Changing YOYO Into WOOO

This is the second in a series on how the poor in America can band together to make their lives better. The first, "America's Merry-Go-Round Economy," can be found here.

Eighty percent of Americans find themselves on a spinning economic merry-go-round whose ever-faster gyrations threaten to throw them off onto the hard ground of unemployment, bankruptcy and homelessness. A tiny minority are securely ensconced at the center of the wheel, shielded by their wealth and political connections from real danger, but more than 25% of those who consider themselves "middle-class" are just a lay-off, illness or divorce away from losing their place on the merry-go-round.

The Wall Street Journal reported on August 11 about one such couple:

David Olson, 47 years old, said last week he and his wife wound up under the Nashville overpass after he lost a job making cement pipes in Iowa four months ago. The couple came to Nashville for a remodeling job that turned out to be a scam. "I've got five years' experience in carpentry and 10 years' roofing and I can't find a job," he said.

Mr. Olson, his arms and shirt caked with dirt, said life is hard in the swampy woods. The couple woke up to mud after a night of rain. His wife said she is frightened by the dogs that roam around the encampment.

As mosquitoes buzzed, they tried to set up camp on higher ground. They struggled to secure a tarpaulin over their tent to keep out the rain. Mr. Olson's wife, holding onto a pole to prop up the tarp, cried. "I'm not used to living like this."

For a powerful video presentation of the plight of the recently homeless, view "Scraping By," a New York Times video about life in a tent city a few miles from Microsoft's corporate headquarters.

A YOYO Society

For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, "You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land."
Deuteronomy 15:11
The sad truth is that American society is not inclined to provide significant assistance to its poor. Even the mildest of proposals to extend federal unemployment benefits in the midst of 10% unemployment is met with concerns from the Right about the "disincentive" to find work--even when there is no work to be found.

Most of us have internalized a strict "capitalist discipline" that moves us not only to say, "Yes sir!" when the boss says jump but also impels us to consume far beyond our real needs. Those who neither work for a capitalist nor shop in his stores are seen as outcasts and castoffs, a drag in a world which is focused entirely on producing ever greater returns on capital. The poor, even if they have recently fallen into such circumstances through the failure of capitalism to provide full unemployment, are to be whipped and punished rather than helped. Otherwise, the American "work ethic" says, our society will degenerate into a gang of freeloaders.

How ironic that the "capitalist discipline" still constitutes the real moral imperative of American society even though changes brought about by globalization and financialization have greatly reduced the need for American workers. For the past three decades, Americans' role as producers has declined as first manufacturing and then services were outsourced overseas. Americans' preeminence as consumers was temporarily preserved by a succession of financial bubbles that covered the reality of mushrooming trade deficits and personal debt until that cover was blown last fall. Now the capitalists will have to look elsewhere for consumers because the American species of buyer is tapped out.

Still, American society has little but contempt for those who don't have "regular" jobs even though there are none to be had, and who drive old cars (if they're lucky) and wear old clothes even though there is no way to buy something new.

What little effort that is made by government or private charities is all directed toward assisting the poor in climbing back on the economic merry-go-round. Lyndon Johnson's 1964 State of the Union saw poverty as an illness that could be cured not as an ever-present reality to be ameloriated:
Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.
In 1964, with its rapid economic growth and low unemployment, we might have agreed with Johnson that the near-elimination of poverty was possible. By the 1990s, however, our politicians were more openly concerned with applying capitalist discipline even if it was obvious that real full employment would never be achieved. Bill Clinton bragged about ending welfare as we knew it. What he meant was that any form of government assistance to anyone other than the oldest and youngest was to be temporary and conditioned upon the recipient making extraordinary efforts to join the mainstream economy. This has led to the foolish practice, chronicled by Michael Moore in "Bowling for Columbine," of busing single mothers dozens of miles to work in a minimum wage job while providing no child care for the family.

(the relevant portion of the video begins about 2:00 in--warning--badly synchronized)

Private charities, even the most open-hearted, are also captives of capitalist discipline. Habitat for Humanity has one of the finest records of helping the poor of any charity, but the way they provide help has turned recipients of their help into targets. Adopting the American maximum that home ownership lies at the core of the "American dream," Habitat for Humanity deeds the houses they construct to poor families. Capitalists always look for profits, preferably easy profits, and Habitat for Humanity families made a juicy target:

Charles and Ann Williams of St. Paul, Minn., are prime examples. He's a janitor, she's a home child-care provider, and they have three children. Their annual income is $18,187, supplemented by Social Security benefits. In 1995 they built a Habitat house and took a $64,000 mortgage. Since all original mortgages in the Habitat program are interest-free, their monthly payment was just $396.

