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.

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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.

How Much Do We Need?

House and fruit stand in Houston, 1943 (Courtesy Library of Congress via the Commons on Flickr)

During the Great Depression, in the 1930s and early 40s, the federal government sent photographers out all over the country to document the condition of the people (and to keep a few more photographers employed).  The effort produced some of the most famous images in American photography, as well as scads of seldom-seen photographs, like this one, now available online.

The pictures capture America at a time when the modern consumer society was just beginning.  Americans drank Pepsi and Coke, bought things on credit, and wore factory-made clothes.  In many parts of the country, though, many Americans still used horses, made what they wore by hand, grew their own food, and did without refrigerators or washing machines.  The “March of Progress” hadn’t yet made it to their neighborhoods, and perhaps some were not all that eager to see it arrive.

Life was tough, but the relative simplicity of Americans’ material conditions brought clarity.  It was easy to see the relation between work and the standard of living people enjoyed.  Then, as now, many Americans lived in a precarious state or in out-and-out poverty.  Society was less knit together in a corporate economy, so the solitude of failure was a specter individuals lived with daily.  The wedge between the hard work of getting and the easy work of spending was already there, but there were far fewer goods to buy.

A tension had already developed, between the industrial output of the US and the capacity of individual citizens to consume all of what the nation made.  As early as the 1890s, the government and corporations began pushing to develop markets for our products overseas, producing the kind of globalism that prevails today.  No one has ever figured out what to do when the goods in the world exceed what the human population wants or needs.

Today, in a time of high long-term unemployment, commentators fret about “low consumer confidence.”  We’re told this is the reason American corporations are reluctant to hire.  Yet it’s perverse to hope that Americans will spend when they are in debt, unemployed, and impoverished.  It’s amazing how much more “confident” a consumer feels when he or she has a paycheck or a real wad of money.

Corporations and banks show their contempt by sitting on hordes of cash rather than making it a priority to hire American workers, which would ease our collective difficulties.  Meanwhile, we have lost sight of economic independence as an important goal of a free people.  In the midst of this antagonism, we need to keep asking, how much do we need?

Top image: House and fruit stand in Houston, photographed by John Vachon, 1943,
from this source
.

How the Fed Makes Us Lazy—and What We Can Do

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/3f/Ben_Bernanke_official_portrait.jpg/512px-Ben_Bernanke_official_portrait.jpg
This is not a post about hating the Fed and how we should get rid of it.  This is a post about the rest of us and how convenient it is to have the Fed to complain of.

I was tempted to title this post, “The rabble are out to crucify Ben—there’s even a Judas” (now that Paul Krugman, the Fed chief’s former Princeton colleague, has taken to assailing Benanke’s performance in print).  But that would have been just one more example of the phenomenon I’m out to criticize: finger-pointing.

It would be tough to judge a finger-pointing contest these days.  As the economy flails in the long wake of the financial crisis, everyone in every party seems to be training to become a finger-pointing champion.  What interests me about the attacks on the Fed, however, is that even anti-government types now seem caught up in thinking that tinkering with the government is the key to solving problems that—let’s face it—the American private sector created.

The federal government is powerful, but more powerful still are the aggregated interests that pump out more than $15 trillion worth of goods and services a year.  That was our GDP in 2011, a CIA Factbook figure.  If you hold a job, work in a profession, run a multinational, or own a small business, you are part of that great engine.  Simply put: we are the economy.  The mess is ours.

Perhaps this is why we feel such scorn for Ben Bernanke, a man so sincere and conscientious it’s irritating.  Love him or hate him, it’s hard to claim he isn’t doing his utmost to fulfill the Federal Reserve’s dual mandate, which is to stabilize prices AND move the country toward full employment.

That’s right: one soul at the helm of the Federal Reserve, believes that, by controlling the amount of money in circulation, he can sufficiently influence the sort of corporate decision-making needed to end joblessness.  He hopes that, by tweaking our monetary policy, he can prompt our American brothers to give another American brother a job, until every brother and sister in our economy is once again working.

This is why, in Mr Bernanke’s increasingly frequent public appearances and statements, he can be heard fretting about, say, whether long-term unemployment could lead to a permanent loss of human capital in the economy.  He truly believes that getting all of America back to work is his responsibility.

He may be the only American who feels that, unfortunately.  This is why hating the Fed is so misguided and self-deceiving.  Hating the Fed is a cop-out, a lazy habit that absolves the rest of us from looking around us and asking who else might bear some responsibility.  Our national preoccupation with monetary policy is a convenient dodge, diverting us from the fact that we ourselves could do something.

We are the economy.  Regardless of the shortcomings of the Fed and Mr Bernanke, we owe it to the jobless to recognize their lot as a social, civic, and humanitarian problem, one that’s in our power as a society to remedy.

