Monday, May 31, 2004

Microsoft stands by cuts in benefits

Update: Microsoft was embarrassed by the response to its benefit cuts--as they should have been--but aren't backing away from them. So much for 'listening to employee feedback'.


The man in charge of Microsoft Corp.'s worldwide personnel efforts didn't exactly expect employees to celebrate the company's decision to scale back aspects of its benefits package. He knew it would be tough news for many of them to swallow.

But Ken DiPietro says he was still a little surprised at how the response unfolded, with thousands of employees expressing their displeasure in what became a very public manner.

"I feel badly about it. I understand the emotion attached to it," said DiPietro, Microsoft's corporate vice president for human resources.

"I think we probably could have done a much better job internally of messaging and communicating the changes and giving a little bit better context."

Those changes include less vacation time for new hires, a smaller discount for employees on Microsoft stock and the introduction of a co-payment for certain brand-name prescription drugs.

Employees, in an unusual display of dissent, strongly criticized the cuts in an informal, internal poll that was leaked to the media and reported widely last week.
More than criticizing the announced changes, however, some employees worry that the cutbacks are a sign of things to come -- as Microsoft tries to reduce expenses in a broader effort to improve profit margins as revenue growth slows.

DiPietro did not put that issue to rest. "I'm not going to comment on that. The reality is that every year we look at the total portfolio of compensation and benefits that our employees enjoy, and we make modifications in those elements -- or not, depending on what the data says and what the surveys say and what employee feedback is."

But despite the employee reaction to the latest announcement, the company doesn't plan to reconsider its plans, he said. He cited the work that led to the decision, including market research, employee focus groups, surveys and other measures.

More on this later--there are ramifications for both workers and taxpayers in part of this plan. (To read the rest of the article, click the title.)

What Studs Terkel's 'Working' Says About Worker Malaise Today


Published: May 31, 2004 by the NY Times

Babe Secoli, a supermarket checker for nearly 30 years, is proud of her dexterity in moving items along the conveyor belt. If asked, she will do a little dance, showing how she hits the keys on the cash register with one hand, pushes the food along with the other and intermittently whacks the conveyor-belt button with her hip. She knows what everything costs — the price list on the register is, she says, only "for the part-time girls." Almost everything amuses her, especially the rich ladies who drop in to shoplift meat. "I'm a couple of days away," she says, "I'm very lonesome for this place."

Ms. Secoli's is one of the dozens of throaty, acerbic voices in "Working," Studs Terkel's oral history of working life, which was published 30 years ago this spring. When it appeared, "Working" was a revelation, a window on the thoughts of Americans who were rarely heard from: hospital aides, skycaps, gravediggers. Many of the interviews follow a similar, surprising trajectory, beginning with mundane workplace details but quickly moving on to existential thoughts. Even for the lowliest laborers, Mr. Terkel found, work was a search, sometimes successful, sometimes not, "for daily meaning as well as daily bread."

The oral histories in "Working" are wistful dispatches from a distant era. The early 1970's were the waning days of the old economy, when modern management practices and computers were just beginning to transform the American workplace. In the last 30 years, productivity has soared, but job satisfaction has plummeted. It is hard to read "Working" without thinking about what has gone wrong in the workplace.

Mr. Terkel's ragtag collection of little-guy monologues was a runaway best seller. Part of its appeal was the unusual, occasionally illicit glimpses it offered into the ways of the world. "If you work nights and it's real quiet, I don't think there's an operator who hasn't listened in on calls," a switchboard operator says. "The night goes faster." A gas-meter reader tells of the codes meter men put on customer cards when there was an attractive woman in the house.

Mr. Terkel's interlocutors also offer deeper insights. A parking lot attendant holds forth on why working people are better tippers than Cadillac drivers. A prostitute reflects that she was "the kind of hustler who received money for favors granted," not the kind who "signs a lifetime contract for her trick," or who "carefully reads women's magazines and learns what it is proper to give for each date, depending on how much . . . [he] spends on her."

It is striking how many of Mr. Terkel's subjects have found the meaning he says they are looking for. "Obviously I don't make much money," a bookbinder says, but she still loves repairing old books because "a book is a life." A gravedigger recalls how impressed a visiting sewer digger was with his neat lines and square edges. "A human body is goin' into this grave," he says proudly. "That's why you need skill when you're gonna dig a grave."

There are disgruntled workers in "Working," who feel caged in by their jobs, but many others exult in their ability to demonstrate their competence, to show off their personality and to perform. "When I put the plate down, you don't hear a sound," a waitress says. "If I drop a fork, there is a certain way I pick it up. I know they can see how delicately I do it. I'm on stage."

The 1970's were a slower age, and much of the workers' pleasure in their jobs is related to the less-demanding time clock. A hospital billing agent can take time off from dunning patients to look in on a man whose leg was amputated, who has no one to care for him. "If he's going to live in a third-floor flat and he doesn't have anybody home, this bothers me," she says. A stewardess says she is supposed to spend a half-hour on a Boston to Los Angeles flight socializing with passengers.

Three decades later, we are caught up in what a recent book dubbed "The New Ruthless Economy." High tech and new management styles put workers on what the author Simon Head calls "digital assembly lines" with little room for creativity or independent thought. As much as 4 percent of the work force is now employed in call centers, reading canned scripts and being supervised with methods known as "management by stress." Doctors defer to managed-care administrators and practice speed medicine: in 1997, they spent an average of eight minutes talking to a patient, less than half the time they spent a decade earlier.

It is much the same in other fields. There have been substantial productivity gains. But those gains have not found their way to paychecks. In a recent two-and-a-half-year period, corporate profits surged 87 percent, while wages rose just 4.5 percent. Not surprisingly, a study last fall by the Conference Board found that less than 49 percent of workers were satisfied with their jobs, down from 59 percent in 1995.

When "Working" was written, these trends were just visible on the horizon. A neighborhood druggist laments "the corner drugstore, that's kinda fadin' now," because little shops like his can't compete. "Most of us, like the assembly line worker, have jobs that are too small for our spirit," an editor says. "Jobs are not big enough for people."

When America begins to pay attention to its unhappy work force — and eventually, it must — "Working" will still provide important insights, with its path-breaking exploration of what Mr. Terkel described as "the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people."

We'll be talking about this in future posts: how the workplace has changed, and how far along the process to dehumanize workers has come.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

The Paquette Column and My Response To It, Part 1

'K' had his say--and beautifully put it was, too--but I haven't had mine, so off we go.

Why should I apologize for making lots of money?

Who asked you to? This is a standard misstatement of the problem, Larry. Nobody wants you to apologize, we just want you to accept some of your responsibility to society. What's so hard to understand about that?

By Larry Paquette, 1/13/2003

I AM A MEMBER of a small, elite group widely vilified by the press and in letters to the editor. I am an easy target.

Oh come on, Larry, quit whining. Since your mother obviously never explained it to you, I will. It is unseemly, impolite, rude, and downright arrogant for the rich (which, if you only make $100K, you aren't, so lay off the wishful thinking and bonk your head against reality occasionally; pretend it's a wake-up call) to go crying in their beer in public about how badly treated they are. Especially since you're probably not the one being vilified, so why all the whimpering?

And let's try to be just a tad honest here, OK? You went after the money because you desperately wanted 'security' (which, by the way, makes you a weenie without the guts to face the uncertainty we live with every day) and all the goodies (don't bother to deny it), including the undeniable fact that people in this society are treated a whole lot better when they have money than when they don't. In other words, you chased the bucks because you didn't want other people with more of it than you treating you the way you're treating us. That's about right, isn't it?

I've known a ton of you so-called 'self-made' assholes in my life and you're all--or mostly all--the same. You want the power and the privileges that money brings with it: you want to buy cars most of us can't afford and park them where we aren't allowed to park because you think this makes you 'special'; you want to buy a bigger house than most of us can afford--preferably on a hill so you can look down on us--and waste a ton of electricity with floodlights and sound alarms and a dozen lamps lining your walk so you don't get a few drops of evening dew on your $500 Oscar Rudolpho loafers because you think this makes you 'better'. So let's not pretend you were busily following some noble calling all that time. You were making money, period, and you let your family hang while you did it. That doesn't make you the devil but it sure as hell don't make you a saint.

And while we're about it, let's have no more sniveling about what an 'easy target' you are. You haven't seen 'easy targets' until you've seen a rich man verbally abusing his maid because she put out the wrong shirt or a passel of right-wing Congressmen descending on 'welfare moms' because they can't feed their kids on $100 a month.

My sin is that I am in the financial top 10 percent of the country - those making $100,000 or more - the 35 percent tax bracket, a member of the so-called rich. So it is much easier to paint a picture of me with black heart and ice in my veins, cake crumbs all about, as I grow fat on the backs of the downtrodden.

Yeah, especially easy after a letter like this. You went a long way toward proving what a loving, tolerant heart you have with this thing, kid. Maybe you're so po'd at the description because it hit too close to home, hmmm?

However, I feel no need to defend my position.

No? Then why did you write this column? Sure sounds defensive to me.

Over the years I have worked hard and earned every dollar of the obscene wealth I am accused of hoarding.

