Tag Archives: America

What Comes After Darkness

Yesterday, my wonderful daughter-in-law sent me this You Tube speech by a young woman, an American Sikh lawyer, that–as she predicted–blew me away.

It appears to have been taped at a “Moral Monday” gathering, and it is eloquent and obviously heartfelt.

It’s short–under six minutes–and I urge you to watch it all the way to the end.

The message–the “takeaway”–is profound: darkness can be terrifying. It can signal death, the end of something, a descent into chaos and despair. Or it can be, as she points out, the darkness of the womb, the darkness that precedes a birth and a new beginning.

And as she points out, and every woman who has ever given birth knows, when you are giving birth you do two things: you breathe, and you push.

This lovely young woman reminds us that it’s up to all of us to breathe and push–to use this very dark period America is experiencing as a prelude to birthing a renewal of community, of civic participation and courage, of human connection and commitment to leaving a better, brighter world to our children.

Or we can shrug our collective shoulders and cede control to the looters and influence-peddlers who are currently (and shamelessly) treating American government as their piggy-bank and the rest of us their obedient stooges.

Two Paths Diverged in a Wood….

When news outlets reported that former New York Governor Mario Cuomo had died, I couldn’t help thinking of Robert Frost’s famous poem, the one that ends:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

It isn’t entirely apt, because Mario Cuomo actually represented the path “less traveled,” but the enduring message of Frost’s poem–at least to me–is that we choose the paths we will travel, and those choices do, indeed, “make all the difference.”

Mario Cuomo is probably best remembered for his speech to the 1984 Democratic convention, in which he criticized Ronald Reagan’s sunny description of America as “a shining city on a hill”–describing it as the worldview of a man unaware of poverty and unconcerned about impoverished Americans. “Mr. President,” he said, “you ought to know that this nation is more a ‘tale of two cities’ than it is just a ‘shining city on a hill.’ ”

Cuomo himself came from a poor, immigrant family, and he never forgot the struggles of his family and the families in the neighborhoods he grew up in.

Cuomo’s antipathy to the death penalty was undoubtedly rooted in his Catholic faith, but it was a position that he defended with secular logic. He was deeply religious, but (unlike so many of today’s ostentatiously pious politicians) he understood the difference between religion and government, and why keeping that bright line between them was necessary both to authentic faith and effective governance. His principled belief in church-state separation led him to defy the Catholic hierarchy and publicly defend elected Catholic officials who opposed both abortion and use of the power of the state to impose that opposition on others.

Brilliant and uncommonly thoughtful, Cuomo was an articulate voice for the “little guy” and a powerful advocate for the importance of government.

In his first inaugural address as governor he called on state government to “be a positive source for good.” But–as the New York Times noted in a column after his death– the speech “also offered a critique of Reagan policies and a liberal vision for the country. Fiscal prudence, Mr. Cuomo asserted, did not prevent government from providing “shelter for the homeless, work for the idle, care for the elderly and infirm, and hope for the destitute.”

At the time, Americans (including yours truly) rejected both Cuomo’s view of the civic landscape, and his belief in the possibilities of government.

In the 1980s, two political paths diverged in America. We chose the one that was easier, the one that asked less of us–the path that allowed us to believe in our own superiority, blame poor folks for their poverty, and pursue policies that benefited the already comfortable.

And that has made all the difference.

We’re Number One!

Over the past couple of decades, a number of conservative politicians have championed a distorted American Exceptionalism characterized by the jingoistic boast, “We’re number one!”

According to a recent report highlighted by The Hill, one area in which we are indeed number one is child poverty. Currently, more than 46 million Americans live in poverty, and more than a third of those are children. The U.S. child poverty rate is 22 percent – the highest of any of the rich countries.

Congressional Republicans like Paul Ryan and state-level politicians like Indiana Governor Mike Pence blame child poverty on single mothers, and insist that the way to address the problem is to incentivize marriage. That “solution” ignores the fact that in countries with similar rates of unwed motherhood and a more robust social safety net (think Scandinavian countries), child poverty rates hover around 3 percent.

Attributing child poverty to low rates of marriage also flies in the face of a good deal of recent research suggesting that people who enjoy financial security are more likely to get and stay married. Indiana Governor Pence recently shared a statistic that upper-income folks and college graduates are more likely to have stable marriages as evidence that marriage brings financial security. Actually, it’s the other way around; people who aren’t sweating the rent are more likely to stay married.

As we academic types are wont to point out, correlation is not causation.

If unmarried mothers are not the cause of childhood poverty, what is? At a recent conference hosted by The Roosevelt Institute, the Century Foundation and the Academic Pediatric Association, participants considered the causes and consequences of poverty experienced by a significant percentage of the nation’s children.

