOP politicians’ beating up on the poor is neither new nor radical. What’s radical about this part of the ACA ruling is the potential impact on public sector—not private sector—healthcare, because that may slow the creation of a uniform nationwide public system that could one day lead to universal government-delivered healthcare.
Where does the Roberts ruling leave us? With a race-to-the-bottom patchwork of state systems that takes us back to the pre-Civil War, certainly pre-New Deal era. The implications for Flowers’s goal—a single-payer, national government-run health plan—are grave. But as Flowers points out, pick any national law—from the regulation of water quality to the protection of women’s health, or workers’ safety. For arguably the first time, states now have the right to reject any new Congressional spending requirements as coercive—and unconstitutional.
“Medicaid is a prototypical example of federal-state cooperation in serving the Nation’s general welfare,” writes Ginsberg in that stinging dissent. From welfare “reform” to multicultural education, since the 1930s, lawmaking over national issues has increasingly left states to interpret and implement the rules—pressure from states’ advocates made sure of it. All those laws are more vulnerable today than they were before yesterday’s ruling.
Everyone likes to claim a victory, but this one’s not for cheering. On the other hand, if ever there was a time to rearticulate and re-argue for the notion of the “Nation’s General Welfare” now is that time. This election is that time. Barack Obama, of all presidents, would be a good candidate to make the argument. What are the chances of him actually doing that, do you think? Which is exactly why I’m not cheering.
Margaret Flowers, MD, is a pediatrician whose exasperation with the American healthcare system turned her into a single-payer activist. In 2009 she was arrested at the Senate Round Table on Health Insurance for attempting to speak on behalf of a single-payer plan when single-payer had been cut out of the conversation.
“When Obama was elected I was optimistic, like many people, because he knew what single-payer was,” she told me when we talked. “He’d been on record saying that single-payer was the best solution. It was quickly very clear that that this was a predetermined course, that it was more like a marketing campaign.”
As the nation awaited the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA), Flowers sounded more upbeat than aghast at the prospect of the Supreme Court ruling striking down part or more of the Obama law. For Flowers, a single-payer plan, like Medicare for all (which would fund medical care from a single insurance pool run by the state), was always the ideal way to provide universal, affordable, quality care, and contain soaring costs and waste in the process. As for the individual mandate—forcing the public to buy from a for-profit company—she’s called it “crony capitalism on steroids.”
It would be no small thing to move health reform through the legislature again, she agrees. Three years ago, Democratic leaders in Washington foreclosed on single-payer, and went on to betray their commitments to single-payer lite—the so-called public option. There’s no evidence there’s been a sea change in Washington. Around the country, though, Flowers believes single-payer supporters are in a stronger place now than they have ever been. (And during oral arguments on ACA this year, Justice Sotomayor was good enough to confirm the constitutionality of a public system.)
Regardless of how the court rules, we’ll still have healthcare woes and groups like Physicians for a National Healthcare Program, will continue to fight for single-payer. What follows is a partial transcript of my conversation with Flowers which took place last week, in New York City.
Laura Flanders: Margaret, a lot of media would have you believe that we are on the brink of the Apocalypse: Are we?
Margaret Flowers: Where we stand right now is that there are two things that we need to consider. One, of course is the decision around Medicaid and this is a very important decision, this is much more crucial. If the Supreme Court says that the federal government’s giving states money is tantamount to coercion, that’s a real problem because where does that end? If the federal government says you must meet minimum guidelines for education and we’ll give you money to help your schools, is that coercion? We really rely on government to provide a basic social infrastructure that takes care of people.
Now with the individual mandate, really no matter what happens—if it’s found to be constitutional or not constitutional—we know that the bill didn’t go far enough and the single-payer movement is going to be continuing to push for national Medicare for all. If it’s found to be unconstitutional that provides us with a better opportunity to make that argument; say okay you’ve done everything that you could do in the private insurance framework, it doesn’t work. Now can you really see the facts and see that we need to build a publicly financed system that’s accountable to all people and universal healthcare.
Let’s talk about the individual mandate. In one piece you co-wrote recently you referred to it as “crony capitalism on steroids.” What did you mean?
The individual mandate requiring people to purchase private insurance and using hundreds of millions of our public dollars that go directly to the private insurance companies is outrageous. If you look at it people having private insurance still doesn’t guarantee that you could see the doctor that you need to see, get the treatment that you need to seek; [it doesn’t guarantee] that you can afford the healthcare because of co-pays and deductibles… many people are foregoing necessary care even though they have insurance.
And then you look at does private insurance protect you if you have a serious illness? The greatest cause of bankruptcy is medical [costs] and 80 percent of those people that went bankrupt from medical cost had health insurance. So, we’re forcing people to purchase a defective product, we’re putting our private dollars into a private corporation that’s just going to take that money as profit and not give it out to the people for care.
So the Supreme Court should vote it down?
I believe that the Supreme Court should vote down the individual mandate. It’s not a solution, it’s not working in Massachusetts very well, very clearly they are failing. People are still facing serious barriers there. They say they’re worse off than they were five years ago so that should be the answer right there: it doesn’t work.
Howard Dean was speaking recently in Washington said that “did didn’t give a damn” about the individual mandate, but he did think that there were things to preserve in the act. He talked about 30 million previously uninsured Americans’ getting coverage. He talked about 17 million being added to Medicaid if the Act survives a couple of years; tax credits for people who can’t afford it, (again, kicking in in 2014 if the Act as a whole survives.) Do you agree that there are parts of ACA worth saving?
