American Hunger Means A Feast for Some

The empty feastStuck in a cab heading north last time President Obama was in town, I had an opportunity to listen to NPR, a station preferred by many cabdrivers.  It was five p.m. and traffic was at a standstill, so I was able to catch most of ‘Marketplace.’  One of the features was about food-stamp assistance and the many thousands of American workers who don’t have enough to feed their families.

One of the persons interviewed was a Walmart employee, who recalled a painful period recently, when she and her family had had to rely on food stamps, even though she was working full-time.  Her voice kept breaking as she talked.  Embarrassed by her hardship, she was fighting back tears.  To me, her experience was extremely shocking, illustrating how Walmart, one of America’s largest, most profitable corporations, is essentially gaming our federal-assistance programs.  Its lowest-wage workers manage to keep going only by using food-stamps to feed their families.  What’s more, when underpaid workers and others receive food-stamps, they often spend them at Walmart and other discount retailers.

An April 15 article appearing in Forbes magazine reports that “Walmart Workers Cost Taxpayers $6.2 Billion in Federal Assistance.”   The article is based on findings of a new study by Americans for Tax Fairness, which estimates that a single Walmart supercenter costs US taxpayers as much as $900,000 and $1.75 million annually, because Walmart pays its employees so poorly that, to meet their needs, many end up relying on food stamps, Medicaid, and low-income housing.

Similar reports released last fall showed that American taxpayers also foot nearly $7 billion of the annual labor costs at McDonald’s and other leading fast-food companies.

Meanwhile, Walmart is thought to be the single biggest corporate beneficiary of food-stamp spending.  The Huffington Post and Wall Street Journal reported last year that the retailer received as much as 18 percent of all the food-stamp dollars spent.  That amounts to $14 billion annually.   Walmart’s total profits were $17 billion in 2013.

Millions of Americans experience “food insecurity”—meaning they do not know where their next meal is coming from.  An astonishing 1 in 7 Americans (47 million people) rely on food-stamps these days.  Even that figure doesn’t represent the number of Americans who are hungry.  Many elderly people who qualify for food stamps refuse to sign up for them because of their pride, according to Eli Saslow, whose reporting on American hunger for the Washington Post has just won the Pulitzer Prize.

I urge you to read or listen to Krissy Clark’s eye-opening 3-part series, “The Secret Life of a Food Stamp,”

Part 1: ‘The Secret Life of a Food Stamp’
Part 2: ‘Save Money, Live Better.’
Part 3: ‘Hungry for Savings’

Only a combination of social pressure, individual choice, and political action can ensure more Americans a taste of the American feast.

Click on the red links for more information about this important issue.

Big Bill Haywood

Union leaders Adolf Lessig and Big Bill Haywood (Courtesy Library of Congress via Flickr Commons)

There’s something raw about the history of the 1910s, a period of depression and unrest, when Americans were engaged in an anxious quest for alternatives.  It was a period of activism, when anti-capitalist sentiment and true human suffering allowed organized labor, still in its infancy, to make significant strides.  At the center of these trends were redoubtable labor leaders like Big Bill Haywood (right), shown here in 1913 with his fellow activist Adolph Lessig.

William Dudley Haywood (1869-1928) was one tough customer, a sometime socialist who helped found the radical labor organization known as the International Workers of the World (IWW), or ‘Wobblies.’  Founded in 1905, the IWW was radical in seeking to organize workers of all types and nationalities, even unskilled workers, in contrast to the other, more exclusive, ‘trade’ unions of the day.

Haywood was born in Utah and by age 15 was working in western copper mines.  By 1900, he had an invalid wife and two children and had gotten involved in the labor movement, skyrocketing to the top of the Western Federation of Miners, a militant union that in 1903 pitted itself against the Colorado mining industry and the state’s government in a bitter strike lasting nearly three years.

Aligned for a time with the fledgling Socialist Party, Haywood ultimately fell out with that group over strategy.  By 1910, his chief interest lay in directly mobilizing masses of people in IWW-led strikes and protests, believing this the surest path to structural change.Big Bill Haywood & followers in Paterson, NJ (Courtesy Library of Congress via Flickr Commons)

Haywood was involved, for instance, in the famous 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, also known as the Bread and Roses strike, whose centennial is now being commemorated.  Lawrence’s textile workers included large numbers of women and teens, and many persons of foreign birth.  Their protests aroused national sympathy, particularly when children of striking parents were sent to New York City for safekeeping.  The strike ended after three months, with workers gaining many concessions to their demands.