Right. All by yourself. Nobody helped you? Then how the hell did you manage college on only two minimum-wage jobs? Can't be done, pal. Pell Grant pick up some of the slack, did it? You know, the govt program you 'rich' think is a waste of money and are trying to eliminate? Get a little financial aid? Housing allowance, book allowance, that sort of thing? Maybe a break on your tuition? So who do you think paid all that money for you, Larry? Think it appeared out of thin air, do yah? It was taxes, Larry, those monetary paybacks that one generation offers the next. But you got yours, so screw everybody who comes after you?

Larry, babe, I'm tryin' not to see you as an ogre but you're makin' it awful hard.

What is different about my life and how I came to be here compared with those liberals so willing and anxious to separate me from my compensation?

You conservatives just don't get it, do you? Everything is about you. We're trying to save lives here and all you can think about is that one of those lives may cost you a few pennies of your precious 'compensation', like we deliberately starved these people just to give us an excuse to take your money. Well, I hate to break it to you, kid, but everything isn't always about you. Sometimes it's about *gasp!* somebody else. I know, I know, how dare we? As everyone should know by now, you are the center of the universe and everything revolves around you. The 'social contract' is no business of yours, except of course when it provides you with something you want. Otherwise, it's an albatross around your neck. That extra $1000 you might have to pay every year as your share of fixing leaky roofs of schools so kids don't have to try to learn while they're up to their knees in cold water could be going for something really important, like a new gold shift knob for your Mercedes.

I worked two jobs to put myself through college.

Only two? You got off easy. How many years did it take?

While many my age were off to sporting events or dating or cooling off at swim parties on muggy August nights, I was working in a sweltering factory, assembling bicycles until 2 in the morning.

Poor baby! You actually had to work for a couple of years. Terrible. So now you want us to pay for the indignity you suffered, is that it? Excuse me, but if you were working on an assembly line, you weren't working alone. Did you happen to notice any of the people (yes, I said 'people', not 'welfare bums' or 'lazy animals') working next to you? The people who did that awful job day-in and day-out, year after year, not just summers but winters and springs and falls? Did they dent your self-protective shell at all? I mean, they weren't 'cooling off at swim parties', Larry, they were right there with you, sweating as much as you were, night after night. What did they ever do to you to earn such contempt except work alongside you without the benefit of being able to go to college?

And those kids who went to the 'swim parties' you're so jealous of. You apparently think they were low-income loafers, just goofing off because they were too lazy to go to work, like you. But the chances are a lot better that they were from families richer than yours who could afford to send their kids to college without those kids having to work their way through like you did, so why are you taking out on us your sense of how unfair it all was to you? Because most of us went to work after high school, not so we could pay tuition but so we could survive. We had one summer of 'swim parties'. ONE--the one after we graduated. We took it because we knew it would be the last time it would ever happen.

See, Larry, the kinds of places we work don't do 'vacation time' much any more. I've had one 'vacation' in the past 6 years--5 weeks of paid leave when I accidentally put a nail through my hand with an air gun and broke some bones so I couldn't work. That was it. That was my 'vacation'. Unless you count being unemployed, of course, when employers in search of better stock prices laid us all off so they could prove how 'lean and mean' they were to investors. And if you think being unemployed is a 'vacation', you ain't never been there when you had to live on half-pay while you went trudging through snow and freezing rain to apply for one of the six jobs available to you--and the other 500 laid-off workers in town--because the rest had been outsourced to Indonesia where guys like you could pay 11 cents an hour and pretend it was a 'living wage'. That ain't no 'vacation', pal.

I can't say for sure where the bleeding hearts were then, but they were not standing next to me night after night, sweating over that endless assembly line.

Sure they were. You just didn't see them. Or you saw them and didn't recognize them, which amounts to the same thing. Because it was those 'bleeding hearts' who got you the grants that meant you could go to college in the first place--and only have to work two jobs to get through. Without those 'bleeding hearts' you loathe so much, you'd still be on that 'endless assembly line', only it would be endless for real--you'd never get off it, except to go somewhere else just like it. If it had been up to conservatives like you, that assembly line would have been your life. Forever. 'Bleeding hearts' got you off it and into school with programs conservatives like you fought tooth-and-nail to kill because those programs were 'separating them from their compensation'.

One thing about you, Larry, I can see right now--you got a short and highly selective memory.

I look back over the years of struggle and sacrifice and can't count the number of birthday parties, special events, and family gatherings missed because I had to work or finish a special project. I can't begin to tally the number of empty nights or lonely weekends when, instead of spending time with family and friends, I was on a business trip halfway around the world.

Everybody's got their priorities, and it's obvious that yours didn't include your family when they got in the way of you making money. Screw 'em, huh, Larry? First things first. But wait...I thought you conservatives were big on taking 'personal responsibility'? Well, take some then. You dumped your obligations to your family so you could get rich. That was your choice. I didn't make it for you, and neither did those 'welfare bums' you despise. So don't go laying it on our doorstep. Whatever you did to your family, you chose to do when you picked making money over being with them. If we weren't willing to make the same choice, does that make us evil?

Some of us--a lot of us--aren't willing to live the kind of life that an obsession with money requires. We don't ask you or anyone else to buy us the Jag we can't afford on minimum wage; we're only asking enough to put a roof over our heads, food on the table, clothes on our kids' backs, and a 10-year-old Honda in the garage that will get us to work and back. Is that asking too much? Yet you wail and whine about it as if we were demanding the keys to your mansion and free access to your wall-sized satellite tv.

There is no loneliness like being in a strange country for months, struggling with an unfamiliar language while losing contact with those closest to you.

Stop it. I'm gonna cry in a minute.

There is no loneliness like sitting in a hospital waiting room with a sick kid while a nurse tells you your insurance doesn't cover his condition and you don't have the money to pay it yourself and nobody else you know has it, either, and you know your child is going to have to go right on being sick because there's nothing you can do about it.

There is no loneliness like being on third shift for months at a time and never seeing those closest to you because you have to work the opposite end of the day, of going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark, never even seeing the sun.

There is no loneliness like standing at the kitchen cupboards at the end of the month and realizing you've got nothing left but beans because prices have gone up but your pay hasn't and your next check is still a week away.

There is no loneliness like sleeping in a dumpster because your minimum wage job doesn't pay enough to meet the rents that are soaring through the roof, or the loneliness of having to beg to use the YMCA showers every day, and there's nothing in the world that can beat the loneliness of watching your family move into a cardboard box because you've just been evicted from the rat-infested hellhole a slum landlord was charging $700/month for (not including heat and electricity, those are extra) because 'that's what the market will bear' and it don't matter a damn to him that he could make money if it was half that much or that your whole month's paychecks would barely add up to $700 and if you paid his insanely greedy rent your kids would have nothing to eat.

Three-quarters of the homeless in this country aren't drunks or drug addicts, Larry. They're families. Low income families of working poor that don't make enough to pay the rents that landlords charge. Ever hear of the 'affordable housing crisis'? Well, that's what it's about: forcing the market to provide shelter for the working poor at prices they can afford to pay on the ridiculously low salaries people like you offer. What a waste of your precious 'compensation', ay? Let 'em live on the street. Fuck 'em.

I wonder at how the mind-set of the country has changed, how the work ethic has been corrupted. When I was growing up, the only rule was that success and achievements resulted from, and were directly related to, hard work. You got back in proportion to the effort you put forth. That's the way it has worked for me.

You poor, dumb, blind, boneheaded sonuvabitch. You really believe that, don't you? You had a few lucky breaks--and you made the most of them, credit where credit is due--but you also had a lot of help you don't acknowledge. What? You think if you ignore it that gives you leave to say you did it all by yourself? Nobody does it all by themselves. Nobody. It hasn't worked that way for you because it doesn't work that way for anybody. There's no 'fairness doctrine' here. And you know there isn't. Christ, George W Bush is President of the United States and he got there without working a single day in his whole life. No pissant bicycle assembly lines for him. Silver-spoon all the way. My friend Andy has been working at least two jobs since he was nine years old, went to college part-time for five years until he got his degree and then couldn't get a job because he didn't have enough experience, he was too old, and anyway we're not looking for people with that skill any more. Meanwhile, he was suddenly considered 'over-qualified' for what he'd been doing and couldn't go back to any of his old jobs. That's not fair, either.

If you really believe that shit and you're not just throwing dust in the air, then that is the single stoopidest thing I ever heard a college graduate say. That is so stoopid I'd have to guess you lack the native skill to get out of bed in the morning without help or the talent to be up and around. If the mindless pursuit of money turns otherwise intelligent people into the kind of skull-deep dopes who could say a thing like that with a straight face, then I'll take poverty every time. God, who could live and be that dumb?

(to be cont)

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Microsoft Cuts Employee Benefits

Corporate America is so determined to keep its profits up at the expense of its workers that even the richest company in the world is making cuts in its benefits programs because its stock price dipped a little. Needless to say, this sign of overwhelming greed isn't sitting well with its employees.


In announcing a series of benefit cuts last week, Microsoft Corp. asked its workers to consider the long-term value of the changes to the company and, by extension, to them, as employees and shareholders.

But many employees are having a tough time seeing it that way.

An informal poll conducted among employees on the Microsoft intranet, but not under the official auspices of the company, suggests a groundswell of opposition to the changes and an unusually strong wave of dissent in a place where employees are known for their allegiance to the corporate cause.

Although the results don't reflect a scientific sample of the employee base, the poll had drawn nearly 3,000 responses as of yesterday, with more than 90 percent saying they were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the company's decision to alter the terms of a program through which employees buy Microsoft stock at a discount.

