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Catch22girl’s post about the woman living in her car got me thinking, and I finally picked up the copy of Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War that my sister sent Mr. Tiger for Christmas. It’s by Joe Bageant, a self-described red neck from Winchester, Virginia. It’s a fascinating read.

 

His thesis is that a combination of poor education, conservative values and voting patterns, Scots Irish self-reliance work-ethic, outsourcing and  “white trashenomics” (credit and mortgage schemes that result in insurmountable dept) have combined to make working-poor white people the great and growing tragedy of the American dream gone wrong. Some of his stats:

 

  • There are 19 million poor and working poor whites in the U.S.
  • 24 per cent of American dual-income families make less than $35,000 a year.
  • One third of American workers make less than $9.00 an hour.
  • There are 45 million Americans without health insurance.
  • Medicaid enrolment went from 33 million to 56 million between 2001 and 2005.
  • A 2007 budget proposal called for a $10.6 billion cut in funding to Medicare and Medicaid.
  • Medicare and Medicaid cost $417 in 2006. The Pentagon’s budget was $419 billion.
  • Four per cent of every tax dollar goes to social programs. Twenty-five per cent goes to paying interest on government bonds.
  • Between 89 million and 94 million American adults are functionally illiterate.
  • Twenty-five per cent of those can read, but not well enough to follow five consecutive paragraphs of text or dense documents such as sales contracts.
  • Only 28 per cent of Americans believe in evolution.

 

On self-reliance:

 

“We first started hearing about the average Joe needing to take complete responsibility for his condition in life, with no help form the government, during the seventies, when Cold War conservatives Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz dubbed themselves “neoconservatives.” In doing so, they gave a name to an ultrarightist political strain that passionatly hated taxes and welfare of any kind, and that favored a national defence strong enough to dominate any part of the world—or the whole world—at any given time. Neconservatives hated the counterculture and saw it as the beginning of everything that was wrong with America. And they saw plenty of evidence of a shift toward a welfare state, most notably Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which for the first time funded school districts, college loans, Head Start, Medicare, and Medicaid, and cut poverty in half. America was close to being a Communist welfare state, and people had better start taking some personal responsibility, they thundered. We find neoconservatives today all but owning the Republican Party and attempting to axe Social Security and slash unemployment insurance in the name of “personal responsibility.”

 

But what sort of personal responsibility is possible in the neocon environment? A wage earner’s only asset is his willingness to give a day’s work for a day’s pay, the price of which he does not determine. So where does he get the wherewithal to improve his circumstances? He gets that wherewithal from the wages he earns. But in the new neocon environment, that wage does not support savings. It does not support higher education. It only allows the wage earner to survive from paycheck to paycheck, hoping he doesn’t lose his job and feeling like a loser down inside.”

 

His discussion of the mortgage crisis (which hadn't happened yet, but was confidently predicted) is telling. The American economy is based on buying stuff, and even the President is telling people that shopping is the best way to be a good citizen. In the absence of a good education, people haven’t a clue what they’re getting themselves into when they’re subjected to high-pressure sales tactics for that double-wide trailer that is worth less than the purchase price the moment they take possession.

 

He blames television for keeping people ignorant and distracted from the coming economic and ecological collapse.

 

I haven’t finished it. It’s a bit too depressing to read all in one sitting. The interesting thing is that he’s talking about his own family and the people he loves, so he has an insider’s take on the situations he is describing. He somehow manages to call them dumber than dirt without being mean about it. He writes a blog at www.joebageant.com.

 

Date: 2008-05-22 11:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] xbedhead.livejournal.com
While I think the government's spending and economic policies are ridiculous, I have to say that a fair amount of America's problems do rest on the shoulders of the people themselves.

You have a few generations now that are literally drop-outs, that didn't even finished the ninth and tenth grade (if that). You have nineteen year old mothers who are pregnant with their fourth child. You have people who were born into welfare and will never leave it. And the thing is, if people would exercise some self-restraint once in a while, a lot of problems could be avoided (i.e. you don't have to drop out and start selling drugs so you can get the new Jordan's or the latest velour outfits and you don't have to have sex without a condom - or at all, if you're like...oh, I don't know thirteen).

