April 15, 2017

You really can't make this **** up

The website WalletHub recently came up with a list of the best and worst places for millennials to live. It's no surprise that West Virginia came out on the bottom. But, as my friend Stephen Smith wrote with Pastor Mason Ballard, it's the best state to come to if you want to make a difference. And God knows we need that.

One of the reasons WV is unattractive to newcomers is the fact that it's kind of falling apart and the Republican majority in the legislature wants to pass a poverty budget that keeps things that way. Gazette-Mail reporter Phil Kabler had a great riff on that theme in the first part of this column.

One thing that could make things better is a budget that invests in people and infrastructure, as Gov. Jim Justice has proposed. Some of us were hoping he would veto the  legislature's proposed budget. And some of us, including me, sounded the  alarm and urged people to contact the governor in support of a veto.

I guess that's something to scratch off the list. And that's no (metaphorical) BS.

Two last thoughts:

*first, this really is the year of political props; and

*second, as I've argued before, we really should change the state motto from "Mountaineers are always free" to "You can't make this **** up" At least until we deserve the old motto again.

April 12, 2017

Easy action alert to protect WV

If you live in WV and want to do a good deed for the day, here's your chance. Call Gov. Jim Justice's office at 304-558-2000 and tell whoever answers that you want the governor to veto the bad budget passed by the legislature and fight for one good for WV kids, families and seniors. Don't forget to thank him for his work on this so far.

Also, if you're around Charleston, which I won't be, show up to support a decent budget tomorrow (Thursday, April 13) at 2:00 in the lower rotunda of the capitol. The governor is expected to make an important announcement about the budget at that time.

You can read more here,

April 11, 2017

Poverty pays if you aren't poor

“Poverty pays unless you’re poor.”

So said Don West, a rebellious Appalachian poet and educator and friend of mine who devoted his life to the struggle against it.

The evidence suggests he’s right.

Way back in 1971, sociologist Herbert Gans enumerated the different ways poverty benefits the non-poor in an essay titled “The Uses of Poverty: the Poor Pay All.” His findings hold up pretty well.

Then as now, it turns out that those who benefit the most from it are the wealthy.

Among the functions of poverty are these:

*Poverty ensures that the “dirty work” of society gets done in the form of the many jobs that are low-pay low-trust and low-status but are absolutely necessary for a society to work.

A pool unemployed and underemployed people also imposes “discipline” in the labor market and helps drive down wages for all workers. A bad job looks pretty good when you step over homeless people or drive past people holding “Will work for food” signs on your way to work. When hundreds apply for a handful of living wage jobs, it sends a strong message to the lucky few that they can be easily replaced.

This population can also be mobilized by the powerful and wealthy as strike-breakers or cannon fodder in war time or even as angry mobs that can be used to target other vulnerable populations.

*Because the poor work at low wages, they can perform the tasks (cleaning, child care, etc.) that make the leisure of the affluent possible. They also pay a higher proportion of their income in sales and consumption taxes, something likely to get worse if some in the Legislature get their way.

*Poverty creates a lot of jobs and economic opportunities for people, businesses and organizations which “service” the poor, from pawn shops to plasma centers to professionals to prisons.

*Poor people can be counted on to buy or otherwise consume the goods that others don’t want, whether it’s old food, second hand goods, or used cars. In a twist Gans couldn’t have imagined, huge corporations now get major breaks for dumping unwanted and often unhealthy food products to pantries and charities.

*Poor people are an ideal group to punish in order to uphold social norms. As Gans put it,
“To justify the desirability of hard work, thrift, honest, and monogamy, for example, the defenders of these norms must be able to find people who can be accused of being lazy, spendthrift, dishonest, and promiscuous. Although there is some evidence that the poor are about as moral and law-abiding as anyone else, they are more likely to be caught and punished when they participate in deviant acts.”

They are also less able to defend themselves against stereotypes and legal punishments.

*Speaking of deviance and social norms, the non-poor can derive a vicarious thrill from contemplating the real or imagined moral laxity of the poor.

*The affluent also have a long history of what I call cultural strip-mining, which consists of finding, commodifying, and profiting from the cultural creations of the non-wealthy. Think blues music, mountain ballads, folk art, etc. To paraphrase the Clash, the spice of poverty adds life where there isn’t any.

*A poor population helps boost the status and self-esteem of those who aren’t poor. It also gives the aristocracy a chance to display its generosity on the “worthy poor,” which presumably helps justify its existence.

*Because of their relative powerlessness, Gans noted that poor people can absorb the costs of change. If you need to wipe out a neighborhood for a new highway or development project, close down a school or locate a toxic dump, poor communities are a ready target.

There are also a lot of ways the affluent can use the poor for political purposes, some of which Gans couldn’t have anticipated.

He noted that “An economy based on the ideology of laissez-faire requires a deprived population that is allegedly unwilling to work or that can be considered inferior because it must accept charity or welfare in order to survive.”

An “unworthy” population is a powerful argument against working for a more just social order, since presumably such people would benefit the most from such an arrangement.

Politicians such as Ronald Reagan and many others elevated this process to an art by stirring racially-charged resentments against mythical “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” buying steaks with food stamps. Wealthy people and corporations are still reaping the benefits of that strategy.
Tapping such resentment served to further enrich the already wealthy and contribute to a level of inequality unprecedented in recent history.

Finally, and this is just me talking, it seems like some people in positions of power and influence derive some kind of gratification by proposing and imposing laws and policies that impose humiliation, surveillance and degradation on poor people. The pleasure seems to be enhanced when masked as compassion. To me it’s the political equivalent of bullying or cruelty to animals.

Considering all the benefits the poor convey to the wealthy, there doesn’t seem to be much gratitude. But I guess that would defeat the purpose.

I’m reminded of some lines by the English poet William Blake:

“Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody Poor;
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.”

April 10, 2017

It's over. Ish.

The WV legislative session, one of the weirder ones in recent memory, officially ended this weekend. Sort of. There's the teeny tiny issue of the budget, where major disagreements remain between Democratic Gov. Jim Justice and the Republican legislature.

Specifically, the budget has no new revenue and deep cuts to programs like Medicaid. When you figure in the federal match, this could mean a cut of $200 million. The governor hasn't vetoed the budget yet as far as I can tell, but it seems likely to me that this will happen and the games will begin. The deadline to state shutdown is July 1.

On the bright side, the budget passed isn't as awful as some that were proposed during the session. More work is needed to pass a decent one.

On the brighter side, I'm especially happy about two victories, one of which involved killing a bill and the other involved passing one.

I'm actually gladdest about the bill that died, a mean-spirited SNAP bill that would have taken away food assistance from the poorest West Virginians while also taking millions out of the state economy.

The one that passed will give people with felony convictions the chance to petition the courts to have the offence reduced to a misdemeanor after several years. It's weaker than what we would have liked but it's way better than it was before.

Mulling over that and other limited victories has led me to formulate a maxim which I plan to copyright:

"Those who minimize hard won but limited victories for social justice tend not to be the people who worked their ass off to win them."

And you can quote me on that.