She appeared to be in her eighties. Standing alone, tightly clutching her purse, anxiously watching the cash register.So begins an incredibly powerful column in today's Washington Post by Colbert King, which I am going to urge you to read and to pass on.
When the total was announced, she handed first one, then two cans of soup back to the cashier. She didn’t have enough money.
THe woman is able to leave with all of her intended purchases because the person in line behind her quietly offers to make up the shortfall. She thanks him and then leaves, with her less than $20 in groceries.
King uses her to start a broader reflection, reminding us
There are people in our community, in our midst, who live like that. Choosing between a can of soup and a package of rice because they can’t afford both.Thus it is personal to him. As someone who taught school for 17 years, and who pays attention to people around me, on buses or metro, in stores, on the street, it is personal to me as well, which is perhaps why his column struck me so powerfully.
Stand with me at the bus stop in the early morning hours. Look at the passengers traveling to their low-wage jobs beyond the city limits. Their faces are mostly brown and black. They used to all be black. My mother and the grandmother of my wife, Gwen, were once among them, both domestic workers.
Please keep reading.
My father's father came to the United States in his teens, and somehow wound up in Utica NY. He became a tailor, but never made much money. In her 60s, after he had died, my grandmother got a real estate license to make money. Five of the six kids in the family graduated from Cornell, all paying for it with a combination of scholarships, campus jobs and what little he could contribute towards their education. The sixth graduated from high school at 16, but did not earn his degree until more than a decade later, because as bright as he was school was not a good fit for him. By then he had to attend part-time while working in the Post Office.
I have never personally known that kind of financial struggle, although there have been times when I was not sure how I was going to pay the next month's bills. Yet each year I have taught students who were homeless. Increasingly I was teaching students where parents had lost jobs, or had their incomes severely slashed. I saw post-secondary educational choices become restricted as the family income declined, or children who were bright who went into the military to earn money for their own educations.
These students were still semi-visible.
Too many of those in our community, who quietly get on buses, clean houses and office and hospitals and hotel, somehow seem outside the sight of many of our policy makers.
Or maybe some of those policy makers and those who pay to put them in office simply do not care about people like those about whom King write, of whom the are many, hard working, or retired and worn out.
King writes that
These American lives were lost on the crowd of Republicans who gathered in Tampa last week.
King reminds us that the elderly lady whose embarrassing shopping experience was the occasion that provoked this column was able to get out of the house, being able to be somewhat healthy, thanks in part to social legislation like Medicare and Medicaid. The people he sees waiting for the bus as they travel each day to low-paying jobs can help care for their families because of programs of public support.
But some, rather than see us as part of a common fabric of society, choose to divide us into makers and takers. And those who are makers, how do they react to the old woman, to the people on the bus?
That old woman in the supermarket and folks like her are viewed as a threat to individual freedom. Those brown and black bus riders are a threat to good old American self-reliance, the makers might argue.King tells us that is part of what is wrong in our nation, attitudes like this, to which he contrasts the words of Julian Castro, who told us that his mother held a mop so that he could hold the microphone.
I will disagree with Colbert King on only one part of his powerful column. He writes
The well-off have no idea what’s on the minds of those bus riders, the little old ladies in the supermarket, or the people who cleaned the toilets and swept the floors after the GOP conventioneers blew town.I think they are very aware that if these people are able and willing to vote, they represent a real threat to the privilege those who classify themselves as "makers" have established for themselves. That is in large part the rationale for the various approaches to voter suppression. Some of the hardworking people barely getting by? Remember, they are riding buses because they cannot afford cars. They will not have drivers' licenses, particularly in inner cities where many of color are congregated, because at least those cities provide public transportation that is affordable.
I would argue that it is part of the reason that inner city schools are often so poorly equipped, because they educate "those kids" whose only real purpose should be to serve the makers, whose education should be geared to create a larger pool of workers and thus keep the wages lower for those who benefit from their labor. It is why the likes of Mitt Romney have no trouble of benefiting from the labor of those who are undocumented until it becomes a possible embarrassment because they are "running for office, for Pete's sake."
King rightly refers to the powerful words of Bill Clinton at the Democratic convention: "We think ‘we’re all in this together’ is a better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own.’ ”
King concludes with one simple sentence:
Sadly, conservatives, led by Romney, Ryan and their well-heeled supporters on the right, will never understand or accept anything other than winner-take-all.And because they view things through the lens of winner-take-all they believe that justifies anything necessary to achieve that win, including outright lying about their own programs and beliefs, and the policies and actions of their political opponents. On the few occasions when the press does its jobs of calling themselves out they obfuscate and they accuse their political opponents of their own sins.
In part some Democrats are equally responsible for such a situation, because for all the rhetoric about building a middle class, a Democratic party that is willing to cut social programs (raising ages of eligibility is cutting benefits) is also responsible for the continuation of the suffering of so many, including that old lady with whom King began his piece. Deciding that you want money from the wealthy to win elections and therefore you will not insist on approaches that would make them have to contribute their fair share prevents you from fully articulating a moral vision that could inspire many in the country, including those hardworking people who vote at such low rates, and whose votes are now being taken away from them by programs imposed on the false ground of supposed voter fraud. To some of the "makers" anyone who will not vote to sustain their privilege and wealth should not be able to vote - and it is only by excluding those votes that they can hope to maintain their positions of privilege, power, and wealth.
As I listened to part of the Democratic Convention on MS-NBC for some of the commentary, I heard Lawrence O'Donnell describe himself as a Socialist. I find myself increasingly tilting in a similar direction, because I see too many people being excluded, I see a country of great wealth yet increasing disparities of wealth and income. How is it we can have so much wealth yet so much poverty? What other highly developed country has more than 1/5 of its children in poverty? How can anyone who reads the entire Gospel claim to be a Christian and not only tolerate such inequity but advocate for even more by cutting the social support programs that even now are insufficient?
King's piece is about Give and Take. For too many those in need are seen as unworthy takers. Look at their rhetoric about those who do not pay income taxes and the argument flowing therefrom that maybe those people should not be allowed to vote, even though for many of them their total taxes come to a rate higher than that of the likes of the Mitt Romneys of the world, whose true total taxation rate is probably less than 10% and thus less than the combined total of payroll and sales taxes paid by many of our working poor.
To argue, as does Paul Ryan, that income from financial transactions should not be taxed at all, or even to allow the continuation of the 15% rate for capital gains while paying for our most basic social safety nets through taxes on approximately the first 106,000 of earned income is to make those already struggling pay for their own safety net while those doing so well do not pay for the benefits the labor of the many provide for them, including the military-industrial complex from which so many of them reap their wealth, even if like Mitt Romney neither they nor their kin ever serve.
This piece is now more of my words than those of King. To me that indicates the power of his column, the thoughts it provokes in its readers.
Obama and the Democrats are far superior to Romney and the Republicans. They are still insufficient. We need a much greater commitment to ALL of our people.
Which is why ALL of us need to pay attention.
All of us need to realize how much our own lives are made better by the labors of those we so often ignore.
All of us need to remember that there are those who still struggle through no fault of their own.
Otherwise we become takers, selfish, benefiting from labor and suffering from which we do not pay our fair share.
That would make us like those selfish people who think their third car and fourth house is more important than the worn-out and the poor being able to obtain basic medical care.
I read Colbert King.
I was moved.
Thank you for reading.
Now what are WE going to do about it?