Category Archives: Income Inequality

Nothing to Lose: Race and Poverty in America

You can’t give people nothing to lose and expect stability.

People protest with signs after the killing of George Floyd.  African-Americans feature prominently, but there is a white person and another person of color in the image as well.  Signs read "black lives matter," "he could not breathe," and "stop (sign image) blue on black crime."
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The grace, tolerance, and restraint shown by black and brown people in the protests gripping the nation continually amazes me. Almost all of the demonstrators are committed to furthering a non-violent movement for change. Given the realities, that demonstrates a dedication to principles of peaceful civil disobedience that is absolutely remarkable.

I have spent most of the last nine years working in low-income apartment communities. The trust that people have given me in letting me a little way into their lives and telling me their stories has been a great honor. And time and again I have seen people boxed into a corner by society. Being poor in America is an unending series of catch-22s with no wins and no way out.

The communities where I worked were economically segregated, and included both people of color and white people. What I learned about poverty applies to them all, but everything one can say about poverty in America disproportionately impacts people of color because poverty itself disproportionately impacts people of color.

I have seen the impact of structural police racism on black lives. It’s not just about the terrifying threat to life and limb that African-Americans experience, it’s about a million petty charges filed, and how those petty charges dog a person’s life. That misdemeanor charge for smoking pot in public or talking back to an officer makes it hard to find housing and employment. A charge that would be scoffed off as someone just being young and dumb (if it was even filed) in white job or apartment applicants is seen as indicative of character for black and brown applicants.

Beyond those obvious effects is the fact that the criminal justice system in America has become a resource extraction industry, fracking impoverished communities to pull out every last nickel and dime for the benefit of the taxpayer, who doesn’t have to invest in the infrastructure of law and order. Any brush with the law incurs a seemingly endless string of expenses. I wouldn’t be surprised if they start making people pay room and board for their jail or prison stays. They already charge for everything else.

It sounds tough but fair to say that if someone committed a crime they should pay the expenses of their punishment. But when you consider that an ankle monitor can cost around $330 a month, and what that means to someone who may have $700 or less in monthly income, it becomes a double jeopardy issue.

Modern apartment building in brick red, mustard yellow, and grey blue.  Sign in foreground reads "Ruby Hill Residences Leasing Center" followed by an arrow.
One of the buildings where I worked — it was brand new when I started there. The city desperately needs dozens more buildings like it. ©clmcdermid

Employment opportunities for the under-educated poor are almost a bitter joke. Most of what is available is exploitation, pure and simple. It’s virtually always shift work, so there is no stability from paycheck to paycheck, from week to week. Without any stability, there can be no planning for the future. Not the far future, like going back to school, getting a degree, and getting a better job. There can be no planning for the near future, like what childcare will be necessary next week, and will I be able to pay for it with the shifts I am getting this week? And the wages often barely cover the cost of getting back and forth to the job.

If a worker makes it into a managerial position, things get, if anything, even worse. Most of these positions are salaried, and have no overtime payment. If you factor in the amount of hours it takes to fulfill all the job expectations, some managers wind up getting less than minimum wage.

With increasing automation, most of even these exploitative jobs are disappearing.

Getting an education that will potentially qualify you for a better job isn’t necessarily so easy either. Property taxes in low-income communities just don’t stretch as far as they do in affluent ones. The public schools suffer for it. Many of the people I worked with in their twenties who had graduated from high school did not know how to send an email, capitalize, or punctuate. It’s hard to go to school every day prepared to learn when your family is enduring the grueling stress of poverty. It’s hard to learn essential skills in an overcrowded classroom with limited technology.

Even for folks who have the skills for college, scholarships are limited and usually don’t include expenses like transportation and parking. In Denver, there is a low-income child care program that will subsidize daycare for those enrolled in school, but spots in child care programs that accept the subsidy are rare, and often far distant. I knew one woman who was traveling two hours by bus every day to drop her child off at daycare, and two hours to pick her up. Many potential college students are sidelined by being caregivers to children, to a parent, or to a grandparent. Immediate family obligations needs must trump opportunities for long term improvements.