Well, this is the dilemma that we are always placed in where there is a little bit of good for some people, but [let’s] step back and look at the big picture. For one thing, the 30 million people that would gain insurance, what are they actually gaining? About half of those will be given Medicaid. Medicaid is a system that doesn’t work very well, it’s hard to find providers and people are not treated well when they have Medicaid. In many cases they are kind of shifted out of the hospital quickly. The other half is going to be getting private insurance and with the co-pays and the deductibles. They’ll still face serious financial barriers to getting the care that they need, they’ll still face bankruptcy if they have a serious accident or illness. And 20 or so million will still be left out. We are expecting under this legislation—the recent data shows—that maybe 20 million employees will lose their employee benefits under the Affordable Care Act.
We’re not really moving in the right direction and so there’s always something good in there which causes people to defend it without looking at the big picture that too many people are going to be left out.
When Obama was elected I was optimistic, like many people, because he knew what single-payer was, he’d been on record saying what single-payer was the best solution. We thought we would at least have a discussion, a debate of looking at what were the possibilities. It was quickly very clear that that this was a predetermined course, that it was more like a marketing campaign—it was very scripted toward a predetermined end, and that was what was very upsetting to those of us who advocate for real health reform, you know: evidence-based reform, Medicare for all.
Nonetheless a lot of people got very involved in the campaign. What’s your message to them today as they wonder what’s going to happen and many of them feel that they’ve worked very hard for something that they don’t want to see thrown out, far less told it was all useless?
I know it’s difficult for people that worked really hard to get the Affordable Care Act and for me personally, I think it’s really important, to be honest. And the truth is that the Affordable Care Act was something was heavily influenced by the industries that profit off of our current situation, that doesn’t address the problems that we have, and now we have an opportunity (if the bill is brought down or the individual mandate is found unconstitutional), we have an opportunity to push for real health reform; to come together and stand independent of a political party. One sign that I thought was beautiful was “Get your politics out of my healthcare.” That’s what it has really got to be about. Let’s all come together and fight for a really top-notch healthcare system in the United States that serves everybody.
So, who would be the“we” in this case?
Well, it’s interesting because in the same conference where Howard Dean said he didn’t care about the individual mandate, Representative Keith Ellison said, if the bill goes down we immediately must “pounce on this opportunity” to go out there with &lsdquo;Medicare for All” and say this is what we want to have. And the majority of Americans already support that approach—the majority of the physicians do—so this is a real opportunity to clearly define what we as a nation would like to see happen.
Has the movement around [single-payer] healthcare changed in these years?
The one positive that came out of the 2009, 2010 health reform process was that the movement for real health reform, for single-payer, Medicare for all, became much more organized and much larger, with groups all around the country and most states who were advocating for this. I think that they’ll be ready to mobilize when this opportunity arises.
What do you think you’ll be up against in the form of the lobbyists and the corporations that put a $100 million dollars into trying to stop this act, that you think didn’t go far enough.
If we’re pushing for single-payer we’re always up against the big dogs –the ones that are profiting off of the current situation, but one thing that’s happened with the advent of the Occupy movement is that people are more and more looking at the truth behind this, seeing the corruption of money in our political system, seeing the corruption of our corporate media and how they really serve the political interest of the people and there has been a growth of independent media, we need much more growth in that area, but I think that all those are real positives towards pushing, exposing the truths and pushing for what we really want this time.
A lot of the media discussion is about the political implications of this decision; I want you to talk about the personal implications for a minute. For the people you would like to be caring for as a doctor. Where are we right now in terms of giving them care and what hangs in the balance?
The politics of the healthcare decision are something that I’ve never really paid attention to. That’s not important to me. What’s important to me are the patients that we see every day, that I saw when I was practicing, that my colleagues continue to see. We don’t want to turn anybody away. We don’t want to have to ask them if they have insurance first or if they can afford their co-pay before we see them.
What we see in the United States, we’re ranked thirty-seventh in the world [in quality of care, according to the World Health Organization], which is ridiculous because we spend twice as much per person on healthcare than other industrialized nation and those nations cover everybody and they have better health outcomes. We see that tens of thousands of people are dying every year of preventable causes simply because they don’t have access to care. The number-one cause of bankruptcy in the United States is due to medical costs. That doesn’t happen in any other industrialized nation. They think it’s crazy that people are facing that. What we really need to do is talk about that, talk about the patients.
The bill, the Affordable Care Act does help some people. It doesn’t help them as much as it should and what those kind of politics does is that it takes those kind of people [and pits them against each other]. When we saw the Supreme Court was hearing the decision, there were all these signs saying fight for women’s healthcare, fight for children’s healthcare —they pit people against each other, saying well, we have to say this because it’s going to help this group.
We want every person to be helped and that’s what a national improved Medicare for all would be: every single person would be “in.” Nobody would be left out. That’s a system that we could build on. We’re hoping that could develop a campaign (if the law’s found not to be constitutional), that’s very simple: drop two words. If we just took “over 65” out of the Medicare bill, then it’s there for everybody. Now we have something that we can tweak and make better.
What can people do after they wake up after the Supreme Court decision and want to get involved in this movement?