It's ridiculous. I live in an odd part of town - it's very wealthy mixed with far below the line impoverished. I also grew up very poor, so I know intimately the struggles that some American families go through, and I would estimate that about 75% of those very problems could have been avoided had my parents made better decisions financially. My mother has a college degree and my father has some college education - they're not ignorant by any means, but they still have the same problems that this book is talking about.

I see it every time I go in to work at the social services office - people come in with four, five, six kids in the household. They have no job because they can't afford to pay someone to watch those kids and they have no means to feed them. We give them food if they have the necessary paperwork (proof of address, photo ID, that kind of stuff), but if they don't, they still expect to get the food and get heated if they don't get it immediately because - and I quote - "I got places to be - I gotta go get my nails done."

Just...that right there sums up most of the financial problems that America has to me. People have no sense of priorities because they don't have to - they know that somehow, some agency is going to step in and take care of their needs. And not because they can't provide for themselves, but because they won't.

Then again, I'm Scots-Irish, so my viewpoint might be skewed. :P

Date: 2008-05-23 12:07 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cybertoothtiger.livejournal.com
Yeah, I'm Scots too. I'm also the people he hates, being middle class and not working poor. And married to a small business person (okay, that makes Mr. Tiger sound like a midget) who is the Man keeping the non-unionized working poor down.

It's just so fascinating to hear someone speaking from that side of the fence. I also just finished Lullabies for Little Criminals, about a 13 year-old prostitute on the streets of Montreal, who somehow manages to romanticize the whole experience even while admitting how terrible it is. It is an interesting glimpse of why and how people get themselves into such circumstances.

I think it's a combination of things. If you have never seen anyone in your life make a good decision, you don't really ever get the opportunity to know what a good decision looks like. If you're so far down in the hole that you will never get out, why not buy the big-screen TV on credit, because you may as well enjoy it until you have to "relocate under cover of darkness" because you've lost the whole house. And yet, people who do have good decision-making skills rightly ask WTF?

It's amazing to me that people would be counting on the social safety net in a country where there is practically none. But it's like air bags and seat belts -- you make cars safer, and people take more risks when they're driving. Does that mean it's better not to have the air bags and seat belts?

It's such a complicated mess. It did get me thinking (in my typical capitalist middle-class way) what are the skills I'm going to need when the environmental/economic apocalypse comes, and how do I set about acquiring them?

My Dad grew up in the Depression, so I've got that scarcity mentality ingrained in me. It occurred to me that the Depression happened when most people could still build their own houses and fix their own cars and grow at least a small garden to grow their own food. People could have a cow and a horse and a few chickens. Natural resources, at least, were plentiful. Even if the farmland was a dust bowl, you could still hunt. In the next Depression, most people won't even have a clue how to make porridge, because they've become addicted to take-out pizza and frozen crap.

But hey, the erosion of our survival skills has made us better consumers, and that's what keeps the whole machine rolling, isn't it?

Date: 2008-05-23 12:36 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] marinw.livejournal.com
I also just finished Lullabies for Little Criminals,

Hey! I just finished that book, too. I loved the part where the kids were bragging about their mental health and drug issues.

I once worked with a guy who was complaining about how he had to go to a food bank to feed his family. And he spent $20 out of every pay on lottery tickets. What do you say to that?

I guess I’m middle class. I come from a line of pasty East European Jews, but I’m forth generation Canadian. I do okay on what I earn, but I wouldn’t try raising kids, driving a large car or running a big house.

A huge HUGE problem both in Canada and the US is student debt. If you graduate owing the government bags off cash, that already puts you at a disadvantage. So should young people screw University and go to Community College? That’s not my call to make.

As for your own Mr. Tiger, running a small business is exactly what we need more of. I define good capitalism as folks running stores and services for the people in their community, as opposed to huge corporations paying people minimum wage. (I’m looking at you, WalMart).

It is easy to be judgmental. I think it’s all a combination of personal responsibility AND services/infrastructure. If we want people to make good choices, the options have to be there.