Low-wage jobs are an obvious culprit. At least 30 percent of poor children live in homes where one parent works full-time. Full time work at the current minimum wage, however, cannot lift a family of three above the poverty line. Worse, most minimum and low-wage jobs are tenuous. Not only are benefits rare, but parents who miss work to care for a sick child are likely to see their pay docked while also risking termination.

Congressmen earn a base salary of $174,000 per year, so it is probably not surprising that few of them seem to understand the stresses poverty exacts from children. These children grow up in very unstable circumstances, with caregivers (usually mothers but increasingly grandparents) whose struggles to make ends meet sap time and energy that the more fortunate can devote to parenting.

If Congress is unlikely to recognize the social and human costs of an inadequate safety net any time soon, there are at least some state and municipal-level initiatives that hold promise. Several cities, most notably Seattle at $15 per hour, have recently raised their minimum wage. And the Massachusetts legislature has just approved a measure that will gradually raise that state’s minimum wage to $11 an hour by 2017, up from its current $8 level. Governor Deval Patrick is expected to sign it into law.

New York City and Memphis, Tennessee are experimenting with cash transfer programs, and a variety of cities have instituted home visitation programs meant to provide education and other services to low-income families, in an effort to improve cognitive and health outcomes for children in those families.

As promising as several of these experiments are, they are no substitute for a wholesale rethinking of this nation’s approach to poverty, especially as it affects our children.
The past decade has been dominated by a political rhetoric that can only be characterized as Social Darwinism – the belief (bolstered by a distorted Calvinism) that people are poor because they are somehow morally defective, that they are “takers” or lazy or “lack middle-class values.”

Little by little, those stereotypes are being challenged by sound research and by the stories of real people – by the nascent movement for a living wage and ample economic research demonstrating that a living wage benefits the entire economy, not just low-wage workers. That story needs to be told, and retold.

When it comes to child poverty, America should not be number one.



And Now For Something Completely Different….

I tend to use this blog to blow off steam…to rant/pontificate/lecture about politics and policies that set me off. And generally, or so I would argue, the topics addressed raise important policy questions.

In the scheme of things, today’s rant is about something that is pretty trivial–at least in the overall scheme of things. Unless you agree with me that esthetics and the built environment are important elements of our common life, and American consumerism has gotten out of hand.

Yesterday, my husband and I packed, threw our stuff in my car, and left for a long weekend near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Our granddaughter is visiting from England, where she has lived for several years, and cousins and other family are getting together with her in a large cabin–excuse me, chalet–that our daughter rented outside Gatlinburg.

The closure of I65 through most of downtown (in order to fix problems that were inexplicably not fixed during the last shutdown) was a minor irritant, but no biggie. The mysterious six-mile slowdown on I75 south of Lexington was more annoying–we inched along at 4-5 mph, surrounded by trucks and SUVs, with no sign of the cause of the slowdown. Suddenly, we were moving again, but there was still absolutely no sign of the impediment that caused the problem. Okay, these things happen.

But then. Then we entered Pigeon Forge.

If you have never been to Pigeon Forge, you won’t believe what I’m about to tell you. Las Vegas is tacky and ugly, but next to Pigeon Forge, it’s a model of urban charm.

We were in a line of incredibly slow-moving traffic on the main drag, so we had ample opportunity to see it all: the signs inviting us to a fun dinner and show featuring the Hatfields and McCoys, and others promoting the wonders of the mind-reading pig; the huge upside down house (purpose unknown) open for touring; the replica of the Titanic, also open; and a truly indiscribable construction representing several New York buildings, with a gigantic King Kong hanging from the apex and holding a biplane. Or something.

It evidently housed a Cracker Barrel.

In between these unnatural wonders were strip centers of every variety. Tattoo parlors competed with drug stores and discount warehouses–Manny’s of the Mountain, anyone? There were waterparks. Dollywood. And of course, motels. Everywhere. There were cutesy inns, there were massive, cheap-looking ‘lodgings’–all vying for the tourists for whom this entire embarrassing landscape was created.

Then there were the signs. Neon lights, LEDs, and huge billboards. Everywhere.

If you don’t believe that scale is important, you should come to Pigeon Forge–then contrast it to Gatlinburg, where many equally tacky buildings are rendered inoffensive because they are densely packed into a walkable, urban-scale village. In Pigeon Forge, nothing is walkable–hence the four-lane, treeless main street and the widely-spaced insults to architecture.

The effect of all this was profoundly depressing, and not just because there was no evidence anywhere that the place had ever been visited by anyone having the slightest bit of taste (good or bad). It wasn’t even because the layout and traffic were designed–if that’s the word– to create gridlock. It was depressing because this ‘business model’ evidently works. People come here–lots of them, from the looks of it. They get their tattoos, go to dinner to gape at the Hatfields and McCoys, visit Dollywood and for all I know, have their fortunes told by the mind-reading pig.

I’m not sure what the existence of Pigeon Forge tells us about America, but it can’t be good.