It’s very important to contact your members in Congress right away and demand Medicare for all. Very simply, drop those two words, expand the Medicare program—that’s the fastest way to do this. There are a lot of educational materials at Physicians for a National Health Plan, that’s PNHP.org. Health Care Now is really the grassroots kind of sister organization, and there are Health Care Now chapters all around the country. It’s Healthcare-Now.org.
New York’s forty-second Gay Pride Parade took place on Sunday, drawing tens of thousands of LGBT people and their allies. Alongside politicians—Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor Andrew Cuomo and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn—were celebrities, like Cyndi Lauper and her fellow grand marshals, Phyllis Siegel and Connie Kopelov, New York City’s first legally married same-sex couple.
Also marching Sunday, although less visible in the coverage, were scores of LGBT folks from New York’s homeless shelters, with union members and friends in a contingent led by Queers for Economic Justice. As Amber Hollibaugh, co-director of QEJ, put it in an interview this week, the LGBT movement may have come a long way, but there is a long way still to go.
“Is it different to come out now than it was to come out thirty-five years ago? Sometimes. But if you come out now and you come from poverty and you come from racism, you come from the terror of communities that are immigrant, or where you’re already a moving target because of who you are, this is not a place where it’s any easier to be LGBT even if there’s a community center in every single borough.”
QEJ works in places like shelter systems where the conventional chroniclers of LGBT life never go. “You would never know that there are queer people who are homeless, that there are low-income people that are LGBTQ and that we’re actually a majority of who shares that identity, not a minority,” says Hollibaugh.
Economics and sexual identity are not unconnected. The Center for American Progress reported back in 2010, “Besides disproportionate rates of homelessness as youth, a root cause of lower incomes and poverty among adult gay and transgender Americans is the high rate of workplace discrimination they face. This discrimination includes unequal pay, barriers to health insurance, unfair hiring and promotion practices, and verbal and sexual harassment that create hostile and unsafe working environment.”
As Steven Thrasher pointed out his stinger piece on "Gay Inc," the (LGBT) Human Rights Campaign honored Bloomberg with its National Ally Award last summer. To homeless LGBT New Yorkers it’s been a very strange sort of alliance. Homelessness in the city has risen a remarkable 49 percent on the mayor’s watch, in part, critics say, because of the cancellation of housing assistance programs. Homelessness in New York is now the worst since the Great Depression. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, a record-breaking 43,000 New Yorkers (including plenty of LGBTQ New Yorkers) make their bed in city shelters every night.
After the millions spent on gay marriage, will comparable money and political capital be spent next on working-class LGBTQ issues? There’s a glimmer of hope in groups like QEJ. After years of standing by Bloomberg, mayoral candidate and out lesbian Christine Quinn broke with Bloomberg finally to support a living wage. QEJ was among the many city groups that testified last October at hearings on the Living Wage Bill in the NY City Council. Quinn’s still blocking any vote on paid sick days. Says Hollibaugh:
“Christine Quinn is a complication, I think, for many parts of the LGBTQ world. On the one hand, she has enormous power and visibility and she’s an open lesbian and…we have certain kind of access to her because she is an openly queer person. [On the other hand,] she wants corporate backing. If she wants corporate backing, she knows what the rules are for getting that corporate backing and she’s playing by those rules. If you are an LGBT organization that feels that economic justice and things like unions and minimum wages and family care are your baseline, she may be your ally, but she may also not return your call.”
JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon was greeted in Congress Tuesday by nurses and healthcare activists chanting, “Jamie Dimon, you’re no good. The people need a Robin Hood.”
And it wasn’t just in DC but all over the country. Tuesday, June 19, was the formal launch of an NNU-led national campaign for the Robin Hood Tax, and nurses and their allies showed up at branches and offices of JPMorgan Chase in several states summoning the spirit of the thirteenth-century British bandit.
As National Nurses United Executive Director RoseAnn deMoro explained, “It’s time to pay up for the damage you have done to our communities and our nation.”
It’s an idea whose time has long since come, they say, and there’s no better time to be talking about it than this moment. The Robin Hood tax, or financial transaction tax (also known as the Tobin tax, after the US economist who first proposed a version of it) would impose a levy on financial transactions like sales of stocks, bonds and derivatives. It would take from the rich and generate revenues for poor public services, and stymie reckless speculation—like the gamble that lost JPMorgan that missing $2 billion.
Globally, the tax has won fans from South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Pope Benedict XVI. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Monday that the European Union will “soon” move forward with a financial transaction tax. “We want the financial transaction tax to become a reality in Europe, and if possible at global level,” Barroso said before the start of the G20 summit in Mexico.
Internationally, the Robin Hood tax, or FTT, is largely seen as a possible way to generate development funds for impoverished nations. In the United States, NNU and their allies see the tax as a way to inject needed funds into public services that are already way past breaking point. The NNU cites estimates that the tax could generate as much as $350 billion for public coffers from the Americans most well able to pay: those in the financial sector.
So far, every time there’s been rumor that President Obama’s team might be about to propose such a thing, the Treasury has been quick to deny it. At the G20, the United States has up to now managed to block progress on the topic. Like Britain’s Conservatives (led by PM David Cameron), they argue that taxing the financial sector might be “counterproductive.” For whom? asks NNU.