"This change will cost the company far more in lost morale than they could ever save," one person wrote in response to the poll's request for comments. Hundreds of employees left written responses on the poll, all but a few of them criticizing the changes.

"This is a very disheartening change for me," wrote one. "I fear what may come next. It seems as if everyone is expecting a slower rate of revenue growth for MSFT. Are cuts like this going to be the norm in order for us to squeeze out profits? What gets cut next?"

(To read the rest, click the title)

Garment Workers Force Changes

A group of garment workers and their teenaged daughters forced the garment industry in Oakland, CA's Chinatown to improve their working conditions.

By Lee Romney, LA Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — For nearly a decade, Kwei Fong Lin tolerated numbness in her forearms. Like a great many Chinese immigrants who work in this city's cramped and poorly equipped garment factories, her neck and back ached from long days spent hunched over a sewing machine while perched on rickety folding chairs, stools or even crates.

"We just took the pain as it came," the 52-year-old Hong Kong native said in Cantonese.

But an unlikely revolution has taken root here. Today, dozens of women work in relative comfort while seated on customized ergonomic chairs. Simple table extensions relieve their tired shoulders. Wooden footrests keep their legs from dangling. Padded sleeves cushion the metal rods they must press hundreds of times a day with their knees to clamp and release fabric.

A city grant will soon bring the ergonomic equipment to other garment shops that dot Oakland's Chinatown and other commercial strips. And the project has spawned a much larger study now underway in Los Angeles County — the heart of California's rag trade.

Most surprising in an industry synonymous with powerless and mistreated workers: The women made it happen. They did it with the help of a group of teenage girls tired of seeing their seamstress mothers suffer, and a team of medical professionals, ergonomics experts, state health officials and product designers.

(To read the rest, click the title. It's an inspiring story and an example of what govt and industry can do together when they try.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

The College Aid Crisis

Almost two weeks ago, we posted an interview with Richard Kahlenburg of the Century Foundation who said that low income students were being kept out of college in large numbers because they couldn't afford it and grant programs had been cut to the bone by a Federal govt that wasn't interested and state govts that were already severely strapped by the Federal pull-out from its responsibilities. Today the NY Times editorial board weighed in.

Published: May 25, 2004

Nearly a half-million Americans will be turned away from four-year colleges this year for financial reasons, thanks to rising tuition costs and declining state and federal aid for low- and middle-income students. Congress should modify the federal college loan system to deal with this problem. A proposed bill would save billions of dollars that could then be redirected into grants for tuition aid.

Right now there are two basic college loan programs. The direct loan system, which actually makes a small profit, allows students to borrow from the government through their schools. Under the vastly more expensive Federal Family Education Loan Program, private banks receive federal subsidies to make government-backed student loans. Colleges can participate in only one of the two systems. In the 1990's, Congress talked about phasing out the costly bank-based program and replacing it with the direct loan program. Such a step could save billions of dollars a year that could be directed into the federal Pell Grant program, which helps pay the college expenses of low-income students with outright grants. This common-sense plan was killed by the banking lobby, but it has returned in the form of a bipartisan House bill known as the Direct Loan Reward Act.

The bill would encourage the nation's colleges to participate in the less expensive direct loan program by giving half of the savings to them in the form of Pell Grants for needy students. Backers of the loan reform bill say it could channel enough money into Pell Grants to increase the size of the awards by more than a third at some public colleges, raising the maximum grant to about $6,000 a year.

Supporters of the bill calculate that taxpayers may save more than $6 billion annually if all of the nation's colleges and universities move to the direct loan program. But the money saved and the increase in Pell Grants would be substantial even if only a significant fraction of the nation's colleges made the switch. That result alone makes this bill a good idea.

You can help by calling your Representative and demanding that s/he support the Direct Loan Reward Act for low income students. While you're at it, the next time you go to your bank, take a few minutes to speak to a manager and tell them you don't appreciate the bank's lobbyists killing the first reform bill and that you'll pull your account if they don't support DLRA this time around. Remember: it's your money, not theirs.

New Health Insurance Law Faces Showdown

Gray Davis signed a law before he left office as Gov of California--replaced by the Terminator in a controversial recall election--called SB-2. Among other things, SB-2 requires all businesses with 50 or more employees to offer them health insurance. California businesses promptly started a referendum to undo it.

By Marc Lifsher, LA Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The November ballot battle over California's controversial new law on employer-provided health insurance is shaping up to be both noisy and expensive.

The law, known as SB 2 and signed in the waning days of Gov. Gray Davis' abbreviated term, is facing a recall of its own. A business-backed referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot could wipe the law off the books.

The contest officially kicks off today when a coalition that includes labor unions, doctors, nurses, church groups and retirees launches its defense of the 2003 law. Among other provisions, SB 2 will eventually require businesses with 50 or more employees to provide health insurance for their workers.

The pro-SB 2 campaign plans to play on the insecurity of California voters who worry about paying an ever larger share of their employer-provided health insurance or losing their coverage altogether.

For example, proponents of the law plan to focus on its less publicized provisions, which ban employers from dropping current health insurance plans and limit workers' share of health insurance premiums to 20%.

At the same time, the "Yes on SB 2" campaign will soft-pedal the law's mandatory-insurance provision, which has been a lightning rod for opponents.

And that's exactly where business groups, which won't officially launch their anti-SB 2 campaign until summer, see a soft spot. Employers argue that the law is a job killer that will raise their costs, lead to higher taxes and insert government meddling and bureaucracy into the healthcare market.

(To read the rest, click the title)

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Affordable Housing in Crisis--Again

As we pointed out in the last post, costs that affect us most, like rent, and over which we have the least control have been skyrocketing while our wages remain stagnant or fall behind the inflation rate (which should tell you how little we make and how rarely we get raises--and how tiny they are when we do--because the inflation rate is so low). One of the few Federal programs to survive the Republicans' relentless war on the poor is the Section 8 Housing Subsidy program. Well, now they're going after it, too.

House Republicans who authorized cuts in federal housing subsidies for the poor are now fuming over the bad publicity about the cuts. It's strange that anyone was surprised at the negative reaction. The cuts place tenants in some cities at risk of losing subsidized housing, and financial institutions are beginning to express doubts about continuing to participate in the kinds of development projects that have built much of the nation's affordable housing.

If the lawmakers really regret the damage they have done, there is still time for them to undo it. The recent promise by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to shovel an extra dollop of money into the current program won't do the trick. HUD needs to rethink its hostile approach to paying for the critical Section 8 program, which furnishes rent subsidies for two million of the country's most vulnerable families.

Section 8 has survived the generation-long assault on public housing because it is based partly in the private sector. Rather than building affordable housing itself, the government has guaranteed subsidies for rents in the private market. Families, most of them living at or below the poverty level, pay 30 percent of their incomes toward rent, and Section 8 vouchers pay the remainder. Developers used the Section 8 guarantees as backing when they raised money for low- or mixed-income developments.

But despite its theoretical commitment to the private market, HUD has gotten tired of meeting the fast-rising housing prices in some markets. It announced recently — with Congressional blessing — that it would no longer pay the full cost of the vouchers. It froze federal funds at the level of August 2003, plus an adjustment for inflation.

This is a tactic the Bush administration has used in other areas as it tries to halt open-ended commitments for federal funds in favor of set block grants. A "block grant," however, is simply a cut by another name. Neither the poor nor the local housing authorities have the power to make rents conform to those dictates. In high-cost areas like New York and San Francisco, officials will have trouble finding landlords and builders who will accept Section 8 tenants because the vouchers will no longer provide a predictable level of support. Families who have been lucky enough to get Section 8 help may wind up having to pay more rent.

Perhaps worst of all, the financial community has begun to react. A New England bank has scrapped an innovative home mortgage program aimed at promoting home ownership through Section 8. Wall Street bond traders have warned that the cuts could cause the bond market to lose faith in Section 8-related programs, undermining the bonding process that makes it possible to build affordable housing.

The incomes of the poor do not expand just because real estate values do. If these ill-advised cuts are allowed to stand, a public-private partnership that has been producing affordable housing since the Nixon years will wither and die.

(emphasis added)

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Class Warfare, Dammit!

Phaedrus at No Fear of Freedom links to a story from the LA Times, 'Though Far From Poor, a Family Struggles Daily', that lays out the difference between 'official poverty'--based on the Federal poverty index--and actual poverty, what social scientists cal a 'self-sufficient income', meaning you make enough to get by.
The Basurtos are neither destitute nor desperate. They have no debt, do not go hungry, and have managed to put three children through Catholic school. Yet their grip on the bottom rung of the middle class is precarious.

By the local cost of rent, by what it takes to commute to work, by the price of food at the local store, by the cost of clothing and healthcare, a family like the Basurtos would need more than $40,000 to make ends meet in Los Angeles. Families with younger children and day-care expenses would need closer to $70,000.

That estimate, called a self-sufficient income, is an emerging measure of economic health seldom used in the calculus of poverty.

Policymakers still measure progress in the war on poverty using the federal poverty level, despite decades of quarrels over its shortcomings. Developed in the 1960s, the poverty level is based on a food survey from 1955.

