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That Other War - The War on Poverty
June 4, 2004
By Bob Volpitto

Many thousands have died needlessly in Iraq and Afghanistan as the result of armed conflicts over who will rule the Middle East and control its oil. Many more will die in a hopeless war against what we have called the war on terrorism. In the meantime, there remain pockets of poverty dotting the map of the United States - one within 100 miles of the nation's seat of government.

Those of us who care are powerless to erase those economic blots; being led by the Bush Administration into combat against enemies about whom we understand little and should care less. We expend an acknowledged $5 billion a month fighting that war in Iraq. That translates to $60 billion per year if we are being told the whole truth, which is doubtful.

Our leading export under Bush is a flawed form of democracy coupled with a perverted version of a free market economy to a people unwilling to import these western concepts. The cost of this activity is robbing the programs that aid the American poor until our priorities are defined otherwise hopefully in November.

For example, in western Maryland there is an economically depressed community called Lonaconing where the median annual income, according to the 2000 census, is $27,424. The median age in this town of 1,205 souls is 37.8 years. One of those residents is quoted as saying, "If you want to retire come to Cumberland (seat of Allegany County which includes Lonaconing). If you want a good job go elsewhere."

In May 1964 then President Lyndon Johnson came to Lonaconing to promote his "War On Poverty." To commemorate that event of 40 years ago, the Washington Post did a feature article on page one of its May 20, 2004, Metro section. It tells of the closing of the Midlothan coalmine at Lonaconing. It relates the sad tales of the demise of manufacturing in nearby Cumberland when the Kelly Springfield tire plant, the Pittsburgh Plate Glass facility and the Celenese plant all ceased operations.

How can we justify this horrific hemorrhaging of taxpayer dollars for senseless wars when people living in towns across the nation like Lonaconing are subsisting on Food Bank handouts, working at one or more jobs paying at or below minimum wages and have no hope for a better tomorrow? The last is the worst. Gone is any hope of upward mobility that once provided the opportunity the poor used to have to gain entrance into the middle class.

Furthermore, throughout Appalachia, of which Lonaconing is a part, the rural poor basically rely on wild game for meat. They scour the fields for berries and search the hills for nuts. They have seen their wells polluted by industry, forced to rely on rains and melted snow for potable water. Often "out back" is a small vegetable patch that provides sustence in the growing season. Beans, tomatoes, cabbage and often carrots and lettuce and potatoes are the main crops of these gardens. The carefully guarded surplus is put up through home canning for eating during the off season.

An apple tree or two provide needed fruit in the diet of the poor. What apples are not eatable are baked into pies or become applesauce and apple butter. Wild grapes and dandelion are crudely fermented into a form of homemade wine. Cabbage is either grated and processed into sauerkraut or stewed with potatoes into endless meals of a smelly soup. Some fortunate families raise chickens, a few hens for eggs and meat and a rooster for procreation.

Clothing and shoes are either hand-me-downs or pass-arounds. If fresh items come into a family they are bought inexpensively at either a church rummage sale or purchased from a thrift shop in a nearby city. Cuffs and collars are turned and resewn over and over. Worn elbows and knees are patched and repatched. Shoes are mended with cardboard inserts until the soles are completely worn through.

Oh, yes, I failed to mention the need for sanitation which is provided by an outhouse built over a slow running, narrow stream that carries away the solid waste deposited by its users.

Many today have jobs but are employed less than 40 hours a week by companies that use that number as a loophole to deny benefits to workers not employed full time. It's not uncommon for corporate managers to ask, or should we say demand, employees to "work off the clock" to get around paying overtime. (If the Bush administration has its way, the reward for working more than 40 hours per week, overtime, will be eliminated. Where's the incentive?)

Some firms require employees to be on the payroll full time for as long as two years before they become eligible for the company's health insurance program. And, when they do become eligible, the employee co-payment is so outrageously high most workers can't afford to enroll in the program.

We have lumped these wage earners into a class called The Working Poor.

THE WORKING POOR

The May 31 issue of Business Week carries an article titled "Working And Poor." It relates case after case of employees in various fields who are on payrolls and still can't make those out of reach ends meet.

There is the case of a healthcare worker who was paid $9.32 an hour on the graveyard shift, caring for 28 patients in a nursing home with no one to assist her. Another story is about a security guard earning $7.50 per eight-hour shift. He has no pension rights, no health care and no paid sick days. And, there are more examples like these in the article.

Business Week quotes the U.S. Census Bureau in that "about one-third work only part-time" among the 18-64 year olds in the labor force. The magazine says "63% of U.S. families below the poverty level have one or more workers."

In the Fifties and Sixties when 35% of workers were unionized, this nation had a strong and growing middle class. Today around 13% of those employed are union members. Is there a correlation here? I am sure of it. In the Franklin Roosevelt through Lyndon Johnson years, members of the workforce were encouraged to join unions. Today they do so at their own peril.

The Business Week article notes a situation where a 36-year-old janitor earned $10.68 an hour as a union worker. He was fired and replaced by a non-union janitor. The union worker is now a non-union part-time floor waxer making $6.00 an hour and no benefits.. Worse, he is trying to maintain a household with a wife and three children.

A GOP White House has consistently conspired with a GOP controlled Congress to keep the minimum wage at its 1997 level - $5.15 per hour. Despite dogged efforts by Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy and Democratic Congressman Dick Gephardt to at least bring that figure up to where it mirrors 2004 dollars, the Republicans, tools of greedy global corporations, refuse to even consider the idea of a living wage. The working-but-poor struggle to exist in an economy where Wal-Mart has defined the parameters and Republicans write those parameters into statutes.

THE CONUNDRUM

Yet those who benefit most from programs of the New Deal, the Fair Deal and the Great Society cling to the very political party that is working night and day to dismantle the core of their existence.

In the presidential balloting of 2000 George W. Bush got 13,977 (56%) votes in Allegany County, Maryland, while votes for Al Gore totaled 10,435 (42%). It will be interesting to read the results of the 2004 vote, but it is my opinion Mr. Bush will carry this impoverished county with the same margin he did four years ago. The mystery of misery is unsolvable. My guess is the folks in that otherwise Democratic state follow the passage in scripture that warns, "Even that which thou hast will be taken away from thee." To lose what little they have by risking it on a Kerry victory to these people is unthinkable.

Perhaps if Senator Kerry chooses Senator John Edwards as his running mate the North Carolina senator can talk some sense into the hard heads of people in need who vote blindly against their own interests. Senator Edwards' rant against the obvious inequalities of Two Americas might enlighten the working poor and those too sick or too old to work to stand up and vote for a future that will at least be brighter for their children and grandchildren. It will be a hard sell, but Mr. Edwards speaks their language, knows their needs and feels their pain.


Bob Volpitto is a retired newspaper publisher living in the southwest. He is also a Liberal and damn proud of it.

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