Should we destroy the one thing that’s working?
Obviously not.  The Fed would matter a lot less if we could manage to get some other things working as well as it does.  If we didn’t have institutions like the Fed, it would be up to Americans in their respective states and communities to figure out how to alleviate joblessness and destitution and restore prosperity.

This was our lot earlier in our history, when Americans operated with a mere fraction of what now passes for economic understanding.  In those times, punishing downturns such as those occurring in 1837, 1873, and 1893, led not only to protracted suffering but also to constructive cultural and social ferment, an outpouring of philanthropic zeal, and more than a little genuine soul-searching.

The Panic of 1837, for instance, prompted the formation of some of our earliest urban relief organizations, while the banking crisis of 1856 gave way to a religious reawakening in 1857 known as “the Businessmen’s Revival.”  Chief among the converts were Manhattanites who concluded their own godlessness and greed were to blame for the economic adversity they were suffering.  Such heartfelt contrition and public avowal of responsibility, even in secular form, have been all but missing from our present-day financial crisis.

We can’t hope to lessen joblessness if we don’t recognize our obligations to one another.  We can’t hope for national prosperity when so many of our fellow Americans are jobless and poor.  The common-sense idea that we must care for one another, even if only for selfish reasons, is crucial if we are to re-energize our economy.  It might not be an idea Ben Bernanke can teach us, but it sure is one that we can use.

Want help  •  Foreswear laissez-faire  •  Use all the tools
Hire a fellow American  •  Talk to the rich guy

RELATED:
Susan Barsy, Fiscal Policy is not Economic Policy, Our Polity.
Dean Baker and Kevin Hassett, The Human Disaster of Unemployment, New York Times.
Rick Newman, To Fix the Federal Reserve, Fix Congress First, US News.
George F. Will, The Trap of the Federal Reserve’s Dual Mandate, Washington Post.
Ken McLean, The Fed’s Dual Mandate Dates to a 1946 Act, Washington Post.

Image: Official portrait of Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke, from this source.

May Day Meditations

Chicago's May Day Parade along Jackson Boulevard (Credit: Susan Barsy)
I WAS RUSHING out of my office building the other day when I ran smack dab into a May Day parade.  It took me a minute to realize it wasn’t just another Occupy rally.  No, the date was the first of May, when, by tradition, workers around the world take to the streets en masse, their parades a vivid display of emotion and identity.

Chicago police watching the 2012 May Day parade (Credit: Susan Barsy)It was striking was how un-specific this demonstration was.  It didn’t have much to do with labor in particular or something specific workers might actually need.  It seemed to have more to do with how unfair life is—a general proposition we might all assent to.

Bystanders watching the Chicago May Day parade at Dearborn & Jackson (Credit: Susan Barsy)Seeing the marchers made me think about how much the nature of work and the status of workers in the US has changed over the decades, since May Day observances first began.  International Workers Day, as it is officially called, was instituted to mark the anniversary of the Haymarket disturbances in Chicago when, in 1886, violence erupted as police sought to dispel a crowd that had gathered to protest police brutality toward workers demonstrating for the eight-hour day.  Eight policemen were killed, an unknown number of protesters were killed and injured, and 4 probably innocent demonstrators were later hanged in what was one of the most infamous incidents in labor history.

May Day protesters in front of the Dearborn Street Post Office, Chicago (Credit: Susan Barsy)The heroic struggles of those earlier generations of workers were quite remarkable.  Their disciplined efforts brought about many important gains: the abolition of child labor, the minimum wage, safety inspections, the 40-hour week.  Without the labor movement, most of us would not have anything like the standard of living we enjoy today.  One has only to dip into Freidrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Classes in England or Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills or Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives to recall why their struggles were necessary.

Bits of that story are told in photographs such as these, preserved at the Library of Congress.

Children wearing sashes in Hebrew and English bearing the words "Abolish Child Slavery"These girls were photographed on May Day in New York City in 1909.  Their sashes bear the words “Abolish Child Slavery” in English and Yiddish.

African American protester in 1909 wearing a hat card with the words "Bread of Revolution"This protester was a member of the I.W.W. (International Workers of the World), also known as “the Wobblies.”  Wobblies believed in the international brotherhood of labor and dreamed of improving conditions of workers the world over.  A labor movement like that today would still have much to do.  Looking at this photo makes me think of some of the labor movement’s missed opportunities.

Photograph of female garment workers in NYC parade, 1919 (Courteay Library of Congress)
In good times and bad, May Day has inspired expressions of worker pride, as displayed in this wonderful photograph of female garment workers in 1919.  You would never guess from looking at these ladies how very punishing their occupation was.

Maybe that is one of the differences between that era and today: whereas, then, many workers suffered from conditions that were local and immediate, the costs global capitalism inflicts on American workers are more abstract and harder to see.

There was a great deal to ponder in even a fleeting glimpse of a modern May Day parade.

Additional information regarding Library of Congress images:
here and here and here