Demonstrators at a Black Lives Matter protest in East Lansing, Michigan.  Protesters in the foreground carry an African flag and a Black Lives Matter flag in front of them.  Other protesters carry signs.  Only one sign is legible, and it reads "we wont let you silence George."  The four protesters in the foreground are African American women wearing black.  The protesters behind them are a mix of races.
Black Lives Matter protest in East Lansing, MI. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I can speak, to an extent, to the injustices of poverty, because I have witnessed them. Obviously, not all black and brown people are poor, and racism, both structural and overt, plays a large and somewhat different role in the lives of middle and upper class people of color.

But for the communities of color that are trapped in the seemingly endless snares of poverty, there is vanishingly little to recommend the status quo. And now people of color are dying at hugely disproportionate rates of COVID 19 while the threat from racist policing looms constantly.

Even without an outright police murder caught on camera, is it any wonder that people have taken to the streets? The only wonders are that it took this long and that the Black Lives Matter movement is so committed to non-violence.

When the most basic human right, the right that predicates all the others, the simple right to live and exist, is under threat, people simultaneously have nothing and everything to lose. The fight for change is existential. They myriad frustrations, indignities, and impossible situations of poverty need to be fought against. But gains there must be built on a foundation of the right to be alive and secure in one’s person.

People in the streets today are fighting for the right to better education, better jobs at better pay, better housing, better policing, better health care, and all the rest of the elements that make a good life in modern times. But first and foremost, people are fighting for the right to drink cool water on a hot day, to get a tight hug from a child, to savor a good meal, to walk down the street, to feel the snow in winter and rain in summer on warm skin, to simply breathe and be alive. One cannot enjoy any other rights, any quality of life, without life itself.

When income inequality was last this bad, the workers organized into unions and fought hard, bloody struggles to win us things like a living wage, an eight hour day, and bathroom breaks. Those hard-won rights created a stable middle class, at least for white America. Since those struggles, we have let all those rights erode. We have allowed that middle class, never available to everyone, to evaporate. And we have continued to deny black and brown Americans the basic dignities white people take for granted.

I hesitated to write this up. This isn’t my experience to write about. It isn’t my voice we should be listening to now. Listen to Dawn Turner and many other amazing voices of color, instead.

But sometimes people need to hear something from someone who looks like them, speaks like them, or lives near them. If you can’t take it from the people on the streets, take it from me. Racism isn’t just something that happens in nine brutal minutes, or to birdwatchers. It pervades America, and it pervades class in America. This is about all of that. I haven’t lived the experience, but I am a witness and would take it as a privilege to be considered an ally.

America cannot continue to give her people nothing to lose while threatening the most basic right of all, the right to simply live.

I will be out of town this weekend, so will not respond to comments until Monday or Tuesday. Thanks.

National Service

WPA poster, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Today, watching a back episode of Amanpour and Co., I heard Mark Cuban call for National Service. The idea gets kicked around. Pete Buttigieg, a Navy vet, rolled out a whole plan, along with Kirsten Gillibrand, and some more obscure Democratic candidates. Clinton called for an expansion of AmeriCorps in 2016, as did Obama in 2008. A quick scan of Biden’s website shows him proposing $10,000 in student debt relief for every year spent in national or community service.

Now, of course, as Cuban points out when he talks about unions in the above clip, things have changed. National service seems less like a squishy, feel good, liberal sort of program, and more like something that could save the country.

During the Great Depression, FDR launched the Civilian Conservation Corps. In its heyday in 1935, more than 500,000 young men were enrolled, doing things like building roads, airstrips, trails, and campsites; controlling erosion and flooding; fighting fire; planting trees and shrubs; improving streams; and providing disaster relief. In a Gallup poll in 1936, 82% of respondents were in favor of the CCC. That number included 92% of the Democrats and 67% of the Republicans. That’s pretty broad bipartisan support.