It tells only how much is too little to live on, not how much is enough to get by on.
Phaedrus points to what that gap means.
By the federal benchmark, 13% of Californians are poor, according to the Census Bureau. By the self-sufficiency standard, 30% don't make enough to get by.
It may not be that bad for the whole country but I'll betcha anyt'ing it's worse than what the gummint tries to tell us.
He also notes some inconsistency in the way inflation is measured:
One reason why the wage-earning middle class increasingly can't afford California is that wages, adjusted for inflation, have been stagnant for two decades. In the same time, the percentage of income needed to pay for rent, healthcare and child care has spiraled.

Economists call this "alligator economics," because wages are a horizontal or falling line, while costs rise like an alligator's upper jaw.
They're saying that wages kept pace with inflation, but the cost of living rose dramatically. At least for those nearer the bottom than the top. So, somebody tell me again. What inna fuck does the inflation index measure? The price of gold bathroom fixtures? "Rents have gone up 30%, but gold bathroom fixtures are down 80%, offsetting rents, so there's no inflation." Oo, that helps me a lot.
The result of these two crooked measurements, he says, is what amounts to indentured servitude.
The American working class consists mainly of indentured servants. Oh, they've changed the forms so you won't easily snap to that realization but, effectively, it still works like indentured servitude for the employer. Sure, you can quit, but you damn sure better get another job fast. We don't have laws binding workers to their employer for long periods (ya know, 'cept in the music business), and we don't have company stores. But we have mortgages, and credit cards so usurious they amount to loan-sharking. And that "X% of Americans own homes" shit really cracks me up. If you're still makin' payments, you don't own it. Doubt me? Stop payin' the mortgage for a while. See what happens.
To read the rest--and you should--click the title.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Why are women more often living in poverty?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has an Op-Ed feature called 'Woman-to-Woman' in which conservative Shaunti Feldhahn debates various issues with liberal Diane Glass. Both are reasonably good writers and both manage to encapsulate the general differences between the political polarities. The current edition of their on-going argument concerns poverty among women. To read the whole thing, click the title.



A complex socio-economic issue like this often requires multiple answers, but here the answers are far more social than economic. And most reasons can be boiled down to one: The breakdown of the family.

I know that answer might make some folks (like perhaps Diane) want to tear their hair out, but many of the main poverty factors also are the main reasons why more women than men are poor. The simple truth is that skyrocketing rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births combine to hit women harder than men. Childless women are not as affected by these factors -- but statistically most women will have children, and far more women than men end up as the primary caretaker....(cont)


AJC columnist

It's true that women are forced to carry the burdens of raising a family and, with a high American divorce rate, the majority of women in America who earn less than men have the extra burden of raising a family.

Yet, if Shaunti's right -- if female poverty is the result of disintegrating family bonds -- why is it that women earn 50 cents on the male dollar worldwide?

Women are burdened with family obligations and the added costs of raising children from divorced households. Her solution, however, asks us to close the barn door after the animals have already escaped. Divorce may have its problems, but it also has its solutions. It offers women the freedom to leave unfulfilling or abusive relationships, giving women greater autonomy and choices. So now we should give that up? Let's move forward, not backwards. (cont)

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

The Paquette Column and One Man's Response To It

Since FDR first shoved 'Relief' through a reluctant Congress at the height of the Great Depression, the rich have been trying to get the poor off their backs. In the intervening 70 years they have had the time to formulate a healthy collection of rationalizations, excuses, and accusations to justify their resistance to the concept that they have some responsibility to help alleviate the suffering of the 'less fortunate', as the euphemism has it, and the beauty of the Paquette Column is that it uses almost all of them, starting with the title.
Why should I apologize for making lots of money?

By Larry Paquette, 1/13/2003

I AM A MEMBER of a small, elite group widely vilified by the press and in letters to the editor. I am an easy target.

My sin is that I am in the financial top 10 percent of the country - those making $100,000 or more - the 35 percent tax bracket, a member of the so-called rich. So it is much easier to paint a picture of me with black heart and ice in my veins, cake crumbs all about, as I grow fat on the backs of the downtrodden.

However, I feel no need to defend my position. Over the years I have worked hard and earned every dollar of the obscene wealth I am accused of hoarding.

What is different about my life and how I came to be here compared with those liberals so willing and anxious to separate me from my compensation?

I worked two jobs to put myself through college. While many my age were off to sporting events or dating or cooling off at swim parties on muggy August nights, I was working in a sweltering factory, assembling bicycles until 2 in the morning. I can't say for sure where the bleeding hearts were then, but they were not standing next to me night after night, sweating over that endless assembly line.

I look back over the years of struggle and sacrifice and can't count the number of birthday parties, special events, and family gatherings missed because I had to work or finish a special project. I can't begin to tally the number of empty nights or lonely weekends when, instead of spending time with family and friends, I was on a business trip halfway around the world.

There is no loneliness like being in a strange country for months, struggling with an unfamiliar language while losing contact with those closest to you.

I wonder at how the mind-set of the country has changed, how the work ethic has been corrupted. When I was growing up, the only rule was that success and achievements resulted from, and were directly related to, hard work. You got back in proportion to the effort you put forth. That's the way it has worked for me.

How have we changed, then, to an ethic of redistributing the wealth from those who are economically productive to those who refuse to be?

Few will acknowledge it, but the message is clear. Reading between the lines of editorials and letters in the newspapers, I can almost hear the chant, ''You have it, I want it, and you owe me.''

I believe in extending a helping hand whenever possible, but I don't believe in lifelong support for those capable but unmotivated.

I look at my bimonthly check stub and occasionally can't help but question myself as to why I am working so hard, when federal and local taxes and deductions for Social Security and Medicare devour 50 percent of my earnings. Is it worth the 50-hour weeks, the personal responsibility, the stress?

The irrefutable fact is that money withheld and spent on welfare by a confiscatory and inefficient government does not create new jobs. Jobs are created from the dividends and investments made by myself and those far wealthier than me. They result from money put at risk, with a chance for an equitable return commensurate with the risk.

New companies, new ventures, new products and new jobs are a direct result of investment exposure. That is the heart of capitalism.

I make no apologies for my financial position. I have worked very hard, earned every dollar and hope to continue earning long into the future. Can the same be said for those standing at the intersection of Hard Work and Success, looking for a handout?

Larry Paquette is a sourcing manager for a manufacturing company in Fresno, Calif.

This story ran on page A11 of the Boston Globe on 1/13/2003.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
Various responses are, of course, possible, from throwing your foot-stool through the window while screaming incoherently in Italian to quietly burning the column in effigy at midnight on the Fourth of July. K formulated the Meritocracy Myth at least in part to help him understand how such a column could be written by someone not a raving lunatic, authoritarian robot, modern-day Scrooge, or Tom DeLay. Considering how angry and disappointed in his fellow man he was, his reply is a model of restraint and calm reason in the face of insanity. Naturally, because it was all those things, it was never published. Well, now it is.
The opinion expressed by Larry Paquette ("Why should I apologize for making lots of money?" Op-Ed, January 13) is a perfect exemplar of a damaging, yet common assumption in American socioeconomic thinking, one I refer to as the "meritocracy myth." The overall basis of this mythos is a simplistic belief that hard work inherently results in financial reward, and conversely, that lack of wealth inherently indicates ethical flaws.

The ultimate exemplification is the belief that *anyone*, regardless of background or circumstances, can pick themselves up into financial success, if they just work hard enough. This assumption of meritocracy is supported by several other simplistic, but false narratives about our society: that the playing field is level; that everyone is given the same starting point in life; that the same opportunities for financial advancement are presented to every individual; that education is uniformly good; that family wealth is not a factor; that ambition and effort guarantee success.

Mr. Paquette believes in this model because it worked for him. And there is no doubt that many Americans with higher incomes have that money due to hard work. But it is equally, and increasingly unavoidably obvious that many others arrived at a position of higher income due to advantages they were given, rather than earned. A minimum wage janitor from a poor school district who is holding two jobs to support a family does not have the same opportunity to create international business contacts, and no amount of harder floor-mopping is going to create that opportunity. The working poor of this country are working, and many of them are working hard. To directly answer Mr. Paquette's question about how the work ethic has been corrupted is easy: the social narrative that "you got back in proportion to the effort you put forth," is neither consistent nor reliable. It never was, but now the large business scandals of the past year have thrust the falsehood of that assumption into bold relief. This is the true cause of the change in "the mind-set of the country" Mr. Paquette laments. Yes, the work ethic has been "corrupted," but it is not the poor who corrupted it.

Part of Mr. Paquette's position is a legitimate rail against the stereotype of the fat-cat. He rightly feels put upon because the Zeitgeist places him in the same category as Ken Lay and Dennis Koslowski when he has very little in common with them. Unfortunately he counters with a stereotype of his own, that of the shiftless poor looking for financial shortcuts. Both assumptions are incorrect and simplistic. Yes, there are hard-working rich people and lazy poor people in this country. There are also rich people who are rewarded far out of proportion to their effort, and poor people working hard just to maintain an existence on the edge. Income is not inherently a measure of effort.

I worked a very long week last week, and the weeks before that, and I fully intend to work a long week this week. And while I do not consider myself poor, I also have no hopes of joining Mr. Paquette's income bracket any time soon. Mr. Paquette does not need to apologize for making lots of money, but perhaps he should apologize for assuming I am lazy because I do not.
Don't hold your breath, K.

