Wednesday, November 30, 2011

True Poverty and the Occupy Movement

It has, at times, been amusing to overhear conservative criticism and fear of the Occupiers. Many believe that the protesters want some sort of socialistic notion like a wealth redistribution scheme. It was this same insincere, disingenuous anxiety that Joe the Plumber, then John McCain gave voice to during the last election. Few leftists have ever proposed such a scheme with a straight face. It's a concept more in line with Stalinist Russia than America, circa 2011. What has never really been taken into account, however, are sure-fire methods that might give the have not’s an ability to sustain wealth for generations. For example, nearly one in five schoolchildren now lives in poverty in the United States. This income disparity often exists in rural parts of the country, rather than within cities or suburbs.

In Alabama, for example, 39.6% of all Wilcox County residents live below the poverty line. Wilcox Country is part of the Black Belt area of the state, a majority African-American region sometimes referred to as Alabama’s Third World for its sustained lack of adequate basic services and sufficient household income. Ironically, the fertile soil of the region was ideal for growing crops and sustaining plantations. It provided plentiful income for the 1% of its day. Slavery may have long been outlawed, but the unpaid descendants of the peculiar institution have remained in the same location for at least the last two centuries.

Alabama has struggled with generational poverty, which means that generation after generation of families have been poor. But now, Tilly said, job losses because of the rough economy are pushing new families below the poverty line.

I would like to see an Occupy demonstration in the Black Belt. Its residents have been an overlooked part of the 99% well before anyone thought to frame the argument in those terms. Though financial problems are troubling, regardless of the individual situation, I have long believed that any solution that does not take into account the least of us will never succeed. Good times may arrive again in a while, that is for some of us. Camps may be taken down. Grievances may be met. But for the residents of Wilcox County, they will likely be nearly as poor as they always were. The results of a booming economy rarely make a dent in the overall quality of life for this sort of crippling, institutionalized poverty.

If Occupy wanted to resemble the inspiring movements of time past, it might take into account the most basic of needs. Once, and not all that long ago, people of all races, creeds, colors, and privilege left their comfortable existences. All of this was in an effort to register to vote several black residents of rural Southern counties. Many of the people had never before been able to participate in direct democracy. Brave people left the North and headed down on busses, sometimes facing physical assault, often being threatened with insults. Others put their lives in danger in a multitude of ways, over and over again, with a kind of fierce, firm resolve. That same sort of spirit is needed today. That sort of communal, unselfish participation is needed today.

The basic challenges present now for many people I know personally is demoralizing and frustrating. Many of my friends have dealt with lengthy periods of unemployment, this despite holding multiple degrees and the student loan debt to prove it. Some have had to return to their parents’ house for basic lodging, which I call retreating back to the womb. These are embarrassing and pride-wounding decisions to make, but they have little to no choice in the matter. Others have swallowed hard and taken money from family. None of these acts, however, can be defined as a catastrophe. Returning home is, at least, an option on the table. Sympathetic middle class parents can provide temporary stimulus relief funds. The poorest of the poor, by contrast, have never had this ability. They, like Blanch DuBois, have always had to depend on the kindness of strangers. Sometimes our kindness is conditional. Sometimes it is fickle. Often it is simply not present.

Occupying Wilcox County, for example, would not make much sense based on current strategy. It may be worthwhile for those camped out to appreciate the benefits of city living. Without adequate sources of free meals and sleeping bags, the movement wouldn’t be able to sustain itself. But the question then becomes which 99 percent we are referring to, really. This then reveals that there’s a vast amount of variation in making that distinction. The stratification and delineation between those who are not independently wealthy on the other side of the line is appropriately vast. We may all be members of the 99%, but if this is class war as some think, we see a battle being raged between the wealthy and the middle class, by in large.

If it is morality and perspective that is needed most here, we may all need a reminder.

For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

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