DeMoro argues, “Compensation pools at the seven biggest US banks totaled $156 billion in 2011, a 3.7% increase over the previous year’s record-breaking number. It is only fair that financial transactions incur a sales tax—just as the rest of us pay—and put some Wall Street resources back into Main Street.”
While a bill introduced last year by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IO) and Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) would impose a 0.03 percent fee (three cents per $100), the NNU want fifty cents. Why is tax policy a nurse’s issue? A year ago, at the NNU national convention, I talked to RNs who shed tears of exasperation as they described the swollen caseloads they are forced to face on shrunken budgets in hospitals that are generating healthy profits for private corporations.
“No matter how the US supreme court rules in the coming days on the 2010 Affordable Care Act, employers will continue to drop health coverage or shift more costs to workers; medical bills will continue to account for nearly two-thirds of bankruptcies, and insurance companies will still deny needed care,” writes deMoro. “The healthcare crisis has been severely aggravated by the economic collapse. Nurses see the signs in dire human terms, every day.”
For more on the Campaign for a Robin Hood Tax and the support it has elicited from small farmers, religious leaders, AIDS activists and Tom Morello, as well as the NNU, see the campaign’s website.
As President Obama was speechifying about our economic futures this week, workers in one famous Chicago factory were taking a big step towards theirs.
A group of the workers who occupied the Republic Windows and Doors factory in 2008 have founded a worker-run cooperative. They’ve incorporated in the state of Illinois; they’ve made a bid to buy the machinery from their former employer; now all they are waiting for is a serious response from Serious Energy, the company that took over the plant from Republic.
Looking for a way to save good jobs in a tough economy? Go cooperative, say these workers. In 2008, they occupied their plant for six days after Republic closed the plant and tried to scuttle out of state owing the Chicago workers back-pay and benefits. (The occupiers won a $1.75 million settlement from Bank of America and Chase Bank.) After a lackluster couple of years, the subsequent owners, Serious Energy, announced their intent to close the plant this February. Says Melvin Macklin, a glass manufacturer who’s been working at the plant for over a decade:
“Republic walked away from our jobs. Serious walked away from our jobs, but we are not walking away from our jobs.“
On May 30, 2012 Macklin and twenty-two other workers founded New Era Windows, LLC a worker-run cooperative to manufacture what they promise will be “quality, affordable windows.” After a brief occupation earlier this year, Serious agreed to give the workers the first option to buy the plant’s equipment. New Era made the bid last month.
“We’ve opened a bank account, the workers have put in a bid, now what is the company waiting for?” says Leah Fried, field organizer for the United Electrical workers (UE,) which represents the workers.
It’s in this sort of situation that a functioning industrial policy could make all the difference, says Brendan Martin, a former Wall Street trader who founded The Working World to help support worker-run businesses. In tough economic times, keeping a factory in place in a hard-hit community helps the entire local economy. A newly-announced city plan to retrofit Chicago for energy efficiency could offer a green windows company a mountain of useful business. But it’s going to be heavy lifting for the workers to raise enough money to buy even the minimum amount of equipment they’ll need to go into production, let alone the most top-of-line technology.
“If there was any sort of rational industrial policy coming out of Washington,” says Martin, “government would be helping enterprises like these get the equipment they need to produce the next generation of high-quality green products.”
As it is, the workers and their allies are hoping to raise about $500,000 to buy the basics and the workers’ sweat equity will have to make up for the lack of capital.
If President Obama had really wanted to signal a new economic agenda, he was in the right Ohio city this Thursday. Cleveland is home to the largest industrial co-ops in the country, the Evergreen network, which includes an industrial laundry that serves the local university and city hospital. Obama didn’t visit or even allude to Evergreen in his speech on the economy Thursday, but the Chicago workers are in conversation with the Evergreen folks. They’re learning all they can from the rise of cooperatives across the United States, and they’re excited about becoming one of the first unionized industrial cooperatives in the country.
It’s not just about profits, says Macklin, it’s about sustaining communities, keeping jobs in places where people need them. He’s even heard rumors that some co-ops create credit unions, capable of proffering student loans to needy families. Helping workers’ kids get an education is not part of a profit-above-all-else business plan, he agrees, but worker co-ops are free to devise their own priorities.
“The owners’ agenda is always different from the workers’,” he says. “But in a co-op, the workers’ and the owners’ are one and same.”
So far, the New Era workers have decided that all the worker/owners will earn equal wages and each will have one vote in decision-making. Each worker will each have to raise a fee of $1,000 to “buy in.” It’s a stretch in hard times, and Macklin, who is 58, borrowed some of his “buy-in” from a nephew. Still, he believes New Era will be able to compete even after two companies have thrown in the towel, because,
“There will be no big, fat-cat salaries, no CEOs, CFOs and COOs to pay – so our bottom line will be easier. We already know how to make the best windows and we’re learning how to promote and sell.”
He concludes: “We don’t know for sure it’ll be successful, but we didn’t know the occupation would be successful (I thought I was going to jail). Unless we step out and try, we’ll never know.”
New Era is on a fundraising drive. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel could soon have the perfect company to buy from. Meanwhile, people can contribute or invest at Causes.com
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I mentioned a few weeks back that a strike vote might be looming in Chicago. By way of update, on Monday, 90 percent of Chicago Teachers Union members, roughly 23,780 city employees, voted to support a strike if one is called. Although contract talks continue, Chicago Public Schools officials.