Employer-Based Health Coverage Doesn't Cut It

'It's hard to believe the government's going to put the same boss who won't change the 5 yr-old candy in the break room because it would cost too much in charge of your health care.' --Michael Feldman


Monday, May 17, 2004

It's difficult to understand how America can come to grips with its widening health care coverage crisis as long as it dependent upon an employer-based system. The dynamic tension inherent to that arrangement can only mean continuing conflict between workers and employers between their conflicting interests, driven by opposing special interest groups acting in their behalf.

That conflict played out last week in Congress, where lawmakers proposed health care solutions tailored to their vested constituencies. Republicans focused largely on reducing costs to business of providing health care coverage through tax credits, subsidies and discounts. Most of which, Democrats argued, shifted costs to employees and accomplished little to decrease the legions of those working but not covered by health insurance.

The Republican-controlled House voting largely along party lines, passed bills that would cap non-economic damages in medical malpractice awards and let small employers save money by buying into national health insurance plans. But critics say malpractice caps reduce injured patients' ability to recover damages and that the group buying plans would be largely exempt from state regulation. Even a seemingly employee-friendly bill to allow employees to roll over tax-free "flex" accounts into the next year's expenses or into medical savings accounts still represented a way for employees to carry more of the burden of health care costs.

An employer-based health coverage system creates a health care system fundamentally divided between those with jobs and those without. The divide continues between those whose jobs offer benefits and those whose jobs don't.

Hit hardest by this secondary divide are the working poor whose jobs don't offer such benefits and the small businesses that can't afford to offer them.

As long as health care coverage remains an essentially a form of compensation, employers will cut health care costs by reducing benefits or shifting more of the cost to employees. Conversely, increasing or merely retaining employees' health care benefits will come only at the cost of the employer's bottom line.

An employer-based system also feeds the dual fantasy that only those who have insurance coverage get health care and that those who do have insurance are paying only the cost of their care.

The most sensible alternative to the crumbling, expensive, inefficient and unfair employer-based approach is a national, universal health care system that more appropriately distributes both the coverage and the cost.

They got that right. Next year in Jerusalem....

Monday, May 17, 2004

Why I’m not rich

Mick has been good enough to invite me to share this space with him. I thought I'd open by commenting on his commentary. Later, I'll say something new.

Mick has a pair of linked posts below that are about attitudes toward the poor and attitudes of the poor about being poor (here and here). In both, he hits on that unpleasant question that smart poor people occasionally run into (and hate), “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” For most of us (I include myself in the smart but not rich category) our first impulse is to bellow, “if you’re so rich, why aren’t you smart, you stupid bag of phlegm?” Though only the Scottish among us would actually call someone a “stupid bag of phlegm” the impulse to shout something similar is part of the explanation.

Before I explain why I’m not rich, let’s look at the question. This is one of those rude questions that is offensive because it contains so many other ugly and hidden questions. Social scientists call those hidden questions a subtext. The name isn’t important, but since I’m an underemployed historian, I’ll use subtext because these words are about all I have to show for my education.

The three most obvious subtexts to “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” are the implication that there must be something wrong with someone who uses a talent to do anything except become rich, the questioner’s open hostility to the non-rich, and the idea that talent automatically leads to wealth.

The first two subtexts are really two sides of the same coin: there is something wrong with you and I hate you because there is something wrong with you. This, Mick discussed as the Myth of Meritocracy. All cultures regard success and other desirable conditions as somehow divinely ordained. If the universe is orderly and just, it’s a short step from success being divinely ordained to success being a divine reward for superior attributes, usually morality. The successful are morally better than the non-successful. The two best-known forms of this idea are Calvinism and the Victorian concept of a criminal class. In Calvinism, God recognized moral superiority with earthly success. Thus, riches were a sign of God’s favor and the rich were to be adored, while poverty was a sign of God’s disfavor and the poor were to be despised. The Victorians used nineteenth century scientific concepts to modify Calvinism into the idea of a criminal class: the lower classes were predisposed to criminality because of their inferior moral evolution. This line of logic leads directly to eugenics and final solutions.

The reason this ugly line of thought has survived is that it is much deeper ingrained than these two well-known examples. Think of science fiction, fairy tales, and folk wisdom. The good are always beautiful and the evil always misshapen and ugly. Cinderella’s stepsisters were as ugly as a mad scientist. This goes against our own experience, but the myth is so deeply ingrained that we ignore experience to stick with what we know is true. In high school were the most beautiful and successful (according to high school standards) the kindest and most pure? How many cheerleaders were self-involved princesses? How many jocks were violent bullies? We all knew exceptions, but if success is a sign of heavenly favor, doesn’t high school suggest that heaven favors jerks?

The third subtext, talent automatically leads to wealth, is less of a philosophical position than a plain old fallacy. Why do we assume that all talents lead to wealth? Why don’t we assume that wealth is the result of pure dumb luck or that the ability to accumulate wealth is a singular talent unrelated to intelligence or any other talent? This is a continuation of the previous mythology; the successful want to claim that their accomplishment is not just a result of their superior moral status; they want to claim all virtues. How secure can the top be if you admit that your “inferiors” are superior in any way? The Myth of Meritocracy is necessary for segmented societies—classes—to exist.

What does this have to do with stupid bags of phlegm and my lack of wealth? If wealth is not the result of superiority in all things, what is it a result of? As is usually the case in real life, there is no single simple answer. Sometimes wealth is the result of superior talent or intelligence. Sometimes it is the result of being in the right place at the right time—luck. Sometimes it is the result of birth and social connections. No one thing guarantees wealth and success. But some things help.

Wealth begats wealth and wealth likes wealth. The people who control wealth and, frankly, control most of the opportunity for the next generation of wealth, are, like all of us, most comfortable around people like themselves. Rich people will give opportunity to people who speak their cultural language. There is no conspiracy of race or class here, it’s simple human nature at its lowest. Some smart people speak, or can fake, the language of wealth and get the opportunities. Other smart people lack even basic social skills and can only hope for a miracle of economic demand to open opportunity to them, as happened to computer nerds in the late 90’s. Lots of smart people are in between.

That’s where I come in. I’m a history nerd, I’m smart, but I’m not rich. I'll develop some of these ideas in coming posts.

Crossposted at archy.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

One-Third of US Children Live in Poverty

After a decade of decline, the rate of children living in low-income families is rising again, a trend that began in 2000.

Now there's a surprise. The statistics are shameful. Iceland would be ashamed of them. But the richest country in the world has a government more concerned about the capital gains tax than about starving kids and doesn't think there's anything wrong with that. According to The National Center for Children in Poverty:
# 16% of American children—more than 11 million—lived in poor families in 2002, meaning their parents' income was at or below the federal poverty level. These parents are typically unable to provide their families with basic necessities like stable housing and reliable child care.

# 37% of American children—more than 26 million—lived in low-income families in 2002. Their parents made less than 200% of the federal poverty line (FPL). These families often face material hardships and financial pressures similar to those families who are officially counted as poor.
Thirty-seven percent. More than a third. And most of them--more than half--are under grade-school age.
# 42% of infants/toddlers—4.8 million—live in low-income families (poor: 2.2 million).
# 40% of preschool children—3.2 million (poor: 1.4 million)
# 40% of kindergarteners—1.5 million (poor: 0.6 million)
# 38% of school-age children—10.5 million (poor: 4.6 million)
# 32% of adolescents—6.2 million (poor: 2.4 million)
Fifteen million kids under 18 live in poverty in the United States of America. 15 million. Say it with me one time: 'Fifteen million.' 12.5 million under 12 yrs old. 9 out of the 15 under 6 years old.

The richest country in the world, the 21st Century Empire, the No-Child-Left-Behind country, has 9 million little kids living in poverty, not sure where their next meal is coming from, and it's paying Ahmad Chalabi $350,000/month to tell it lies that wouldn't fool the rankest rube in the wilds of Wyoming, it's paying $20,000/month to 11,000 mercenaries ('contractors') in Iraq, and over a $BILLION in hand-outs, tax breaks, and program support to some of the most profitable corporations in the land. Aren't we proud now, ay?

It's hard not to be bitterly sarcastic about the way American values have become hopelessly screwed up the last three years when you see numbers like these and read about the joy on Wall Street as they celebrate the latest uptick in the Dow. How did it happen? It happened because the radical conservatives who took control of the Republican Party used the Mighty Wurlitzer to convince the Larry Paquettes of this country that those kids really weren't poor and if they were it was none of his business and anyway their parents were trying to rob him blind, the shiftless, lazy, good-for-nothing thieves.

Who's Larry Paquette? Oh, that's right--you're not from around here. Well, in this neck of the woods, Larry Paquette's kind of famous--infamous almost. More than a year ago, he wrote an Op-Ed piece for the Boston Globe in which he managed to smash together almost every far-right cliche on the books in the process of explaining why there was no reason for him to feel guilty about making his money, and about how it was his God-given right to keep that precious loot safe from the clutches of those lazy bums on Welfare who were out to steal it. You know--all those greedy, unprincipled 6-yr-olds. THEM.

#Larry Paquette is living proof of the success of the unholy alliance between an extremist conservative government, rapacious corporations, and the Mighty Wurlitzer Media Moguls in using relentless propaganda to turn otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people into raving, frothing-at-the-mouth lunatics.

#Larry Paquette is where all the strands we've talked about so far collide.

#Larry Paquette is a one-man 20-car pile-up at that corner on Storrow Drive where the hospital is.

#Larry Paquette is what happens to your brain when you watch FoxTV and listen to Rush every day. (That's Rush 'I Turn Brains To Mush' Limbaugh, in case you didn't know.)