The CCC’s big brother, the Work Progress Administration, employed 8.5 million people between 1935 and 1943. That’s about 6.6% of the population. Its aim was to provide breadwinners with jobs. WPA workers built streets and roads, the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, the dams and waterworks of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Camp David, among other things.

WPA workers paving Moss Street in New Orleans. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It was World War II that finally led to economic recovery for the States, but it is worth asking how much the post-war boomtimes were fueled by the great infrastructure the country enjoyed.

We sure could use 8.5 million people working on our roads now. About 32% of urban roads and 14% of rural roads are in poor condition. Our battered and worn infrastructure is a real problem for our economy. It is a concern of companies deciding where to locate, not to mention a hindrance to commerce and a time vortex for individuals.

And we don’t just need to fix what we have. We need to add broadband capacity for everyone, more bike lanes and public transportation options, renewable power generation projects, charging stations for electric vehicles, and some potentially staggeringly large water projects if we want the West to remain habitable. We also badly need to build more levees, straight-up move some communities, and mitigate for wildfires throughout the West, and, apparently, Florida.

WPA bridge. Courtesy National Archives.

Experience keeps teaching us that infrastructure is an essential investment, not wasteful spending. In New Orleans, the levees failed, in Minnesota, the bridge collapsed, in the Northeast, the power went out, and it takes a freight train between 26 to 30 hours to get through Chicago. Maybe that’s why nobody could get toilet paper.

It is a lesson we seem hell bent on not learning. But it’s time we stopped pretending that you don’t have to spend money to make money.

In addition to beginning to fix our ongoing neglect-made infrastructure disaster and providing incomes for breadwinners, national service would put kids from my high-income, low-diversity town shoulder to shoulder with kids from a huge range of backgrounds. Gap years are becoming more popular in the US, but not everyone can afford to take a year to explore. Hell, a lot of people can’t afford college in the first place. National service creates a gap year opportunity for everyone, feeding colleges and workplaces a more experienced and worldly graduate.

CCC enrollees planting willow sprouts. Image courtesy National Archives.

And national service doesn’t have to just be about infrastructure. Childcare is a huge problem in the US, especially in low-income communities. Social workers, addiction counselors, school teachers, safety-net hospitals — they’re all desperate for help. We could bring back the candy-striper! And, of course, in the immediate term, there is all that contact tracing and testing to be done.

These things, too, are investments that benefit our economy, if, perhaps, less directly.

In April, the US lost 20.5 million jobs and the unemployment rate was 14.7%. To get to the 6.6% of the population employed by the WPA, we would need to hire 21.6 million Americans over the course of the next 8 years, if my math is right. Going the route of a mandatory or at least strongly encouraged program for young people would be a vast project. Getting to CCC numbers and limiting the program to youth would be a lot easier, especially with many service corps still existing in various states and regions. But it would still be a huge undertaking.

Sometimes huge undertakings have a huge payoff.

Red Rocks Amphitheater, a WPA/CCC project still in use. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We’re still using roads, dams, campgrounds, and other infrastructure built by the CCC and the WPA more than 75 years later. These programs got the nation to work, and allowed us to go into World War II ready to fight, despite the hard times. It is impossible to calculate the economic benefit of all those projects over all these years, but it must be substantial.

The post-war years saw booming growth and creation of what we think of as the middle class in this country. At a time when both our infrastructure and our middle class are collapsing, national service is an idea whose time has come ’round, again.

Day Forty-Four: Review

It’s been a long, strange forty-four days. Jefferson County has baked. I can tell, because there is no flour to be had. Jefferson County has gardened. I can tell by all the planting I’ve seen my neighbors doing. Jefferson County has, by and large, stayed healthy. I can tell by this case summary put out by the county.