Hoping to avoid the first teachers strike in Chicago public schools since 1987, the union and school district are meeting with the arbitrator up to four times a week. The earliest that teachers can walk out is Aug. 17, four days after classes begin for some students. Most students begin the new school year Sept. 4.
Governor Andrew Cuomo says raising the minimum wage in New York is harder than passing marriage equality. Is that true? Is it spin? If we were to say it’s true—is it all about money, or could it be that there’s something we need, namely a coming-out movement about poverty in America? Democrats in the New York State Assembly have passed a bill to raise the minimum wage from the federal $7.25 to $8.50 an hour.
Last week, during a Capitol press conference, the governor said this is probably where the bill is stuck at least for this session. There’s likely to be no passing a minimum wage hike through the Republican-controlled Senate, the issue’s just too divisive, said the governor. Isn’t this the same savvy politician who last year convinced four Senate Republicans to pass a bill legalizing same-sex marriage? Cuomo insisted that this time it’s different. “This is broader and a deeper divide,” Cuomo said. “Marriage, in some ways, was more of a personal judgment for people on their personal values.
There’s certainly a case to be made that the governor could apply himself more forcefully to the task of raising the wage. (Although the speaker wouldn’t like it, he could for example, hike the wage by order of the state Labor Department.) It’s also true that where politics is concerned, deeply held beliefs are usually less relevant than deep pockets. Most LGBT activists aren’t well-to-do—but some are, and they knew how to use it. The wage-raisers, by contrast, may have the popular will on their side, but they’re up against an entire Chamber of Commerce–funded army of opinion shapers, propagandists and paid-off politicians who argue that living wages lead to dead business. They’re up against the well financed spin, and they’re up against the already freaked-out business owners who believe it.
All that having been said, can we talk for a moment about the words “personal” and “poverty”? “Silence=Death,” said the movement against AIDS. “Come Out! Come Out!” said the gay liberation movement. The movement for LGBT equality pushed itself from the margins to the mainstream against a tide of powerful politicians and a whole host of big-mouth churches with one simple message: we are your sisters and your brothers. Hollywood and TV helped, but making LGBT lives real took real, personal, coming out: at work, in schools and, yes, in Washington and in state politics.
In the United States today, some 103 million Americans live in or near poverty. Over half of all the jobs in our country pay $34,000 per year or less (barely twice the poverty line for a family of three). While the rich have become super-rich, 6 million Americans are living on an income of only food stamps. It’s incredible that we tolerate for a minute the reality of 6 million of us living on food stamps alone. Yet we do, says Peter Edelman—a former senior staffer for Robert F. Kennedy who served in the Clinton administration until he resigned to protest welfare reform. He believes we tolerate it largely because the poor tend to blame themselves or believe they’re alone. I suspect it’s because we’re experiencing a new kind of segregation. Somehow, neither policy makers nor opinion makers seem to know enough poor people well enough to feel them, living and breathing.
A working-class coming-out movement: do you think it’s possible? I had a chance to interview Edelman, on May 22 at the Soros Foundation, about his new book, So Rich So Poor, Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America. A video of our entire conversation appears at GRITtv.org.
Laura Flanders: What is the most striking aspect of today’s economy to you?
Peter Edelman: There are two statistics that everyone should have in mind. One is that there are twenty million people in America today with incomes below half the poverty line. That includes six million people whose only income is food stamps – that’s a third of the poverty line. The second statistic is that we have 103 million people -- that’s one third of our population -- who have low wage jobs [on which they are just getting by with no idea how their next bills will be paid.] I don’t think people are aware of this. We’re just not paying enough attention to how many low wage jobs there are in America.
Did poverty alleviation programs just not work?
Poverty alleviation programs work. Ronald Reagan said we fought a war against poverty and poverty won. That’s absolutely not true. The poverty programs we have put in place – the Food Stamp program, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Social Security and so on, are keeping forty million people out of poverty who would otherwise be poor today. We already have forty-six million people who are poor, but we’d have forty million more than that. These programs work.
The problem is there are too many low wage jobs and too many moms with kids who are by themselves in this world, and who can’t make it on one job in the household. That’s the problem.
When did things change?
Things started to change in a fundamental way in 1973, the year of the first oil shock. Up until that time, manufacturing jobs had started to disappear but somehow it all came together in 1973. You had economic trends that ever since WW2 had all been upwards (including for African American men, who have had such a tough time in the last four decades….) That’s when the trouble started, that’s when you started seeing the flood of low wage jobs that took over the economy for the whole bottom half.
Now, half the jobs in the country pay less than $34,000; a quarter pay less than the poverty line for family of four – $22,000 -- and the wage has been absolutely flat for almost forty years, from 1973 to now. The wage of the median job went up by only seven percent.
Is this predominantly a problem for people of color?
It’s disproportionately a problem for people of color but the largest number of people who are poor in this country are white. We need to keep two stories in our mind. One: anything we do to raise incomes for people at the very bottom will help more white people than people of color. Two: it’s shameful that there’s such disproportionate poverty among people of color and we have race and gender playing a part. [As to the latter,] we’re talking primarily about women of color. We are still not dealing fully with these problems of race.