Yes, that Larry Paquette.

Next Up: From the Hall of Shame--The Paquette Column and One Man's Response To It

Low-income college students are increasingly left behind

College costs will take center stage this year as Congress reauthorizes the Higher Education Act. The law, first passed in 1965, was supposed to help make college affordable to students from all economic backgrounds. But a new book of essays, America's Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education, argues that it hasn't done enough. USA TODAY's Greg Toppo talked with the editor, Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.

Q: How bad is the problem of college affordability for low-income students?

A: Nearly 40 years after Congress passed the Higher Education Act, low-income students are still much less likely to attend college than their wealthy or middle-class peers. Two-thirds of the nation's wealthiest 25% of students enroll in a four-year college within two years of graduating from high school, but just one in five from the bottom 25% do so. And low-income students are virtually shut out of the nation's most selective colleges: Among the top 146 colleges, 74% of students come from the richest economic quartile and just 3% from the poorest. In other words, you're 25 times as likely to run into a rich kid as a poor kid on America's elite campuses.

Q: What about graduation rates?

A: High-income students are more than six times as likely to graduate with a bachelor's degree within five years than low-income students.

Q: Is this a problem of inadequate financial aid?

A: In large part. Financial aid funding hasn't kept up with rising costs. In the mid-1970s, for example, the maximum Pell Grant for low-income and working-class families covered nearly 40% of the average cost of attending a four-year private college; now it covers about 15%.

Q: Where is federal help going?

A: Increasingly, the federal government has shifted resources away from grants for the poor to loans for the middle class. It has also shifted to higher education tax breaks, which mostly benefit the upper-middle class. In fact, federal education tax breaks now cost as much as the entire Pell Grant program. One result: Today, low-achieving rich kids are just as likely to attend college as high-achieving poor kids.

Q: If we solved the financial aid problem, would low-income students have equal access?

A: No. The other major barrier is academic preparation. Many low-income students get a lousy K-12 education.

Q: What is the federal government doing to help?

A: Historically, the federal government has sought to help low-income students through compensatory spending in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), but the main responsibility for K-12 education remains with state and local governments. The newest version of ESEA, No Child Left Behind, which President Bush signed in 2002, seeks to improve the education of all students by raising standards and improving teacher quality, but we won't know for some time how much difference it will make.

Q: What can be done to improve financial aid?

A: The education experts in our book make a number of recommendations. Funding for the Pell Grant should be restored to achieve the purchasing power it provided in the 1970s. The Gearup and Trio programs, which provide remedial academics for low-income students, should be doubled in size — currently they reach only 10% of eligible students. Elite colleges should provide affirmative action for poor and working-class students of all races. Research shows that we could move the representation of the bottom economic half from its current 10% to almost 40%.

Q: Won't these programs cost a lot of money?

A: The increase in Pell Grant funding would cost about $12 billion; doubling Trio and Gearup would cost $1 billion. That's far less than the cost of just the dividends and capital gains component of the recent tax cut. Smart, hardworking kids from low-income backgrounds deserve a chance to go as far as their talents will take them. These students represent a huge untapped resource for the country. We can't afford not to give them genuine opportunity.

Freeloaders, that's what they are. Oughta be ashamed of themselves... By the way, did you know the Higher Ed Act was up for renewal? Hear anything about it on tv? Think Tom DeLay's gonna push it through, do yah?

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Low-income Housing Goes Wireless

The technician sat by the apartment window with a laptop on his knees, configuring the computer to pick up the Internet signal from a rooftop antenna a half a block away.

"How's the signal?" asked the apartment's resident, Nakia Keizer, watching from a sofa.

"Not bad," said Kevin Bowen, the technician.

Not bad at all, considering this wireless "hotspot" was intended not for cafe-hoppers and Internet surfers with money to burn but for urban poor who only a few years before had been fighting roof leaks and overflowing sewers.

Camfield Estates, a rebuilt 102-unit public housing development, has trimmed bushes and groomed grounds. What also sets it apart from other low-income complexes lies hidden behind its walls, atop its roof and in the airwaves.

For the past two years, Camfield has been the site of a project aiming to span the "digital divide" between impoverished Americans and those with easy access to technology.

Called the Creating Community Connections Project, it has given residents free computers to connect to the Internet using high-speed cable lines wired into every home.

Residents gather at a community computer room to take free classes on everything from how to plug in a mouse to setting up Web sites.

The project, mostly paid for with a $200,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation and supported by companies like Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft as well as public and nonprofit entities, is now taking another step.

Now that Camfield's Internet provider has ended its two-year commitment to offer discounted cable modem access, the project's organizers will soon give residents the option of replacing their wired Internet access with a wireless connection.

Lucky complex. Well, that's one...(To read more, click the title)

Poverty and the War of Statistics

We've talked about skewed attitudes toward the poor and the working-class, and we've attempted to identify some of what we carry around with us that makes us vulnerable to accepting those attitudes without much reflection. But there's an aspect of this we haven't talked about yet: the all-out effort by radical conservatives to promote, justify, and disseminate bogus proof that those skewed attitudes are accurate. In my commentary on class warfare, I said:
Those of us at the bottom of the income scale are involved in a war. It is not a war of bullets, mortar shells, bombs and tanks, but it is a war just the same, and people are dying. We didn't start this war. It is not a war with us but a war on us. We didn't ask for it, we don't want it, and if we could we'd sue for peace. It is not a war we can win in any final way, ever. We are outgunned, overmatched, and trapped in a swamp. The enemy controls our food, our shelter, our health, and our livelihoods. He rarely shows pity, breaks every truce within hours, and chips away at us every day as if we were emotionless blocks of ice he is hoping to whittle down until we just melt away.
This is part of what I was talking about:

In January, a conservative think-tank called The Heritage Foundation published what purported to be a statistical study of poverty. Titled 'Understanding Poverty' and authored by by Robert E. Rector and Kirk A. Johnson, it contains this paragraph:
In good economic times or bad, the typical poor family with children is supported by only 800 hours of work during a year: That amounts to 16 hours of work per week. If work in each family were raised to 2,000 hours per year--the equivalent of one adult working 40 hours per week throughout the year--nearly 75 percent of poor children would be lifted out of official poverty.
This is the standard right-wing answer to the poverty problem: The poor should work more. There are several difficulties with this simplistic conclusion.

First, a large majority of those on welfare are single mothers with young children who have little or no access to child care; there was never much but what little there was has been cut by the Bush Administration to almost nothing. You could say 'eliminated' and you'd be close to right. It's more than likely that those mothers would only be able to work a small number of hours because they've got nobody to watch the kids when they're at work.

Second, many of the employers in industries that traditionally hire at low-income wages (restaurants, department and grocery stores, gas stations and convenience stores, nursing homes, hospitals, pre-schools, and so on), encouraged by Secretary of Labor Elaine Chow, have been systematically cutting the hours of their employees in order to avoid having to pay more than the minimum wage or provide any benefits whatever--Wal-Mart is the leader in this movement, and its dubious if not illegal practices have been copied by a lot of corporations in the service industries. What they have done, in effect, is make their full-time workers part-time. In order to avoid having to hire more part-time workers to cover the work short-fall, they have ordered--ordered--those part-time workers to work one day a week for free under threat of being fired for 'violating company policies' if they refuse (questioned by a union magazine, Chow refused to comment on this practice, not even to acknowledge that it was happening). Rector and Johnson ignore this reality in their report, pretending that it doesn't exist.

But the worst problem of all is that the conclusion is based on false data--the numbers they're using aren't real. Sharp-eyed Phaedrus at the blog No Fear of Freedom, a self-described 'genuine member of the lumpen proletariat', smelled a rat and did some investigating. He found a report based on census data by the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities titled 'Poverty increases and median income declines for second consecutive year' which contained this paragraph:
Nearly two-thirds of all poor families with children included a worker in 2002. These individuals typically work a significant amount. In 2001 (data for 2002 are not yet available), workers in poor families with children worked an average of 44 weeks per year, and an average of 41 hours during the weeks in which they were employed. (The average exceeded 40 hours a week because some poor families have more than one worker.)
Phaedrus replied:
You can do the math yerself if ya wanna, but it works out to around 1200 hours worked per poor family with children.[His math is wrong; at 44hr/wk, it's 2200hrs/yr, not 1200.--MA] I don't know how the Heritage Con Artists massaged the data (But I do know they massage data.), but it sure looks ta me like they's lyin. Remember, too, that in many cases they's a good reason why nobody's workin' in that other 1/3 of families. Disability, off tha top a my head, but they's probly other good reasons. An' I got severe doubts 'bout that 75% a children bein' lifted outta poverty. Full time work at the US minimum wage only brings in about $11,000 a year, which is way b'low that poverty line for a fambly wit' kids.
Indeed. The Heritage Foundation's research is the cornerstone of the radical conservatives' faith-based science, the same approach which the Bush Administration has made such an important part of its strategy: Assert your belief and then twist the evidence until it supports that belief. If twisting the data isn't good enough, invent it. Conservative ideology says poor people are poor because they're lazy, so HF set about proving that it was true. When the real numbers didn't support their cherished belief, they 'massaged' the numbers that could be massaged and invented numbers when they couldn't. They then disseminated this false information to conservative newspapers, tv networks, pundits, talk-show hosts, and commentators who dutifully repeated it over and over again: 'Poor people are lazy, and here are the numbers that prove it.' Convincing--as long as you don't know they made it all up.