I suppose I should be relieved and feel safer for that. Instead, I mostly feel sad. Denver County, about 30 miles away, has had 202 deaths. It has had 3,892 laboratory-confirmed cases, out of a population of 619,968. That’s 0.62%. Jefferson County has had 1,160 confirmed cases out of a population of 582,881. That’s 0.19% To me, those numbers illustrate the class divide in this country. Part of the disparity is about population density, yes. And there are plenty of privileged people in the city and county of Denver. Nevertheless, these numbers speak loudly of class.

Our 44 days of staying home have clearly worked for those of us with the privilege of doing it, which is most of the foothill communities. Even for those of us who make up the socioeconomic diversity of the area are massively privileged now. The houses up here, be they humble or not so much, are far apart. Nobody shares an elevator. Most people are able to work from home, and there is a good chance they were already doing it. We complain about the crowds at our parks like it’s the local pastime, but they are paltry in comparison to the parks in the city.

Alderfer/Three Sisters Park.

In my area, I give the stay-at-home order four and a half out of five stars for keeping the privileged safe. I give it two out of five stars for keeping the underprivileged safe.

We talk about the two Americas now to reference our political and cultural alienation. But when John Edwards (yeah, I had to look that up) brought the phrase into the popular lexicon, he was referring to the class divide. That divide seems especially stark now. It is a little hyperbolic to say that it is life or death. Instead, it’s more of the same dynamic that already existed: life or increased risk of death.

And that’s without getting into the racial disparities that lie starkly exposed in the wake of the first wave of COVID19:

And so we should be a little sad as we mark this milestone of moving from stay-at-home to safer-at-home. Those of us who have been lucky and able to stay safe shouldn’t be celebrating our relative success with stay-at-home, we should be mourning, not just for the dead, not just for the bereaved, not just for the ill, but also for equality and opportunity.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

P.S.: I will be using this milestone to revise my posting schedule — a little less frequent because I want to do some more in depth pieces. Thanks.

*** Change *** I initially included the case number for the unincorporated mountain communities in Jefferson County as 14. This was wildly incorrect — I didn’t realize the chart had broken out several of the unincorporated mountain communities separately. The case count in Evergreen, my town, currently stands at 47. Thanks to Cliff Coffey over on Facebook for pointing that out.

*** Update *** The Evergreen Chamber of Commerce estimates that there are 25,000 people in Evergreen. That makes our 47 cases 0.19% of the population, the exact same rate as the county as a whole.

Day Forty-Three: The Economy

I mentioned I have been re-reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Like many, he writes about what makes us Homo sapiens so special. Why are we the dominant organism on the planet, and not lions, or wolves, or bears, or any number of other species that could eat us up in a few big bites?

His theory is that our secret ingredient is the ability to collectively believe in things that have no concrete reality. We started off with the gods, ghosts, and spirits. Whatever your take on God, you’d have a hard time actually, literally, physically pointing at him/her/ze/them (depending on your religion). Religion is, by definition, an act of faith. You might be able to point to something that you see as God’s or The Gods’ work in the world, but you can’t point to a physical manifestation. Maybe your prophets could, maybe you will be able to in the afterlife, but for now, it’s faith.

It’s not just God/Gods. We humans believe in lots of things that aren’t literally, physically there. We believe that our money has value beyond the paper it is printed on or the ones and zeros that represent it (at least I hope we still do!) We believe that the other side of Niagara Falls is somehow, magically Canada, even though it looks the same as this side. We believe in capitalism, communism, socialism, or whateverism.

There is no Canada. Don’t tell Justin.

That doesn’t mean that these ideas we all believe in aren’t real. It just means that they aren’t nouns in the literal sense. They aren’t people, places, or things. I can point to Cuba. I can’t point to communism. I can eat a banana. I can’t eat a ten-dollar bill, but it is somehow more valuable than the banana.

Patriotism, capitalism, communism, socialism, the value of money, God, The Gods, and Canada have real, concrete, literal consequences. Consequences that have enabled a fleshy ape with weak teeth and nails to dominate the planet. And consequences that have, on many occasions, been disastrous for individual (or large groups of) apes, not to mention other species.