Date: 2008-05-23 02:05 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cybertoothtiger.livejournal.com
Wasn't it a good book? I listened to the Canada Reads discussion, and one woman just hated it. I loved that she wanted her Dad to go back on the heroin because he loved her better when he was high. Of course, the descriptions of heroin use have been worked into my next Mexico chapter!

If we want people to make good choices, the options have to be there.

Yeah, I think that's the key. I'm really wishy-washy on this issue, because I appreciate the need for a safety net and compassion, but without personal choice and responsibility, what are we as humans? Calvinist, I suppose.

Although I am middle class, I do have some White Trash credentials:

1) I was born and raised in Alberta, the province that wants to be Texas so bad it names all the big things after its sister state, so we have Texas gates, Texas donuts, Texas toast. It's no coincidence that Himself's speech about saving Medicare was recorded at a rally in Alberta. Around the time Klein blew up a hospital.

2) In my early teens, I went to a Christian school and learned to speak in tongues, shoot a .22 and barrel-race at various Bible camps run by Holocaust-deniers and Creationists. When the bus got a flat tire on the way back from the baptism at the local pool, our response was to lay hands on it and pray for a miracle. We were kind of dissapointed when someone found an air pump. Much discussion of lack-of-faith vs. "The Lord helps those who help themselves" ensued. We made it back to camp with enough time left to cast out a few demons before bed. Good times.

3)I know about living on credit. I have paid my rent with a cash advance on my Visa, and Mr. Tiger started his company on our personal credit cards. When we separated early on, I went to see a credit counsellor and he gave me the same look the mamogram technician gave me when I found a lump. Not reassuring, that look. Fortunately, we got back together and after a few lean years, he now employs 44 people.

4)I have made poor financial decisions. I have found myself with not enough money for a meaningful grocery purchase and made the decision to go buy some beer with the cash instead. (As a student; no dependents.)

Date: 2008-05-23 02:56 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] xbedhead.livejournal.com
Oh, so you shared my childhood, too? *G* I've only ever gone to Christian schools (and although I'm happy for that and learned so much from the experiences, that's one of the choices my parents made - dropping about $4,000 a month for three kids to go to a private school - that lead to our financial hardships) and some of the shit that my teachers pulled in all of their charismatic, demon-casting glory...wow. Yeah - the whole laying of hands and speaking in tongues, been there, done that, had the hypocrisy make me a little cynical, but I think I'm better off for having been through it. It definitely turned me into a "God helps those who helps themselves" person - faith without works, anyone?

And I know that having that background has helped shape my views on the world - help the widows and orphans, but don't support people in their laziness, stuff like that.

And my grandparents and great-grandparents lived through the Depression, too, so they were always stressing the importance of saving. My great-grandparents - they were even worse about it. Being poor and immigrants was like the worst of the worst. But they made it. Somehow. Probably with their own little gardens in the back yards and lots of hungry nights.

For someone with my ideals though, to have come out of my family like I did? Sometimes I wonder if I was adopted because the author's right - that brand of people are very pull yourself up by your bootstraps and you're the only reason you're in the mess that you're in. They would rather chew off their own arm before asking for help (and again, I think being an immigrant kind of forced that into them - you don't want to be the one to prove the stereotype right). And I see that a lot in Americans in general - the ones who are the working poor, at least. They're the ones who will do without and who will wait until there's absolutely nothing else they can do before asking for help. And it's those people that I want to stand up and say "You know, something's not right here" for. Because it isn't. There's no reason that people who work every day for an honest wage shouldn't get it - they shouldn't have to stay poor just so someone can make even more money. While the middle class is being eradicated, so are the safety nets - and right when we need them the most.

Date: 2008-05-23 03:36 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cybertoothtiger.livejournal.com
Sister! Why was it always the kids at the back of the bus on the way to Bible camp that smuggled in the booze and were sneaking off to make out in the woods? None of my non-"Born Again" friends did that sort of thing until they were much older. And did you ever have the feeling, listening to someone testify about how they found the Lord after they hit bottom, that your life hadn't been awful enough yet for you to be truly saved?