Why are Americans generally unaware of the extent of low-wage work? Why isn't this better understood? The people who have low-wage jobs certainly know how hard their life is, but somehow – and I don’t honestly know exactly why – they don’t see themselves as being in the same boat with 103 million other people. Many of them see themselves as having failed in an individual way rather than being one of millions caught in a structural failure, or they see themselves as part of a situation that no one can fix. They don’t see the big picture, or they have a sense of the big picture and think it’s insoluble.
What role does personal responsibility play in all this?
We all have to take responsibility for ourselves. That goes without saying. So that when right-wingers come along and say it’s all somebody’s fault, [we need to say] wait a minute. There are serious structural problems in the way our economy works, [how] our schools work, [and how] our criminal justice system works. But it’s also true that to blame it all on structural problems is incorrect. We’ve come to a point, just because there’s been so much damage in some communities and neighborhoods, that we have to make an extra effort to get to kids and say, you’ve got to take responsibility and take opportunities that are there for you and not listen to people on the street who say it’s not worth it. At the end of the day nobody makes it who doesn’t take responsibility for themselves, but, to say it’s all on the individual, well, that’s just wrong
How important is having options?
It’s critically important to have options, to see a way to succeed. To see that there is opportunity. What’s going on now for literally millions of young people in this country (disproportionately people of color,) is that they don’t see that. So they start truanting, they drop out of school. School’s no bargain for them anyway -- it’s not really conveying anything. They don’t have enough people in their lives who send them a message that they can make it if they stick to it. In some areas we really have a generation-to-generation conveyance of poverty…
Wasn’t “welfare reform” supposed to stop that -- generational poverty?
Welfare reform was a bumper sticker. It is a bumper sticker. It said go and get a job. It didn’t say we’re going to give you supports. And it assumed a job was available when very often it wasn’t. It was really based on ordering people to behave in a different way.
The fact is, most people want to work. Most people want to have a chance to make enough money to support their children and lead a decent life. The way our economy is arranged, for too many people that doesn’t work. Particularly, now, we have so many people who get into trouble temporarily -- and we have TANF, which is supposed to be Temporary Assistance to Needy Families --- and people go to the welfare office, and it’s not even temporarily available.
We now have about 4 million people receiving TANF. It was 14 million before the Personal Responsibility Act [welfare reform] was passed in 1996. In state after state in this country you just can’t get state assistance. In Wyoming just four percent of poor kids receive TANF. That’s kind of astonishing.
In your book you talk about income supports, meaning that the government helps those who are underpaid. If we do that, aren’t we simply using public dollars to subsidize private employers, many of whom are profiting hugely from paying low wages.
We don’t want income supports that bail out big corporations from taking responsibility for paying their workers a proper wage. At the very least, the minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit need to be working in tandem. The minimum wage should be as high as we can make it without starting to destroy jobs, or at least as high as we can make it politically, which is a much lower number – maybe $10 an hour now. The EITC shouldn’t be taking the place of the minimum wage.
And if unions were stronger, and we can hope that will happen over time, that would push wages up, too. Nor should we forget that a proper investment in health care, housing, child care, and support for going to college has a monetary value that effectively adds to income. But if we do all of those things, I think there will still be a gap, and so I think we have to talk about wage supplements. I don’t especially like it, but I think it has to be on the table.
Is this low wage, low employment economy a temporary blip?
I’m afraid low wage work is here to stay in large amounts. I can’t predict the future many decades from now, But this is a global economy and we are not situated well vis a vis emerging economies in India and China. Manufacturing is weak. To the extent that it’s coming back, the wages are coming back much lower than they were when they went away three to four years ago. We really need to face up to the fact that there’s so much low wage work, we need to take action, we need to increase the minimum wage, we need to get the kind of work supports – health care, childcare, housing -- that make a difference; and I think we need to talk about how are we going to add to incomes so they come up to a level that people can live on.
A loud chorus will say to that income supports are European, even socialist….
[To] people who say that providing support for wages or a decent safety net for people who’ve lost their jobs is somehow adopting some sort of a European answer, [I say,] if you run an economy in which people who are doing their very best cannot make enough money to live on, we should help. I don’t know how else to talk about it, except to talk about justice.
What is the American tradition when it comes to helping our brothers and sisters?
The American tradition is kind of ambivalent when it comes to helping those who are in need. Our history, up until the New Deal, is largely one of private charity and limited state help. We started to take a different view in the New Deal and we’ve done much better since then. So I think we’re kind of ambivalent.
There are certainly those who take the position that anyone who has a problem, it’s their own fault. On the other hand, we’ve enacted all these great programs from Social Security through Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and many more. Those were voted on by people who were elected by the American people. So I think we are responsive, but I think we have to continue to tell the truth about why people have problems, and what the issues are, and so much of it is beyond anything [these] people did wrong.
How much of a difference did the popular movements of the 1960s make to your ability in that era to develop some of those program you’re talking about?
The 1960s certainly were an unusual decade in our country, as were the 1930s for different reasons. With Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Great Depression, the country was ready to respond. In the 1960s, the civil rights movement made a huge difference. To put it simply, there was a kind of national realization that just because you had a right to eat at the lunch counter didn’t mean you had enough money to buy a meal. President Johnson felt very strongly that we ought to attack poverty. We can have whatever views about the war in Vietnam (I think of him as two different presidents,) but in terms of civil rights and poverty, he was a great president.