All this has got me thinking about the economy. It’s another one of those things you can’t point to, but it sure does have real-world consequences! It is an idea, an act of collective imagination that allows us to cooperate on a staggering scale.

Right now, we are all watching helplessly as it tanks.

If you do a google image search for “economy,” it gives you lots of images like this, but no photos. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

But ultimately, the economy is just a consensus. It is only as good or as bad as we collectively think it is. If investors have a sunny outlook, the stock market goes up. If businesses feel good about their chances, employment goes up. The degree to which such an important idea is based on the collective subjective is a bit gobsmacking, if you think about it too much.

Except it is time to think about it too much, and be gobsmacked.

We humans are great hackers. We hack our computer networks, we hack adulting, and since at least William James, we have been deliberately learning to hack ourselves. If, as a species, we can hack one big collective idea, elections, using Facebook, propaganda, and misinformation, shouldn’t we be able to hack the economy? Can’t we use Facebook and propaganda (which, after all, is just advertising), if not the misinformation, to collectively imagine our way out of this mess?

The economy is only as bad as everyone thinks it is.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

Day Forty: Spring

Escobaria vivipara or Spinystar in bloom.

Spring has finally gotten it’s act together and shown up here in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. It’s about damned time! Like many people, spring is my favorite time of year. The green of new growth is one of my favorite colours, and the bustle of the birds and proliferation of plants suggests an optimism that has been lacking these last few months.

We will get through this. And if we’re really lucky, and all pitch in, we might just come out stronger. The recovery from the Great Recession left so many of us behind. The economy hasn’t met the needs of the working class in decades. This is our chance to reset, reassess our values, and pull a phoenix.

That might just be the weather talking. Sunny optimism isn’t my default setting. Still, it’s nice to think that through a horrible circumstance, we have been given a once in generations chance to change course.

Noccaea fendleri or Fendler’s Pennycress.

The season also reminds us that no matter how awful COVID19 is, it’s not the end. Individual outcomes will vary, but babies will keep being born, the grass will keep turning green, the flowers will keep blooming, the songbirds will keep returning. The planet will certainly survive this hit, and so will humans on the aggregate.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

Day Thirty-Six: History

Woolsthorpe Manor, where Isaac Newton spent his time during the 1665/66 outbreak of the Black Death. He kept himself busy inventing calculus and thinking about gravity. Sometimes good things come out of the worst times.

I spent too much of my day exploring the history of pandemics via this list of links from Pocket. It made me think about how our relationship with death and contagion has changed since antibiotics and vaccines became widespread.

Now it is, in the developed world at least, unusual for kids to have a friend who died from a childhood illness. Stepping on a nail, skinning your knee, cutting your finger in the kitchen, all those little accidents are unlikely to turn fatal. Even malaria is treatable.

For those of us who live in the developed world, our lives are just a lot safer. That’s what makes this so shocking to our modern sensibilities. We are no longer used to the idea that there is an illness stalking us, and we don’t know how to fix it. It almost feels like an affront. How dare this disease come along and have no known effective treatments? Where does it get off not being curable? There is an unspoken collective idea that things like this aren’t supposed to happen, anymore. This is a 1920 problem, not a 2020 problem.

And with the pandemic comes a terrifying larger question. Have we been living in a lull? It’s easiest for us to believe that our relatively safe, well-nourished, reasonably healthy, peaceful times are the result of trending progress. We’ve got a one-way ticket to some kind of utopia, and the train of history is moving us steadily towards it.

But what if that isn’t true? What if we are in for one of history’s brutal setbacks, like the fall of the Roman empire? What if, instead of more countries becoming developed, developed countries are becoming less so, with a mind-bogglingly wealthy elite reaping all the benefits of progress, and the masses falling further and further behind?

The pandemic undermines our faith in a bright shining high-tech future. We suddenly can’t help but see other trends that don’t bode well, especially our polarization and the rise of nationalism around the world, and our changing climate.