The bogus data is then cited as a reason for cutting services to low-income families. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, as my mother used to say--you create a situation that you then use to manipulate someone who had nothing to do with it, like a kid who says he'll scream if you don't buy him the toy he wants and when you don't, he screams, 'I told you this would happen! It's all your fault!' In this case, they create false data that claims we don't work enough, then cut our services using the excuse, 'We don't need to help them, it's their own fault because they won't work.'

This perpetual-feeding machine has worked incredibly well thanks to a compliant media and a mass of right-wing shills (progressive bloggers call them 'The Mighty Wurlitzer') ready to spread the manure as far as the eye can see. If you control the attitudes people have by manipulating them with false information that leads to false conclusions, then you control what those people believe and what they decide to do about it.

This is one of the ways the war is being fought and why we're so out-gunned: we don't control a whole lot of media outfits and the people who do aren't on our side. They can get their fantasies taken as fact, and there's no one on our side with the muscle to correct them.

FTT is a small attempt to do just that. Stay with us--there's more to come.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Commentary: The Meritocracy Myth

I guy I know online just read my commentary, 'Poverty Is Not A Frame of Mind' and wrote to tell me that he had coined a phrase for the belief system Joe shares with a lot of other people; he calls it 'The Meritocracy Myth' and describes it this way:
I don't yet have a quick way of summarizing the idea, but the closest I can come is the false idea that wealth is the yardstick of human worth -- if you're poor, it's because you have flaws. In your friend's world, one unit of effort always equals one unit of reward. And when presented with the mismatch between his economic ideology and real world evidence, he's decided that he'd rather believe the myth than his own lyin' eyes -- the myth can be just that powerful.
What strikes me about this concept is what an old idea it is. I remember the section in Mallory's Morte d'Arthur ('The Death of Arthur'--source of the Legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table) when Arthur is sick and for as long he's ill, the land fails: the rains don't come, crops wither, the flowers all die, the rivers and streams dry up, cows stop giving milk, goats and sheep die, the works. When he recovers, so does the land: flowers bloom again, rains come to replenish the crops, the rivers run loaded with fish, and the people's lives are once again filled with abundance and joy.

In Egypt, Ahkenaton was detested long before he pulled down the multitude of Egyptian gods in order to invent monotheism (Jews insist he got the idea from them but it's debatable which way it went) because he was ugly and deformed from birth, which the people took to mean the gods didn't favor him. He must not have thought so either since on reaching adulthood he destroyed them all and invented one of his own who didn't think deformity was anything to get excited about.

They were both rulers, not common folk, but the belief held there as well. In most of the world's societies, whether primitive or not, people believed for centuries that physical beauty was somehow a reflection of goodness and that goodness would be rewarded with success. Religions in most places at most times simply grafted those beliefs into their dogma, re-defining and codifying them as proofs of god's approval. To be rich or good-looking was to show the tangible effects of that approval; to be both was practically the same as being a living angel and you were virtually worshipped. Which, naturally, means that to have neither was to be at best unfavored by god and at worst the spawn of the devil.

It seems we still cling to these ancient superstitions without even knowing it. If K is right about his 'Meritocracy Myth', and experience tells me he is, the only way you can explain such a belief is with magic: in some mystical, quasi-religious way, some part of us still believes that riches equal goodness, and that therefore poverty must equal evil. I've often wondered--I hasten to add that Joe's accusation was painfully and even kindly spoken; a gentle and tolerant man, he never went this far or ever could, but others have, a number of them using this attitude to make their way into govt--why so many people feel so free to attack, ridicule, and debase us just because we don't have as much money as they do. They often treat us as if the fact that we don't have money makes us somehow sub-human, near animals in fact.

When I was teaching, I heard teachers be told by businessmen that nothing they had to say was worth listening to because 'my chauffeur makes more than you do.' The owner of a small restaurant, hardly in the 'industrial tycoon' class, felt perfectly free to lord it over a teacher who was trying to explain that his son was having difficulties in school by snapping that if she knew what she was talking about she'd be doing something she could make some actual money at, contemptuously adding that she probably lived in 'an apartment' as if that proved how incompetent she was.

She didn't, as a matter of fact, but it wouldn't have made any difference if he'd known that. It wasn't the apartment that was the issue but what apartments represented to him--they meant poverty and poverty meant failure. He had more money than she did, therefore he was better than she was. It really came down to being just that simple.

As it happens, I knew him; I lived next door to his restaurant at the time, and he wasn't, by any credible measure, better than she was. Unless your idea of 'better' involves a petty tyrant running over everybody who got in his way and toadying to anybody who had a bigger business or more influence in town. Was he as greedy as he was because he believed that being poorer than the owner of the mill meant that he was inferior and the only way to prove that he was a good person was to get richer? Was he as unkind to his tenants and employees as he was because they represented the 'bad person' (poor) he had once been and never wanted to be again?

Both sides, it seems, pay a heavy price for their mythology, so why--apart from the fact that it's a myth, a lie, not true, imaginary--don't we dump it? Why do we hang onto it so hard? Why do we, even now, insist on defining people in terms of their financial statements? When survival was difficult and hoping for more was a far-off pipe-dream, maybe it made sense to decide that a man with ten cows was a better husband than a man with two. That was based on an economic reality everybody had to deal with. But why did it ever make sense to decide that having ten cows made him a better man?

The correlation between the two is so ingrained that 'If you're so smart, how come you ain't rich?' is a cliché but Carlos Guerra's re-statement of it--'If you're so rich, why ain't you smart?'--isn't. The former is considered a truism, the latter a wisecrack. The first is a put-down, the second is a joke. Socrates said that the unexamined life isn't worth living; are unexamined beliefs worth holding? Because we have absorbed them. We believe them almost as readily as you do. We most often see ourselves as failures if we can't afford a new car every two years or a widescreen tv or that new designer dress or a computer monitor the size of the Kansas prairie and just as flat, and what we can afford--barely--is new shoes for the kids (if they're on sale) and a used winter coat from the thrift shop.

But we're not failures. In a lot of ways, we're the ones who keep things humming by doing the jobs that have to be done but nobody else wants to do. We keep your office clean and cook and serve your food, we stock the shelves so you'll have things to buy when you go to the store (think a manager's going to lower himself to do that every day?), we plow your streets and rake your leaves and take care of you when you're sick, we teach your kids and watch them when you're at work and empty your septic tank and pick your vegetables and staple your recliner so you won't fall through it when you sit down. We're a lot more important than you think.

We're a lot more important than we think.

I want to go back to the teacher for a minute. She didn't tell that man that she lived in a house. Maybe she knew it wouldn't matter to him, but I saw her face when he said it--confusion, followed by anger, guilt and shame. She knew what he meant and she knew her house was a lot smaller than his. She got the point, alright. And she accepted it. She didn't fight back. For that moment, she felt useless, like what she had done with her life was a mistake. She saw herself through his eyes for an instant and what she saw was that she was a failure. And she accepted his judgment. She accepted it because he had more money than she did.

I was standing there. I saw it. I've worked with her and I knew her for a kind, patient, tolerant teacher, firm when she had to be and sweet as new corn when she could be. I saw her face down an angry adolescent with his fist raised one day and hug him the next, and he was smiling. I've seen her give kids rides to school when their parents wouldn't or couldn't, not for a day but for weeks--months--at a time. I knew all this and I was standing right there and I said...nothing. Nothing to him, nothing to her. I didn't accept what he said but I didn't fight it, either.

I don't know if that was wrong or right. It wasn't my place to fight her battles, but I liked her and she didn't deserve what he gave her. But what I'm trying to say is that it never occurred to either of us to stand our ground, to say calmly and quietly, 'We're people. We live in houses and apartments and condos and mobile homes, but whatever we live in, we're still people. And we don't deserve to be treated like that.' It never occurred to us because we, maybe, have the same ancient superstition inside us that he has, and that's why we believed him if only for a moment.

Maybe it's time we dumped that superstition once and for all. All of us. After 6000 years, it's about time, don't you think?

Firms offer plan for uninsured workers

Posted on Tue, May. 11, 2004

By Bruce Japsen

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO - More than 50 of the country's largest employers said Monday that they will band together to offer health insurance to workers who otherwise would not qualify, offering coverage to 4 million uninsured workers and their dependents by next year.

The companies include major Tarrant County employers -- American Airlines parent AMR Corp., Lockheed Martin and Bell Helicopter parent Textron -- as well as McDonald's, Sears Roebuck, Home Depot, Ford Motor and General Electric.The plan also lists Dallas-Fort Worth as one of six regions where the companies intend to create a purchasing coalition to negotiate lower costs.

Coverage would be offered to part-time, temporary and contract employees as well as early retirees. Those workers make up a growing share of the nearly 44 million uninsured Americans.

"We're very supportive of this program, we think it's a good community initiative," American Airlines spokesman Roger Frizzell said. He noted that the program entails no additional costs for American, which has been working over the past two years to reduce expenses.

Besides addressing a growing social problem, the move saves the companies money. Major employers have reduced the medical benefits they offer as costs have zoomed upward, but now private insurance is absorbing costs from those who cannot afford medical care, essentially sending employers a larger bill.

By reaching out to the uninsured, employers hope to eventually rein in health-care costs, which are climbing nearly 14 percent a year for large companies.