The 1912 textile strike in Lawrence (Courtesy of the Library of Congress via Flickr Commons)

Haywood’s star began to set during WWI, when the IWW’s on-going militancy and vision of international solidarity jarred with wartime industrial demands and an accompanying tide of national feeling.  In 1917, Haywood and 100 other IWW officials were arrested on charges of wartime sedition, found guilty, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.  Freed on bail while appealing conviction, Haywood fled to the Soviet Union, where he entered on an ignominious final chapter and died of alcoholism and diabetes a decade later.

His ashes are interred partly in a wall of the Kremlin, while others were sent back to Chicago to be buried in Waldheim Cemetery near the remains of the Haymarket martyrs.

Images: (top to bottom) Adolph Lessig and Big Bill Haywood, from this source;
Haywood and followers in Paterson, NJ (1913), from this source;
and a scene from
the Lawrence textile strike (1912), from this source.

RELATED ARTICLES:
May Day Meditations, Our Polity.
The Strike That Shook America 100 Years Ago, History.com.

Biden’s Arrow Hits Home


Joe Biden has mastered the political stump speech.  Watch the whole of his controversial campaign speech in Danville, Virginia, and you’ll see a great piece of Americana: a politician who knows how to work a crowd, seeking votes in a way that’s entertaining and folksy.  Biden’s allusion to slavery was hardly a gaffe; it was a logical and powerful way to get across a larger point about class and how Republicans have treated it for several decades.

We know Biden’s speech was a big success, because he was immediately excoriated as a dunce and a racist.  Blowback dominated the media for several days.  Romney huffily declared that Democrats had hit a new low and tried to get us to believe that Biden was a dangerous man whose message of division somehow “disgraced” the presidency.

Both sides questioned old Joe’s fitness and utility: Could he fill the presidential shoes if necessary?  Shouldn’t Obama drop him in favor of the sure-fire Hillary?  Democrats behaved predictably, too: instead of championing Biden and endorsing his underlying point, they grew sheepish.  If only they learned unity, the race wouldn’t even be close.

Puncturing the politics of avoidance
Yes, Biden hit a nerve, and he did it by puncturing the politics of avoidance that has been gripping the country.  Ever since the Reagan era, when Republicans managed to yoke together with one seamless ideology the economic interests of the elite with the social and moral concerns of people far more ordinary, class has been diminished as a potent source of political energy.  Republicans wish their supporters to believe that the interests of the wealthy and the less-so are the same.  To the extent that Democrats can pry this apart and present an alternative vision of class in American society, they will gain an important advantage over a Republican party that’s badly weakened already.

After all, this election is not “about jobs” or “the economy,” as Republicans say so blandly: it is about economic inequality and the role of the super-wealthy in our economic life.  It is about whether people like Mitt Romney, who has the whole world as his oyster, care about this nation’s economy and its ordinary people.

Romney would like voters to believe that his interests and theirs are just the same: that, if you feed the interests of his class, all will benefit; the interests of all classes will be served.  If that were the case, the recession would be ending, because American elites can write the script of the unfolding story.  They can decisively aid in restoring the nation’s economic health.  Leaders of America’s corporate class already have far more power than the president to see to it that Americans are more fully employed.

A party that’s drifted from its noble beginnings
Biden’s bald reference to slavery may well have pricked the conscience of Republicans who know how far their party has drifted from its noble beginnings.  In Lincoln’s time, Republicans were not only the champions of abolition: they were devoted to egalitarianism and to securing better economic prospects for lower-class whites.  The most radical Republicans advocated for full racial equality, a bracing proposition given the time.  Republicans were the ones who wanted to discuss such forbidden topics as slavery; it was Democrats who were proponents of silence, who wanted all discussion of “the peculiar institution” gagged.

Yet even then there were Republicans, such as Horace Greeley, who would not join the anti-slavery fight because they doubted whether the nation’s growing free-market system held out a sufficient promise of prosperity to American workers—even when those workers were white.  In the meantime, the persistence of slavery in America proved beyond a doubt that powerful elites, if left to their own devices, could not always be counted on to do the right thing.

Perhaps it was all that history that gave Biden’s arrow such a powerful zing.