We have been living in a bubble. A happy little bubble, where we didn’t have to worry so much about the existential threats that have been with humanity from the beginning. We thought we were conquering history.

But in the long run, history is the ultimate borg. It turns us all into itself. And we have no evidence that trends toward a safer world will continue. We might have to get used to the idea that nothing and no one are really safe, ever, again.

Day Thirty-Two: The End of Recreational Retail?

Have we finally stopped mistaking this for fun? Image courtesy needpix.com.

When I was a kid, my Mom did home daycare. All week she stayed at the house, tending six small, noisy children, baking chicken nuggets, microwaving frozen vegetables, chairing the Clean Plate Club, changing diapers, and gently teaching emotional regulation. More weekends than not, she just wanted to get out.

We couldn’t afford to do much by way of fun activities, and, besides, all the daycare shopping had to get done on Saturday or Sunday. So our weekend excursions were all about shopping. And shopping. And shopping.

Mom could make a day of it like no one else I’ve met. We’d go to Target to scope out the toy section, especially the clearance aisle. But the whole store had to be scoured for items of interest. Three hours later we’d hit the thrift store, where each disorganized item on the shelves had to be examined. Then we’d swing by Sears “quickly” to see if there were any sales on ride-on toys. And there was still the grocery store to go, an aisle by aisle affair. We got home late, tired, hungry, and utterly drained.

I don’t shop this way.

My Dad says I shop like a guy. The goal is to get in, get needed items as quickly and efficiently as possible, and get out. The gender stereotype is probably dated at this point. I expect I shop like most people in my age group and socioeconomic cohort who aren’t particularly into fashion.

I figured out a long time ago that if it isn’t tied to me, I’ll lose it. Designer bags aren’t for me. Image courtesy pixabay.com.

The idea of going out for a day of shopping as a recreational activity has zero appeal to me. Maybe I just never was “girly” enough, but seriously? Bleh. I’d rather be doing so many other things, including just staying home.

I’ve read a couple of articles recently sounding the death knell for department stores. This piece looks at the sector overall, and this is an in-depth profile of sorts of Nieman Marcus, which never answers its own headline question. Really, of course, the death knell has been sounding for a long time. COVID 19 is just likely to be the final nail in a coffin that was already about ready to go into the ground. And when the department store goes, so too goes the shopping mall.

And I say good riddance. We aren’t losing many jobs that weren’t destined to be taken over by robots, anyway, though I do feel awful for the people who might have eked out a few more years behind the counter. Instead we are losing a culturally pernicious pastime.

Recreational shopping was always a perverse idea. Theoretically, recreation should be about renewing yourself. A shopping binge might be fun while you’re doing it, but, unless you have lots of disposable income to play with, retail therapy comes at a cost. In the longer term, instead of renewing ourselves, we renewed debt, anxiety, and clutter. We renewed our time crunch, and we renewed our stress.

All this is not to mention that we renewed a service sector of unlivable low-income jobs, we renewed our carbon footprint, and we renewed our environmentally catastrophic infatuation with cheap plastic crap.

Now we just renew all these things via Amazon.

Still, it’s hard to think of an activity that better symbolizes an unsustainable civilization filled with people living unsustainable lives than a day at the Great American Shopping Mall. And there has to be a social benefit to ditching consumption as its own form of entertainment. Retailers are already getting our money, for their products and for hidden things we all pay for as taxpayers, like the police who are used as security at Walmart stores and all the employees who are using food stamps. We don’t have to give them our leisure time as well.

Full parking lots at the parks is actually a wonderful problem to have.

Maybe it isn’t a coincidence that, as our shopping malls dry up and blow away, our national, state, and local parks are seeing simply hoards of people showing up to recreate in the great outdoors. Too many people wanting to get out to hike, bike, and run is actually a fantastic problem to have in a country with an obesity epidemic. Now we just need to claw back some corporate subsidies to spend on more parks.

