The Rich and the Rest of Us
A Poverty Manifesto
By Tavis Smiley and Cornel West
With history as our guide, we can chart the moment Americans got addicted to credit cards and the quest for the American Dream became a shopping-mall like adventure. Spending a cold night camped out in a parking lot to be the first in line when a store opens and getting trampled by a crowd competing for "the sale of the day" doesn't even seem to matter. But deep down we knew we'd never attain the lifestyles we saw on television. As brainwashed, robotic consumers armed with unending credit, we sought to transform our living-large fantasies into reality. Now, our supersized ambitions have been downsized.
The "new poor" find themselves standing shoulder to shoulder at the welfare office, food pantry, or thrift store with people they used to disregard. As the politicians they elected predict a doomed "entitlement nation" and boast of shredding the poor's safety nets, the former middle class tries to reconcile these contradictions by clinging to the belief that this is a temporary destination, that somehow "they" are still better than "those people."
How do we get folk to understand that there is no "they," there is no "them"? Too many American are falling through gaping holes scissored out of America's safety net. Income inequality is real. There is an institutionalized divide between the wealthy and the poor, so that what we now have are the rich and the rest of us.
The new poverty numbers are forcing middle class families to rely on services that traditionally impoverished Americans have depended on for years.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2012 figures, over 46 million Americans (14 percent of the population) are now living on food stamps with the average recipient receiving $150 worth per month. Actually, "food stamps" have had a makeover in America. During the late 1990s, the government phased out the facsimile printed money for a specialized swipe-as-you-go debit-card system that can be processed for purchases in grocery stores and major retailers just like any other consumer.
For most of us, 46 million people poor enough to qualify for food-stamp debit cards is a depressing thought. But for banking and investment giant JPMorgan Chase, every time a new welfare debit card is issued, profits tick up a notch. The company is the largest, first, and only contracted processor of food-stamp benefit cards in America. In 2009, two years after the recession officially began, the company posted profits of $11.7 billion on revenues of $115.6 billion - a 109 percent jump and a 14 percent increase over the previous year. Christopher Paton, manager with JPMorgan's public-sector benefit payments division, described how the welfare card division contributed to company profits:
"Right now, volumes have gone through the roof in the past couple of years. The good news, from JPMorgan's perspective, is the infrastructure that we built has been able to cope with that increase in volume."
We recognize that the President's health care reform bill will make health care more available to millions of Americans in 2014, but we are also cognizant of the aggressive efforts, particularly from the Right, to overturn the bill. Regardless of partisan political machinations, no American should die because they lack health insurance or access to quality health care. Medical insurance with the single-payer option should become a reality for all Americans, and we must invest in publicly funded community health centers and hospitals. Then the poor and uninsured will have other options than emergency rooms as their only source for primary care or early death.
Comment: Much has been written about the social justice topics addressed in this book by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West. "The Rich and the Rest of Us" is of particular value because it is written in a style that all of us, not just policy wonks, can easily understand and resonate with. It includes "The Poverty Manifesto" which hopefully will re-prioritize our thinking, moving us forward with an action plan to achieve social justice for all.
Single payer activists who are frustrated with the lack of progress in advancing a model of health care financing that is a moral imperative, will recognize a major hurdle touched upon in their book. There is no "they," and there is no "them." There's only "us," and that includes the 1 percent. We're going to have to do this together.