Columns 2008

A nation of haves and have-nots

My friend Earl Finkler had a letter to the editor in the paper last week in which he quoted Robert F. Kennedy as saying, “An America piled high with gold, and clothed in impenetrable armor, yet living among desperate and poor nations in a chaotic world, could neither guarantee its own security nor pursue the dream of civilization devoted to the fulfillment of man.” I wonder how Robert Kennedy would feel if he were alive today and realized that America was both the country piled high with gold and the desperate, poor, chaotic nation at one and the same time?

Somewhere in the 1980s, when greed became a good word, the gap between rich and poor in this country started to widen. Under the current occupiers in Washington DC, we now have a gap that seems close to that which fueled revolutions in the past.  Ordinary people watch their income eaten up in rising fuel and food prices. Elderly find their savings eaten up in just trying to pay heating costs; extras like medicine and food fall to the wayside. Young couples lose their homes due to bogus mortgages given them by rapacious lenders who are bailed out by the government when their company is overwhelmed with bad debt while the couple is out on the street. No government bail out for them.

In Alaska, we absorb statistics that should horrify us without a shrug. In the same week that has news headlines touting oil at $138/barrel, we are told our state ranks 41st in children’s health. Yet our governor axes money to increase Denali Kid Care, the one program that would give more Alaskan children access to care.  We call our children our future but we seem darned reluctant to provide them with the tools for that future.

I go to meetings and hear about the growing crisis of poverty in our state, about the rising number of homeless and hungry who will need shelter and food come winter. Only we haven’t gotten anywhere near enough shelters or food banks to meet their needs. In a state with billions in savings, we have pregnant women and children on our streets wondering if they have a tomorrow.

It seems to me that every time a program is proposed to help people, say universal health care, the argument made against it is that it will cost too much.  Yet we always find money for war. We go into trillions of dollars of debt and sell ourselves to China in IOUs in order to fund a war of dubious value that we marched into without as much thought, as we’d give to getting a new hairstyle. We give private contractors with friends in high places billions of dollars to buy protection for our diplomats in the war zone. But we can’t find enough money to provide decent health care and an education to our military who barely make minimum wage while fighting this misbegotten war.

We’ve become a mean and petty country. Our current political leadership catered to our most base instincts and we lapped it up. So now we live in an America in which 1% of our population controls 33.8% of its total net worth and financial wealth; just 20% of our population controls 81.3% of that net worth and financial wealth. That leaves precious little for the bottom 80% of us.  Think about that the next time you are trying to find enough money to fill up your fuel-efficient car or pay for the groceries or find a doctor that will take the pittance now allowed for Medicare reimbursement.

There was a time when I would have gotten very angry about these statistics. I would have been horrified that our country could have let this happen; could have become a country of such blatant haves and have nots; could have become a country that resembles nothing so much as pre-revolutionary France with the only thing missing being Dick Cheney saying “Let them eat cake”. Except, of course, he’d say, “Let them walk. Gas is for those God has graced with the money to pay for it.”

Yes, there was a time when I would have been very angry. Now I’m just very sad. I don’t want to yell. I just want to cry.