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Peter Riva

View from the Edge

Peter Riva of Gila has offered his many years of columns for this online newspaper. His writings have been published in East Coast newspapers, and he decided to share them with me and you, our readers.

Do We Have to Have the Poor?

Date:  August 10, 2012

When I was a kid, Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson all vowed to wage war on poverty. Eisenhower even quoted FDR when he said the nation could not tolerate such poverty in the face of growing prosperity. And yet, every year since 1976 the rate of poverty in the US has grown.

Many, like Marco Rubio attribute poverty to a welfare system that has trapped people, “Every nation on the Earth that embraces market economics and the free enterprise system is pulling millions of its people out of poverty. The free enterprise system creates prosperity, not denies it.” Well, for the growing poor trapped in the free enterprise systems around the world, not lately it hasn’t. Africa has been a free-market local economy for centuries, with 42% below the poverty line.

 Clinton felt part of that free enterprise dream was true – getting work does start the road out of poverty - when he passed the work for welfare bill, the backbone of which was allowing the very poor on welfare sufficient funds to park the kids in daycare and actually try and get a job. If anyone reading this thinks getting a job is easy, pretend just for a week that you have two kids, live on food stamps, have no resources to park the kids while you scrounge for a job. This is not Europe or Japan with employment agencies (government) handing applicants a list of available jobs. And even then, you sit in a room, waiting hours for an interview with a slim chance you’ll be the lucky one. Maybe next week...

Being unemployed is not anyone’s choice. Can it become habit? To survive humans adapt to reality and settle into apathy in order to avoid outright depression. Free TV provides the escapism. Food stamps provide many essentials (not toothpaste or soap!) and as for clothes to appear at an interview with? Your local charity shop is your only recourse.

Meanwhile in Europe, having tried the austerity measures which every economist agrees place a disproportionate burden on the most poor – a poor that the British Prime Minister refers to as “those who do not work” and which Chancellor Merkel of Germany, referring to Greek and Spanish unemployed workers, called “non-workers” – the rate of poverty and unemployed is soaring. Spain has passed 24% unemployed. Why? Because governments can only cut so much from over-stretched budgets. And the more they cut, fewer people have a paycheck to spend on daily commerce. The same rules apply in the USA.

You cannot shut a half-finished bridge or a missile system, or a nuclear submarine under construction. You can slow them down (lay off workers, reduce the hours worked per week), but you cannot cancel these long-term projects. The only domestic thing you can cut are public services and 95% of all domestic government services fall into the category of police, firefighters, teachers,  government employees dealing with permits and licenses, government employees dealing with welfare and social services, public health programs and, of course, medical welfare. Why aren’t government politicians’ staff included? And why aren’t the tax collectors included? Heck, the lawmakers vote to keep their staff and budgets and the latter are actually beefed up to try and squeeze blood from a stone.

So who gets laid off? Is it the police chiefs of New York? Nope, they lay off the lowest paid police officers and part-timers. Is it the fire chief? Nope. Is it the state governor’s staff? Nope. In short, most of those laid off in cutbacks to “save money” are the least well off who fall, quickly, back on the system – a system they have paid into for years, sometimes decades – claiming unemployment and, if necessary, Medicaid. And if you think that doesn’t add to the deficit, you are wrong. What may look like a saving for a short while will result in a two-fold disaster: people justly claiming benefits  as well as increased crime, fire damage, Medicaid budgets for 2013, stagnating businesses that cannot get permits in a timely fashion, failed inspections for safety (especially in airplanes and trains), drilling rig inspections, fracking permits, water rights, emergency rescue teams, snow clearing, sanding, bridge and road maintenance... the list of the low-paid employees’ job arena is long and deep. That’s where the cuts are, that’s where it will not be long-term cost effective to get out of this recession.

Europe has begun to realize that, now trying to put in place a bigger, more resistant 1 billion Euro "firewall" to prevent downsizing contagion spreading. Politically it is swinging away from blanket austerity measures and is trying to right that ship. Meanwhile, with an unemployment rate at less than 50% of Europe, we’re nibbling at the edges of sanity with cuts in local mostly-Republican governed states. Wisconsin will have a huge penalty to pay in the years to come with soaring crime, unemployment bills and social issues with the newly poor. The FBI says that along with new poverty comes crime, violence  and drugs. That’s a fact. Is that a prudent political road to advocate?

We have a way forward: cooperation, working together for a better nation. We have a moral means to achieve this: the common good not only individual benefit. Eisenhower said, “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.” We’re on the cusp of that precipice. There are too many poor in America with a disparity of wealth never before seen anywhere on earth (unless the historians are fiscally right about ancient Rome). Should the rich pay for the poor? No. But the American common good can benefit all. Eisenhower said, “Only strength can cooperate. Weakness can only beg.” The poor are weak, they have either no political voice or seem to be begging, getting welfare (even if they paid for it for years out of their paychecks, the media and the wealthy call it a handout). The wealthy, the affluent in America have to find a way to create work, jobs, spend their money betting on America for the future, not hoarding “in case” while America suffers. It is s self-fulfilling prophesy: If they hoard their wealth and do not put it to good use, America will falter and they will remain wealthy and safe but stateless. For if America falters, the whole world falters. Just ask the Indians, Chinese and Europe. We’re the lynchpin to the world economy beyond a hand-to-mouth existence. As we cut back, as our most wealthy citizens and corporations hoard money, as we increase our nation’s poor, the ripples of our actions are putting people out of work and on bread lines across the globe.

On the other hand, if we create new jobs, new wealth, we can lift the whole world off its knees. And in the end this will make the investors an even greater return for their investments. That’s the real American dream. Put in and get out, capitalism at its best, not undeserved, dangerous, poverty.

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