That changed last year. A flyer advertising an offer to refinance with New Century Financial Corp. in Irvine, Calif., looked tempting. Within three weeks the couple signed papers. The good news was that they were able to unlock $28,000 in equity, money they used to cover debts. But their new $81,000 loan carries an interest rate of 9% and payments of $872 a month, more than half their monthly income. And the loan's adjustable rate can jump to 16% in two years. New Century says it has policies to ensure borrowers know what they're getting into and that it is negotiating with the couple for a new loan on better terms. The Williamses declined comment.

Habitat for Humanity itself has been foreclosing on homes as economic times worsened. The New York Times reported that it had issued notifes to 14 Detroit families:

''We erred too frequently on the side of compassion and sensitivity in the past, and we've got to take steps to rectify it,'' said Mr. Arcand, who joined the organization in January and has been trying to rebuild the Detroit office. ''We had to put the brakes on.''

A charity that is too compassionate and sensitive? Maybe the problem lies in trying to force poor people to live under a middle class paradigm.

Even if charities were to wake up to fact that the current capitalist system has no place for the poor, they will never have the resources necessary to make the lives of significant numbers of poor people better. Habitat for Humanity has built or rehabilitated housing for 30,000 families in the 30 years since its founding. Laudable, of course, but insignificant compared to the 5.4 million American families facing "worst-case" housing needs according to Habitat's own numbers.

More broadly, the dollars available to private charities to help the poor are tiny compared to the problem. While more than $300 billion was donated to charities by Americans in 2008, more than three-quarters of that went to local church congregations and educational institutions. Only $25 billion went to human service charities, of which perhaps half ever makes it to the poor themselves. That amounts to $250 per poor or near-poor person. And even that paltry number fell by 12% in 2008 just as needs were increasing.

The clear message to America's poor:

You're On Your Own --- YOYO.

We Must Transform YOYO to WOOO

Left to fend in a society whose message is YOYO, we poor must recognize that our only hope to better our lives is to work together.

We On Our Own --- WOOO

That doesn't mean that we refuse to accept government or charitable assistance, or that we stop pushing these institutions to do more. It does mean that we change our thinking in three ways:

  • We quit seeing ourselves as clients of charities and recipients of government benefits and replace that self-conception with one that emphasizes our responsibility to help ourselves AND our neighbors while utilizing any and all resources that come our way.
  • We discard the goal of climbing back on the merry-go-round and joining the mainstream economy--a goal that has been forced on us--with a new purpose of improving our lives, the lives of our neighbors and the lives of our children.
  • We must learn to trust one another. That's difficult in an society that seems to have become that land of the hustler and the home of the scammer, but mistrust produces isolation, and we can't survive alone.

Let's apply these new modes of thought to a couple of practical circumstances.

Avoiding Foreclosure the WOOO Way

Let's say that you're one of the millions threatened with foreclosure or eviction because of a job loss, illness, family split-up or a jump in your house payments. You're a month or two behind, but haven't received a notice of default or eviction yet. What can you do to avoid getting thrown out on the street?

You've tried finding a part-time job, any job, but there are none to be had in your area. You've considered borrowing from friends or relatives, but they're all as tapped out as you. If you're hoping that President Obama will come up with a magic plan to save your house, you're out of luck. It's not going to happen. Charities can't help either if you need more than a few dollars on a one time basis.

So consider renting out a room or house sharing. There are hundreds of thousands of people who need to find shelter every month, and many of them will end up homeless unless they have plenty of cash for deposits, a clean credit record and a "steady job."

"Who wants to take strangers into your own home," you might be thinking. But consider this. In a month or two, you may be living next to them anyway, only in a tent city rather than under your own roof. And if you could use a service, a free service, to publicize your opening, and if that service could ask prospective renters a few relevant questions, that would help too. There would no need for credit reports. Would you be happy if the renter wanted to see yours? Just a face-to-face to close the deal, and you could make your payments while helping someone else out.

