Despite Horatio Alger myths, America’s accomplishment hasn’t been mainly about individuals’ chances for success. We are regaled with stories of Bill Gates and even lesser figures who have made their fortunes.
But the real achievement has been in places such as Johnstown, where a lot of average people could have good-paying jobs and not because they made their own way. No, it was because of political organizations and unions that they were able to win better pays, shorter hours (steelworkers had to put in 72-hour weeks until the 1920s) and good benefits.
They changed the economic bargain collectively and built and created a real middle class, one that could afford good housing, autos and appliances, stimulating businesses in these markets and the overall economy.
The Andrew Carnegies and Henry Fords pushed their industries forward and made fortunes for themselves, but often at the expense of the low-wage workers they employed. The American dream, however, was not just becoming individually rich, but moving the exploited underclass up from subsistence wages, long hours and few benefits.
It’s interesting to hear a rebroadcast excerpt from a Lyndon Johnson 1964 campaign speech that attacks poverty and asserts that “poverty is not a trait of character ... but is created by circumstances.”
No candidate today would dare make such a statement.
Despite the highest poverty rate in decades – 15 percent – neither major party mentions this issue. Candidates feel safe only in identifying with the middle class. They cite only examples of those who overcame childhood poverty, lifting themselves through hard work and dedication, with their own individual efforts.
In reality, social mobility in the United States is lower than in many European countries. Social class still defines most people’s futures. Being left in poverty is not simply a bad individual choice.
Mitt Romney explicitly faults the lower classes as sponging off government handouts, as do many other conservatives. He cites the fact that 47 percent of households don’t pay federal income taxes and, thus, he believes, don’t “take personal responsibility and care for their lives” but believe they are “entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”
This 47 percent, by the way, is by far the highest figure in years, driven up by the recession and the recent rounds of tax cuts.
Of course, at least half of seniors are included in this figure, as are the 20-plus million unemployed or underemployed, as are many of those making less than $30,000 annually.
Farmworkers, waiters, hotel maids, many secretarial and office workers, maintenance personnel – the many who make around $10 an hour – don’t pay much income tax.
Better pay produces more tax revenues.
Also, not surprisingly, many making well over $50,000 annually, and some making $1 million, don’t pay income taxes, either.
We should add that tax rates for America’s rich are the lowest in 70 years.
Behind this failure to address our poverty problem is the old puritan ethic suspicion that many people are lazy or, in Republican lingo, they like being dependent on the industrious core of America.
Although most of America’s poor are white, and most blacks are middle class, there is a concealed racist appeal behind these beliefs, perhaps sometimes unconscious, but all the more virulent because we have a black president.
Such misconceptions persist despite the fact that a significant chunk of American families encounter hunger at times during the year, having either a “lack of enough nutritious food or very little food” (22 percent of the population, according to the Agriculture Department).
Nevertheless, food stamps, welfare (mainly reserved for women with small children) and even unemployment are routinely derided.
Our family apparently pays a higher rate of income tax than does Mitt Romney’s, but we are glad that it helps to provide food stamps, school lunches (both of these also Agriculture Department subsidies for farmers) and welfare for families with small children.
We can’t figure how Americans, much less a political party, can so contemptuously fail their human commitment to ensure decent living standards and good health care for all.
How can they be so indifferent to the general welfare, as if they principally had the right to the bounty that generations have created, and watch or ignore while others suffer on the sidelines?
What kind of people are we?
Jim Scofield of Richland Township is an associate professor emeritus at Pitt-Johnstown.
Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.
Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.