[Just as] important, the Civil Rights movement did open people’s eyes and make them supportive. There was a popular sense that if people were hungry we needed to get food to them. And we did a pretty good job, through the Nixon period too. He signed into law housing vouchers and SSI insurance for the elderly and disabled and Pell grants among other things. Things started to change with Reagan and we’ve been kind of fighting an up and down battle since then.
How would you assess the state of our movements today?
I was excited about Occupy. I thought that we were finally seeing people who were getting off their behinds and calling us all out and there was a tremendous national response to that. The word “inequality” was out there in the media in exponential ways compared to where it had been before.
If people will come together and keep at it, and if there is an institutional partnership with labor, with the SEIU and faith groups and so on, perhaps we can sustain a movement. There has to be a coming together of people. Maybe if things don’t improve in the economy and there’s a continuing and increased sense that people at the top just have too much, maybe that will change the politics. Right now the politics are not helpful to say the least.
What’s happened to the word poverty? Where is it? Barack Obama was the first president in years not to use it in a State of the Union address.
I really don’t like this exclusive emphasis on the middle class. Not that I’m against help for people wherever they’re hurting, but we should be talking about inclusion -- everybody who’s in need now. Barack Obama has done a lot about poverty. Sixteen million people were added to Medicaid in the Affordable Care Act. [There is] Race to The Top, [about which] you can have some policy differences, but it’s about education for low-income children. Well over $150 billion in the Recovery Act [was] for low income people. The record is there, it’s good, but we’ve got to get the “P” word back into the conversation.
What’s at stake?
I think what’s at stake is our future in very fundamental ways. I don’t see how a democracy can function and remain a democracy in all the meanings of that word, if there are millions of people who are not included, who are not participating. It erodes the moral basis of country and it perpetuates the power of wealthy and corporate interests in ways that are just corrosive. I think a lot is at stake.
Terry Tempest Williams is an essayist, environmentalist, author, advocate, connection maker. She’s fascinated by what divides and what connects us—to one another and to the earth. Refuge, which Williams called an unnatural history of family and place, has become a literary classic alongside Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Her latest, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, starts with an investigation of her mother’s mysterious journals and spirals into a meditation on silence, secrets and voice. What does all of this have to do with politics, rebellion and social change? Everything. Market capitalism commodifies labor and land, splitting our work from the rest of our lives, and our land from our communities. Terry Tempest Williams refuses to choose between the personal and the political, the practical and the poetic. On behalf of us all she demands the right to be whole—and never more powerfully than in her new book.
You can see video of our entire conversation at GRITtv.org. Here’s a rough transcript of our conversation:
LF: Does that sound about right: you as connection maker?
TTW: It’s how I see the world. We are so used to fragmenting, compartmentalizing, putting things in silos and that’s not how the world is. I think it is the pattern that connects that gives us the power to see the world whole.
When Women Were Birds starts with the mystery of your mother’s journals. She left you her journals, but they weren’t what you expected.
No, and it’s taken me twenty-five years to come to terms with that. Literally, the week before my mother died, I was rubbing her back in bed and she said, “Terry I’m leaving you my journals but you have to promise you won’t look at them until I’m gone.” I gave her my word. She passed. A month later, I found myself in the family house. There they were, just where she said they’d be, all beautifully bound, cloth journals. I thought, finally now, I’ll know what my mother was thinking. I opened the first one. Empty. I opened the second one empty. The third, the fourth, the fifth, sixth—all of my mother’s journals were blank.
What did you make of that, to begin?
I think I was so stunned. I kept going through them, trying to figure out what she was trying to say to me. It was so deliberate. I think at the time I was so grief stricken by her death that I couldn’t afford to think about it. I just gathered up her journals, took them home, and for years and years I wrote in them, unceremoniously.
All these years on, you find yourself the same age your mother was when she died, and you decide to revisit this story, but instead of weaving one narrative you give us a book of “54 Variations on Voice.” Why that structure?
When I think about voice I think about music, and the structure of music is variations, different parts. I don’t think, with a woman and her voice—I know for me and my own voice—it’s not a continual narrative. That would not be a true thing. It’s not as if you find your voice and move on. It’s almost like a kaleidoscope that you keep turning and your voice takes on a different resonance. There have been many times in my life that I’ve given my voice away or lost it or betrayed it. And there have been other times that I’ve stood at the center of my voice, whether that’s been through grief, or anger or joy. So it seemed to me that that was an honest rendering, both of my mother’s journals (fifty-four different ages, fifty-four years) and the different configurations that our voice takes through time.
If you had a chance to stand at the center of your voice and raise one alarm, what’s the one message you’re bringing to us today.
To listen. That’s ironic. It’s a paradox, about a book on voice. But I think that’s the most important think we can do right now is to listen—to one another, to other people, to other culture and to listen to the land.
A lot of people say, it’s too much, I have to turn it all off. I can’t listen; I can’t take one more TV show, one more podcast, one more e-mail. Do you sympathize?
I do. I think in many ways we’re washed—awash—with stimulus, especially from the media, but that’s not the only think to listen to. There’s birdsong, there’s silence, there’s water, there’s music. I think so often when we’re listening, we’re not really listening we’re waiting for our chance to speak. And therefore I don’t know how things change, if we’re not we’re not really in that true place of a reciprocal relationship whether its to each other or what we’re reading, or our relations.
What did you think of Occupy Wall Street which at its very heart was about spending time with one another?
