Shhhhh, don’t say poor!

So now that both the Republicans and Democrats have held their conventions and nominated their men, election season is in full swing here in the US. I am happy to say that I stayed up late and caught both conventions, in the end the Democrats spoke to me a lot more than the Republicans, but that doesn’t mean I am jumping for joy.

It seems as the US settles into a new normal, politicians and pundits alike spend a lot of time talking about the folks in the middle, the so-called middle class, but what I want to know is what does it even mean to be middle class in 2012?

Look, I am just a big mouth in Maine who happens to work on the front lines in social services; I have done it in Chicago and now in Maine. In the past 15 years though, I have seen a change, when people used to seek social services, you could almost always go back and look at their history and see possible root causes for why they needed assistance. It used to be that we could nicely put folks in boxes as to why they were financially insecure; it was addiction issues, health issues, or lack of employment generally due to a lack of skills and or education. What that used to mean is that as a service provider, it was “easy” to try and help that client.

Well, that old way of helping no longer works as we see more and more people who don’t have health, addiction, or lack of skills/education with regards to employment issues. In fact we see more and more people who have substantial work histories, actually hold degrees and until recently were solidly middle class. It’s no longer unusual for me to see employed folks asking for assistance.

The world has changed so much in such a short time and I fear that the powers to be are missing the boat, both camps speak to the middle class, problem is how many folks are truly middle class anymore? I suspect that if we looked at actual tax returns in the US, we would find that more and more people have fallen out of the middle class and regardless of their background, the longer they stay out of the middle class, the less likely they are ever to return to the middle. Some are starting to talk about it, as evidenced by the recent reports that this is just a lost decade for the middle class. Problem is we aren’t all talking about it enough because unless we are personally affected, the idea of being poor or even working class strikes fear in the hearts of most Americans. In America, we like our dreams, it’s why someone making a household income of less than $40,000 will say they are middle class when the reality is they are struggling and depending on the number of dependents they have are often eligible to receive assistance.

In America poverty scares us, it’s why guys like Romney gloss over the poor instead choosing to believe there are safety nets for the poor and even today’s Democrats rarely utter the word poor, poor is scary. But why is poor scary? Why do we cling to clearly outdated labels that aren’t serving to advance any of us? Why do we believe in fairy tales that our hard work alone will make us wealthy? In 2008, many of us wanted hope and change so much so that we pinned our hopes on one man, yet no one man can change the world. True hope and change comes when we are willing to acknowledge our humanity and our truth, then as a collective we can create hope and change for all, but if we are unable to speak truth, how can we hope to change anything?

The myth of hard work and a broken down body

The good thing about being on vacation is that I actually have time to sit and think and that’s what I have been doing since catching the RNC last week. It was an interesting show and I am not necessarily talking about Clint Eastwood’s spectacular performance with the chair either!

Nope, the RNC regaled us with story after story about how hard work will create a fortune. If I didn’t know better, I might think that the reason the economy is in shambles is because the “Central Planners” don’t want us to work hard. (Hey, Mr. Ryan who are these Central Planners that you speak of?) In RNC land and the GOP it seems everyone’s got relatives who were hard working immigrants that came to this country legally and busted their ass and now are sitting back living off the fat of their hard work.

Good old hard work! That’s the key to success and clearly something that those of us with more Democratic leanings must be adverse to, instead, as the GOP seems to believe some of us with Democratic leanings simply want Daddy government to support us.

Have no fear though, Mr. Romney if elected to head this corporation called America (oops, nation!) will create 12 million new jobs so that everyone who wants a job can have a job and wealth and prosperity will reign. So does that mean Martha who currently changes Grandma Susie’s bedpan at the nursing home will be pulling down a six figure salary?

Americans have always believed the myth that hard work will move us ahead; we love the tales of Horatio Alger, that with just enough work, we too can go from pauper to prince. The problem is very few of us move up the ladder with hard work alone and in 2012 it’s virtually impossible. Your chances of striking it rich on hard work alone with no family loot shoring you up or deep network of connections might be on par with winning the Powerball.

While there are plenty of Americans in need of a job, few want to talk about how technology and outsourcing are making many jobs redundant and they won’t be coming back. There is also that pesky fact that we have moved from a nation that produced actual items to a nation that provides services and that service jobs simply aren’t cutting it. Service jobs pay far less than the jobs of yesterday, jobs that many in my family held that allowed them to enter the middle class. You don’t get to the middle class by rubbing folk’s backs or serving them food.

Never mind that the middle class itself is rather tenuous, ask anybody and they will tell you they are middle class. Even when the numbers on one’s tax return say otherwise, everyone wants to be in the middle when in fact more and more of us have slipped from the middle class and chances are we will never see the middle again. I see this daily in my work; people who used to be supporters of the poor are now looking to receive the same services. The middle class is disappearing yet both political parties are choosing not to see that, of course it doesn’t help that the people themselves in greatest need rarely speak up. I am not blaming them, hell struggling to get 3 squares a day and a roof over your head is hard work!  In the US, being poor is considered a deep personal failing, if you are poor, clearly you make bad choices. Never mind that mathematically it’s harder to get to the middle and stay there without extreme good luck or support.

Take a couple with two kids each working at $12.00 an hour jobs, before the tax man gets his pound of flesh that couple would earn a whopping $49, 920 a year. If this couple has to pay childcare they are fucked since in many parts of the country childcare is slowly approaching the cost of rent or a mortgage if they actually want quality care for the kids. Sure on paper this family might appear “middle class” but they really aren’t. It’s just that before the banking and credit bust regular games of 3 card Monte with the family Visa card could pick up the slack that hard work didn’t. Now credit limits have been cut, aren’t rising or the bills are coming due and these hard working folks are slowly starting to realize their hard work isn’t moving them ahead, hell they aren’t even threading water anymore.

Of course, it’s easy to look at the Republican Ken with his matching Allan doll and think, maybe I can get to be like him, never mind that even before Romney started Bain and Company he was hardly poor, hell he was hardly even middle class. Yet in America, with the rapid pace of life our memories are short, hence it’s easy to blame the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for all that is wrong. Rather than looking back 20+ years and seeing that the wheels started slowly coming off this bus a long time ago.

This is not the America of our parents, grandparents and great grandparents where a person knew if they put in their time at the plant, they would retire with a gold watch, a pension and healthcare. This is not the America where paying off one’s mortgage was something that was achievable even for my grandparents who were simple factory laborers yet in the early 1980’s paid off their mortgage, no college degree needed. Then again houses didn’t cost two legs and arms.

This coming week, the DNC will put on their show and while it may speak to more folks, the fact is neither side is looking at the structural damage that has been done in this country. That as a nation our good bones are no longer good, in fact they are quite brittle and that without some major course correction and none of the pandering, we are all doomed. Of course if we are in that 1% aka the ruling class, we will be fine, then again, maybe what we need is for the serfs and peasants to get pissed off. Scary and angry people may be just what the doctor needs to fix this broken down body.