In the longer term, you and your neighbors might try tackling the growing problem of abandoned houses in your neighborhood. This is more complicated than taking in a boarder, but working together and with some outside help, it would be possible to fill those houses with people who would fix them up and make good neighbors, and the rehabbed houses could be owned by a community-controlled coop that would be secure against anyone's personal creditors.

Buying Groceries the WOOO Way

As Walmart Supercenters have crowded out local markets and even supermarket chains, it has become more and more difficult just to find a place to buy fresh meat and vegetables in poor neighborhoods. The nearest groceries can be miles away and difficult to reach with inadequate public transportation and no car.

Chances are that somewhere on your block there is someone with both a large vehicle and a strong back. That person could take lists from people in the neighborhood who can't get to the store and pick up groceries for people once a week or so. In return, the people who were receiving the groceries could pick up the "delivery man's" grocery tab with a little extra for gas and time.

In the longer run, the community could work together to prepare a vacant lot for a community garden. They could even institute what used to be an American custom of a "common" where people in the community could graze animals like goats or a milk cow. If there was excess, it could be canned or sold to outsiders for a little money to buy seeds, tools, even power equipment.

Resetting Value

Such simple, even simplistic examples are useful to demonstrate these truths:

  • Who we are, what we know and what we can do may be of no value to the capitalist seeking to maximize his profits, but we still have the ability to make better the lives of ourselves, our families and our neighbors.
  • What we have, where we live, what we drive, as shabby and worn-out as these things are, may have no market value, but they can be used to improve the existence of ourselves, our families and our neighbors.
Rather than the shame induced by our built-in "capitalist discipline," we should be feeling pride. Whether they like it or not, nearly all Americans--all but the hyper-rich--will have to get used to living on much less. There's no one in the world left willing to loan our countrymen money so they can continue to live above their means. More importantly, the environment cannot sustain the way Americans have been living. We poor already know how to get by on little, and now we can lead the way in learning how to live better by cooperating with each other and respecting our environment.

New Frontiers

This new attitude can lead to the re-creation of the places where we live as no longer damned by the fact that we are poor but instead communities where life is made better by the skills, knowledge and love of those who live there. In fact, we poor can put ourselves at the vanguard of an effort to make American life both more humane and also more respectful of the environment.

America's poor communities, in the cities and in the farmlands, can be New Frontiers where those who already live there will welcome new residents--outcasts and castoffs like themselves--to re-populate shrunken neighborhoods and towns while bringing new skills, ideas and energy. The alternative is for these places to continue to dwindle, losing businesses, services and schools to the point that they will be vanish under the onslaught of wind and rain or be bulldozed into rubble.

America not only has tens of millions of people who are outcasts and castoffs but also has towns, cities and even entire states that have been cast off and discarded. The deterioration of urban neighborhoods brought on by de-industrialization has only been accelerated by the latest scheme to scam the poor: subprime mortgages. Houses abandoned because of foreclosure now sit empty by the tens of thousands, and the banks that now own these houses either unload them in bulk to absentee slumlords who will use them to further exploit the poor or sit on them as they continue to deteriorate.

America's "heartland," the rural Midwest and Plains states, has been shrinking since the Great Depression. The destruction of family farming brought about by corporate agribusiness has left many farmtowns resembling ghost towns. John Mellencamp writes:

Ghost towns along the highway
Guess no one wants to live around here any more
Ghost towns along the highway
Listen to the wind blow through the
Cracks on the boarded-up doors

First these towns lose population, then a bank and a doctor's office. When a Walmart springs up 30 miles away along some interstate, the closing of the local grocery and hardware stores soon follow. In the last stages, the town's schools close and the few children left there must be bused dozens of miles to get an education.

On one hand, we have abandoned houses and towns left empty to rot or be torn down. On the other, we have the displaced newly poor locked out of most rental properties by the landlord's demands for a steady job and good credit before he'll rent. We can either watch the tent cities grow while perfectly good housing goes to waste, or we can take charge of our own situation and work together to bring in new people with skills, knowledge and a desire to be good neighbors.

A New WOOO World

Most of us didn't have much choice about being thrown off the American economic merry-go-round, but we can choose to pursue a new, more real American dream. If we can manage to leave behind the every-man-a-millionaire foolishness that has bombarded us from birth, it will be possible to employ cooperation and mutual respect to build better lives for ourselves and our families even as the old American dream evaporates for most Americans.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are subject to review prior to posting.