(To read more, click the title)

Monday, May 10, 2004

Killing Off Housing for the Poor

NY Times Editorial

Published: May 10, 2004

The Bush administration's tax cuts for the well-to-do have taken a heavy toll on the nation's most important social programs for the poor and working class. Prominent casualties include child care assistance for working mothers and federal aid for needy college students. The latest victim appears to be Section 8, the government's main housing program for the poor. The program provides rent subsidies for two million of the country's most vulnerable families and encourages private developers to build affordable housing.

Section 8 subsidies go primarily to families that live at or below the poverty level, in households that include children, disabled people or the elderly. These families pay 30 percent of their incomes toward rent and the Section 8 vouchers pay the rest. Some cities give priority to battered women, many of them with children, who have to find a new place to live to escape danger. The need is so great that families often wait years for vouchers, which become available when voucher holders die or become ineligible after getting better jobs.

Congress rejected an administration proposal that would have placed a financing cap on the program and turned the money over to the states. But the administration's assault continues, through the appropriations process in the House and through administrative rulings at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has been trying to put the brakes on the voucher program. Last month, the department issued new guidelines to the country's 2,500 public housing agencies declaring that it would no longer pay the full cost of the vouchers but would cap the federal contribution at the level of August 2003, adding an adjustment for inflation.

This has already caused some private builders and financiers to back away from projects that would have produced desperately needed affordable housing. In addition, public housing officials in many states have made it clear that the new policies will force them to raise rents or evict tenants. Having paid lip service to the goal of ending chronic homelessness, the Bush administration is now threatening to kill off the only program that could possibly achieve it

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Overtime Trojan Horse Rejected

On Tuesday, Senate Democrats, aided by a handful of moderate Republicans, handed a major rebuff to the Bush administration by blocking a Labor Department plan to scrap overtime pay for many white-collar workers. It's not clear whether the House will follow suit and, if so, whether the White House will veto the legislation and go ahead with the changes anyway. It's perfectly clear, though, that overtime has become an election-year political football.

The Labor Department's changes to overtime are part of a larger overhaul of labor law, the first in 50 years. When first introduced last year, Labor's changes included broadening overtime coverage for low-paid workers, but cutting back on eligibility of those better paid, as many as 8 million, according to Democrats. Last year’s plan capped rights to overtime at $65,000. But when the Senate voted to block the plan and the House decided to go along, the Labor Department agreed to rewrite the rules.

The Senate on Tuesday was voting on a revised version the rule changes that substantially reduced the number of workers who might lose overtime pay by guaranteeing overtime rights for workers who earn less than $23,660 a year. The new rules would also make those who earn more than $100,000 a year ineligible for overtime.

The Senate voted 52 to 47 for an amendment, tacked onto a corporate tax bill, to scrap the new rules, with five moderate Republicans breaking ranks to prevent the Bush administration from cutting overtime pay. Democrats argued that even under the revised plan, 4 million workers could lose their overtime pay.

Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who led the charge against the new labor rules, said, "This was a great victory for American workers and families" and sent a "clear message to the administration" to drop its efforts to rewrite the nation's overtime pay rules.

(Read more...)

Friday, May 07, 2004

Workers' Pensions Endangered By City Officials

A few years ago, the city of Houston decided to sweeten its workers' retirement benefits. Along with their traditional pensions, city workers nearing retirement were offered special accounts, fed with money from the city pension fund. Although the accounts would pay generous returns, a study showed that the cost to the city would be modest.

What seemed a good idea then now looks ruinous. Hundreds of older workers will qualify for million-dollar payouts at retirement from these accounts. When their monthly pension checks start coming, some will actually have higher incomes than they did when they were working.

The city pension fund cannot support the payouts and has about $1.5 billion less than the benefits it owes the work force. The district attorney is looking into possible wrongdoing. City voters will go to the polls on May 15 to decide whether Houston should opt out of a Texas constitutional requirement that all pension promises be kept.

At the heart of the matter is a type of pension benefit that has generally been shunned by corporations but embraced by state and local governments. Known as a DROP, for deferred retirement option program, the strategy has been hailed as a way to keep hard-to-replace teachers, engineers and other public workers on the job as they near retirement.

Advocates say the plans allow workers to get big one-time checks when they retire, at potentially no additional cost. In practical terms, though, DROP's have been abused again and again by naïve or self-interested officials, who have pumped up benefits well beyond what the rank and file expected or what the pension fund could pay. Records show that some of these officials set up rich programs to coincide with their own retirements. (emphasis added)

(Read more...)

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Commentary: Poverty Is Not A State of Mind

I just lost someone I thought was a friend because he decided I was pretending to be poor for the sake of...effect, I guess. It's a strange twist on the usual turn of events when you lose friends because they know you're poor and they're afraid you'll hit them up for money, but it's indicative of the misconceptions a lot of people have about us low-income workers.

This man--I'll call him "Joe"--decided that I was putting him on (though why anybody would pretend to be poor is a question that baffles me) because I'm too smart, too articulate to be in the position I told him I was in, and told him quite honestly, which is rare; I usually hide it. Many of us hide it to the degree that we can because we're ashamed of it. For months after I started Omnium, I played down my--hell, I ignored my--full-time job in a factory and admitted only to the part-time job as a teacher, a job I didn't even have any more because it had been eliminated when the worsening economy had forced the schools to cut their "extra" programs. I was afraid that no one would take me or anything I had to say seriously if they knew I didn't have a college education, wasn't a professional of some kind, and didn't work in media or politics or any of the areas I was writing about.

Then one day I happened onto Phaedrus' blog, No Fear of Freedom, and read in the sidebar his ruthlessly honest description of himself as a working-class "ghost" (his word) and "A Genuine Member of the Lumpen Proletariat." His refusal to be ashamed of what he was shamed me. I decided to take a gingerly step out of the closet and admit to my status, though I kept my anonymity in case it didn't work out. That tentative, tenuous act of bravery led directly to Trenches.

Because there are a lot of people like Joe, people who think poverty is the result of stupidity or laziness, people who simply can't believe that in America talent and intelligence could go unrewarded. Well, Joe, they do. Every day.

One of the smartest people I know is a cook at a nursing home. He had two years at a technical college where he learned how to be a tool-and-die maker because he liked to work with his hands. That craft has been taken over by computers, so now he cooks. He's good at it, proud of what he can do and how people feel when they eat what he makes. He can do wonders with a budget slim as a Chihuahua hair. He makes $9/hr. His family wants to know why he doesn't do more with his life. In a weak moment (when we'd been drinking), he told me that, and then he told me what he didn't dare tell them--that he kept the job because he was happy doing it, and that money really wasn't very important to him as long as his family had a roof over their heads and enough to eat.

He was lying, like a lot of us do, by telling himself that what he could get was all he wanted. I challenged him, and he admitted he'd really like to learn gourmet cooking and work in a legitimate restaurant where he didn't have to make superior food out of inferior product. I asked him if he'd considered going back to school, get a degree in Culinary Arts. Sheepishly, he told me he'd applied but his income ($9/hr!) was over the guidelines and there was no financial aid available since the Feds had cut their grant programs to the bone.

The most brilliant guy I know is a Hungarian émigré. He was trained as a surgeon in Eastern Europe, has a raft of degrees on the wall of his tiny apartment, and speaks 4 languages, 3 of them reasonably well (English, he tells me, is tough). But the degrees aren't recognized in America, he's over 50, and his accent is so thick, his English so rudimentary, that a lot of prospective employers thought he was retarded. He works as a janitor. He makes $7/hr after three years; he started at $5. It was all he could get. His shame is so great that he won't tell his family where he is or what he's doing now.

If intelligence and talent were what counted in America, that janitor would be running a huge hospital and Bill Gates--who stole everything MicroSoft is from smarter people--would be sweeping the floors of the wards. But they aren't. No, Joe, it isn't fair, but it is reality.

The hard, cold, brutal fact is that in America most of the poor are the people who lack one or another ingredient that the society has decided to recognize, and you can only get away with that if you have connections. The even more brutal fact is that much of the upper class, including the govt, works very hard at throwing everything it can think of at you to keep you where you are.

I don't know if it's still true--I hope it isn't but it probably is--but in the 80's, liberals managed to get a bill passed encouraging mothers on welfare to go back to school by paying their tuition so they could get their GED or, if they had a high school diploma, go to college. When the women signed up, they discovered there was a catch: conservatives, terribly concerned about "welfare cheats", had insisted on a provision that cut their monthly benefits dollar-for-dollar by the amount the state paid in tuition that month. In other words, if she took a class for three months that the state paid $300 for, $100 a month would be taken out of her $400 welfare check, effectively forcing her to choose between bettering herself and starving her children or going without heat in the winter. Not surprisingly, most of the women dropped out of the program and the conservatives who had insisted on that condition then trumpeted their lack of participation as proof that those lazy bums on welfare didn't really want to improve their lives.

They getcha comin' and goin'.

The point, Joe, is that whether or not you're poor has little or nothing to do with how smart or articulate you are and everything to do with how educated you are according to recognized authorities, where you come from, who you know, how thick your accent is, what color your skin is, and how well you can manage to fit into the myriad expectations and prejudices people have that define "acceptable" in their class. And you need all those things, Joe, not just one or two of them. I've got everything but connections and a diploma. I work in a factory.

That's the real America, Joe, like it or not.