My parents didn't have to pay for private school, because it was the only Christian school in the public system in North America at the time. And it was right across the street! It being the 70s, all the neighbourhood parents just shrugged and kept sending their kids there went it went Christian, because it was the neighbourhood school, and that's where everyone went. My parents were all over it, though, as they were going through their "Happy Clappy" phase.

Dad still isn't over his, and occasionally tries to lay a stealth blessing on me by leaving his hand on my arm just a moment too long when he's greeting me, which is sweet and totally creepy at the same time.

My Dad's favourite sayings are: "Save 10 per cent" and "Learn to love your work."

*Nods about the grandparents* It's funny how the first-generation immigrants are the least likely to use the safety net, or at least seem to get off it fairly quickly.

I think the author is most sympathetic to the truly working poor as well. He tells the story of one relative who switched jobs for an extra five cents an hour and the promise of overtime, even though it would mean three months without benefits. Of course it didn't work out, but the idea of scrabbling for that tiny bit more is just heartbreaking and wrong. There's just so many people that have, say, $50 left at the end of the month for anything above food, rent, utilities and transportation, so if any one tiny thing goes wrong, blammo.

Date: 2008-05-23 03:43 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cybertoothtiger.livejournal.com
...And yeah, although I was completely traumatized when I entered the secular world in high school, I'm grateful for the Fundamentalist experience as a child. It gave me an understanding of how people can have an entirely different world-view that is internally coherent, and totally functional for them, even if you disagree with the first principles. I had some awesome teachers, too.

Date: 2008-05-23 12:33 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] marinw.livejournal.com
Ah, but the appearance of the air pump WAS a miracle. * Cue Monty Python’s Life of Brian *

I can’t compete with that! I did rebel against my liberal Jewish Academic Parent by joining the Air Cadets aka the Hitler Youth. I spent a few weeks in the summer at an Air Force base. When my Stepfather visited he described the place as a “Middle-Class Auscwitch.” To which my friend replied “What’s an Auscwitch?” Score!

We shot rifles too. That was fun.

Have you seen the documentary Jesus Camp?. I would put the lady Minister up against Hannibal Lector or Darth Vader or any fictional villain. It’s true: You can get the best scriptwriter and the most talented actor and you still won’t match the people who actually exist.

Date: 2008-05-23 10:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cybertoothtiger.livejournal.com
"Middle-Class Auscwitch"

*chokes on tea*

OMG -- what a great story! That's awesome. I was in the Junior Fascists A.K.A. Girl Guides. All that marching in uniforms saluting the flag, oh, yeah. Started by a guy inspired by his experiences in the war where they invented concentration camps!

Do you remember Jim Keegstra? From Eckville? The high-school teacher? One of the camps I went to was run by people from there.

And yes! I caught the end of Jesus Camp, I think. Did they go to Africa and one girl went back on the drugs afterwards?

*Shakes head*

I'm not finished...

Date: 2008-05-23 01:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] marinw.livejournal.com
He blames television for keeping people ignorant and distracted from the coming economic and ecological collapse.

That I COMPLETELY disagree with. TV is like any medium: a lot of it is crap and some of it is good. You can’t use it as a scapegoat for our social and economic problems.

People are going to seek distraction no matter what their circumstances.

Towards that end, I recommend Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. The thesis is that the complexity of today’s better TV dramas and video games (the later genre I’m completely unfamiliar with) is making us smarter and more social.

Think about it: were it not for our mutual 24 obsession, we would not be having this great conversation now!

Re: I'm not finished...

Date: 2008-05-23 02:10 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cybertoothtiger.livejournal.com
Oh! Oh! Yes -- I read a synopsis in the Utne Reader

*Polishes Bleeding-Heart Liberal Credentials*

It was very reassuring, because the Smalls are rather addicted to Lego Star Wars. And if my friends in Book Club hadn't rented the DVD of An Inconvenient Truth, they would not be starting to consider recycling and rain barrels. That video was the tipping point for them.

I wonder if 24 makes us think that someone will come and save us all, or if it gives us the hope that one person can make a difference?

Date: 2008-05-23 12:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] marinw.livejournal.com
Ah, Jack our Savoir. I think he skipped the part about turning the other cheek.

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