I can say for sure that I feel a whole lot better, a whole lot more re-created, after a day in nature vs. a day in stores. So goodbye Sears, goodbye Macy’s, and JC Penney’s, and Sak’s, and Nieman-Marcus. Goodbye weekend days of mercilessly hard tile flooring and the reflection of florescent lights in linoleum. Goodbye to parking lots so vast that forgetting where you parked could eat up hours of your life.

Now I just have to figure out how to tell my nieces, who are just at that age when a shopping mall is actually a desirable place to be.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

Day Twenty-Nine: Essential

Nice work, if you can get it. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I read an article today from FastCompany about all the permanent changes we can expect to see coming out of this. The bulk of it was about how more people would work from home, with a few interviewees selling their different products or industries. Granted, the publication is FastCompany. It’s not exactly your go-to magazine for how the other (not rich) half lives. But the executives featured seemed to have no inkling of the reality for the millions of Americans who don’t work in the corporate world.

In the mean time, the Atlantic published this scathing letter from a Trader Joe’s employee.

Cashiers and shelf-stockers and delivery-truck drivers aren’t heroes. They’re victims. To call them heroes is to justify their exploitation. By praising the blue-collar worker’s public service, the progressive consumer is assuaged of her cognitive dissonance. When the world isn’t falling apart, we know the view of us is usually as faceless, throwaway citizens. The wealthy CEO telling his thousands of employees that they are vital, brave, and noble is a manipulative strategy to keep them churning out profits.

I want to know what kinds of changes the people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder are going to see in the aftermath. More people working from home is great, but it isn’t an option in a lot of sectors.

If this experience has suddenly made us aware of the vital nature of jobs in the grocery supply chain all the way through to the cashier, can we still justify their low pay and lousy benefits? Can we continue to treat our delivery drivers, gig workers, and public transportation workers as “faceless, throwaway citizens”?

Image courtesy of slideshare.net.

How is it that a liberal capitalist economy pays people in essential work so poorly, anyway? Isn’t that backward? Shouldn’t we, as a society, value first what is necessary? How did we wind up with an economy that is like an inverted version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual mean wage for a childcare worker in May of 2019 was $25,510. Farmworkers and Laborers, Crop, Nursery, and Greenhouse were better off at $27,780. Meat, Poultry, and Fish Cutters and Trimmers made $28,810, while Food Processing Workers, All Other got $28,820. Slaughterers and Meat Packers, Ambulance Drivers and Attendants, Except Emergency Medical Technicians, Bakers, Stockers and Order Fillers, and Farmworkers, Farm, Ranch, and Aquacultural Animals all made less than $30,000 per year on the mean.

On the other end of the spectrum, Advertising, Marketing, Promotions, Public Relations, and Sales Managers earned a mean of $143,330, and Personal Service Managers, All Other; Entertainment and Recreation Managers, Except Gambling; and Managers, All Other got $118,710 on the mean.

It’s an interesting chart to look at. I have to admit, I cherrypicked to make my point. Recreation workers are paid poorly, which, it can be argued, makes sense, given that recreation beyond exercise is not a necessity (or at least isn’t generally thought of as such). Doctors are highly paid and are essential.

But the point stands. This crisis has opened our eyes about what jobs are really essential. It’s great that more people in the corporate environment will get to work from home in the world to come. But please don’t tell me we aren’t also going to make some changes for our genuinely, actually, factually essential workforce.

Signing off. Take Care and Take Care of one another.

Day Twenty-Six: What it Could Look Like

How we do that is up to us. Image via Adobe Stock.

A while back, when I was commuting, I ran across an idea on the TED Radio Hour podcast. I think it is in the interview with Naiomi Klein. The subject is what can make a movement hold together? What inspires people to take the big step and actually act, instead of just complaining about things? The interviewee suggests that a crucial ingredient is having an inspiring vision to move towards. It can’t just be about how bad things are, it has to be about how good they can be.