I thought it was beautiful. I loved the organic nature. I love the messiness of it. To me that is real. That is an ecological model. And yet the critics were saying, “Who’s in charge?” We don’t know how to deal with circles, spirals. We only know hierarchies and what I love about Occupy Wall Street is that it’s asking us to use a different kind of model.
I’ve seen you asked, what might a different sort of power look like. Have you ever tasted, felt, had a glimpse of that different sort of power?
I see it among women. I saw it in Rwanda. In the village, they listen, they understand struggle, they’re not privileged. I see it whenever I’m in a wild place. That’s a very different kind of power that’s predicated on humility and respect…
You come from a traditional culture that has certain edicts—you must have children, you must keep a journal. You both, you and your mother, broke those edicts, and yet you clearly value, continuity, connection, tradition. How do we take the bits we like of our traditions and and at the same time allow a celebration of impermanence into our worldview?
I don’t know. I’m struggling with that. I mean I know the things I have been given within my Mormon culture—and I’m certainly not orthodox, and I don’t practice the religion, but I do practice some of the ideals I was raised with: taking care of one another, caring about community. I’m a great believer in prayer. Not praying to a white-haired, white-bearded, white male god, but being in prayer, which, again, is that act of listening. So those are tenets I respect and adhere to. They’re certainly not unique to Mormonism, but they inform my spirituality…
A lot of people right now, looking at the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney, are very afraid of what they hear about Mormonism: the Temple, the secrets, the ideas about dominion. What about those parts of Mormonism?
I think there is reason to fear the Mormon Church. I would say the Mormon Church is a corporation. They have huge holdings and tremendous power and regardless of what candidate Mitt Romney says, I believe that [if Romney is elected president] the Mormon Church will have a say in governance. It will be subtle, it will be invisible, but it will be there.
What would it look like?
I think we just have to look at [Proposition 8] the proposition in California against gay marriage. That would be an example….
Once upon a time CNN would be airing the hottest hearings of the day. Now it’s going to be appearing in one of those hearings, as Lord Justice Leveson calls CNN anchor Piers Morgan to “explain himself” over comments he made relating to phone hacking.
Piers Morgan’s name has come up more than once in the Murdoch hacking story. Now a CNN anchor, Morgan once edited the Daily Mirror and, before that, News of the World, two Murdoch properties. The News of the World is now defunct; the first victim of the scandal. It’s hard to believe Morgan’s days aren’t numbered at CNN.
Earlier this week, the BBC’s Newsnight presenter, Jeremy Paxman, told the Leveson Inquiry, which has been looking into the scandal, that Morgan showed his guests at a Daily Mirror lunch how to hack into mobile phones. At the same lunch, Paxman says Morgan teased TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson about the details of private conversations she had had with Sven-Göran Eriksson, at the time the England football manager. (Earlier that year, the Mirror had revealed that Jonsson and Eriksson had had an affair.)
Paxman told the inquiry that Morgan then “turned to me and said ‘Have you got a mobile phone?’… He then explained that the way to get access to people’s message was to go to the factory default setting and press either 0000 or 1234 and that if you didn’t put on your own code… his words: ‘you’re a fool.’ ” Adding, “I don’t know whether he was making this up, making up the conversation, but it was clearly something that he was familiar with…”
Morgan has always strenuously denied wrongdoing relating to phone hacking. Now it looks as if he’ll get to deny it in public. In breaking news Thursday, Lord Justice Leveson said that Morgan will be called to “explain himself” to the inquiry. CNN is saying that the talk show host will testify in person. According to their statement: “Piers Morgan has confirmed to CNN that he will be giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry at a later date.”
The Guardian is running highlights of the testimony. (Not CNN.)
Once upon a time t CNN would be airing the hottest hearings of the day. Now they're at the heart of the story, as Lord Justice Leveson calls CNN anchor Piers Morgan to “explain himself” over comments he made relating to phone hacking.
Piers Morgan's name has come up more than once in the Murdoch hacking story. Now a CNN anchor, Morgan once editied The Daily Mirror and before that, The News of the World, two News Corps properties. The News of the World's defunct now; the first victim of the scandal. Morgan's days may well be numbered.
Earlier this week, the BBC's Newsnight present, Jeremy Paxman told the Leveson Inquiry that Morgan showed his guests at a Daily Mirror lunch how to hack into mobile phones. At the same lunch, Morgan also teased TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson about the details of private conversations she had had with Sven-Göran Eriksson, at the time the England football manager. (Earlier that year, the Mirror had revealed that Jonsson had an affair with the then England football coach.)
Paxman told the Inquiry that Morgan then "turned to me and said 'Have you got a mobile phone".... He then explained that the way to get access to people's message was to go to the factory default setting and press either 0000 or 1234 and that if you didn't put on your own code … his words: 'your're a fool'." Adding, "I don't know whether he was making this up, making up the conversation, but it was clearly something that he was familiar with..." The Guardian posted the testimony. (Not CNN.)
Morgan has always strenuously denied wrongdoing relating to phone hacking. Now it looks as if he'll get to deny in public, In breaking news Thursday, Lord Justice Leveson said that Piers Morgan will be called to “explain himself” to the inquiry. CNN is saying that the talk show host will testify in person. According to their statement: "Piers Morgan has confirmed to CNN that he will be giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry at a later date."