Yesterday I fell down a bit of an internet rabbit hole and landed on this article from The Atlantic on the pitfalls of meritocracy, and how it has mutated into a system that perpetuates hereditary wealth. It’s an interesting article for many reasons, but one thing I picked up on was the phrase ‘time famine.’ I’m not totally comfortable with it — being terribly busy cannot be compared to starvation. On the other hand, it is profoundly evocative of the desperation for downtime that plagues many American families.

I wonder if all these stay-at-home orders will spark some movements. Many households have now had a chance to see what it could look like to have a saner work/life balance and/or work from home. A chance to see how it feels to not be famished for time. Many households have gotten a glimpse, just a glimpse, of what a Universal Basic Income would be like. We’ve all seen what less driving and less shopping look like. And we’ve all marveled at the clear blue skies and quiet streets. Many of us have rediscovered going for walks and bike rides.

Could this be the experience that galvanizes a new environmental movement? Could we wind up fundamentally reassessing our relationship to work? Could we be inspired to live healthier lives and/or simpler lives? Could we take inspiration from many of our Governors, who have emerged as competent leaders, and have a movement towards a saner politics?

In his press conference this morning, Andrew Cuomo said that we need to talk about not just reopening, but re-imagining. This pandemic has caused terrible losses, exposed the disastrous levels of structural racism in this country, laid bare the circus of enraged kindergartners in D.C., tanked our economy, shown us that our economy wasn’t working for a lot of people even before it tanked, and caused suffering and grief. We don’t have control over any of that.

But we can control how we respond. Do we roll over and let things get worse? Do we continue to let tribal political divides prevent us from acting in all of our best interest? Or do we rise and demand that going forward we will have a decent health care system, less income inequality, enough time to do our adulting and then some, genuine equal opportunity, and a sustainable approach to living on this planet? These should all be bipartisan issues. Can this crisis help us see that?

Here’s hoping.

Signing off. Take care, and take care of one another.

Day Twenty-Four: Ambiguity

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I went to a very unusual k-12 school for most of my education. The best way to describe it, without getting too far into it, is to say that it is a free-range curriculum. It’s even called the Walkabout Program.

In order to graduate, in addition to six large and often intensely personal projects, we had to meet, at the time, 27 graduation expectations. These, of course, included basic proficiencies such as literacy and numeracy. But there was a host of other things we were expected to learn and experience, categorized into personal, social, and intellectual domains. Things like accepting and giving help and thinking critically.

One of these expectations has stuck with me strongly, and is something I feel I work on continually. It was phrased as the ability to tolerate ambiguity. Just learning to think about it and acknowledge that it is a challenging part of life at a young age has been of great value.

I’ve done a lot of things in my life that were fraught with uncertainty. I spent an academic year in Nairobi, Kenya, and covered NATO war games as a student journalist. But now the uncertainty isn’t just mine. It’s not so much that I don’t know what is going to happen in my life. In fact, on a day to day basis, I’m pretty sure I’ll be home getting some work done, and going for a walk or a run. But what is going to happen in the world is a huge vortex of uncertainty right now.

This is like learning to tolerate ambiguity expanded by a couple orders of magnitude.

Wouldn’t it be nice if Wall Street had learned about tolerating ambiguity in high school?

Dealing with this level of uncertainty can be excruciatingly anxious. We all want to know what is going to happen next. We all feel a sense of looming threat. The question becomes, how can we re-frame it?

Ask yourself, what if things get better because of this?

There is some possibility that our society will develop the political will to address some of the gaping holes in our social safety net, due to this horrific situation. There is a chance that creative entrepreneurs are, as we speak, developing ideas that will lead to job growth in sectors that don’t exist yet. There is a chance that some of the ceasefires declared because of the virus will become permanent. There is a chance that this will wake us all up to the incremental disaster that is climate change. There is a chance that we will come out of this better, and more united, nationally and globally.

Here’s hoping, and in the meantime we can all learn to tolerate ambiguity together.

Signing off. Take care, and take care of one another.