Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The War on the Poor

"Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed and well-fed."
                                                                                - Herman Melville

The city of Portland is waging a war. It is not an openly declared, armed battle. Rather, it is being quietly waged, unbeknownst to the average resident. But it is a battle, nonetheless. It is a war against the poor.

From Congress Square Park, to the homeless, to panhandlers, Portland city officials are sending a subtle, but painfully clear message to the city's disenfranchised: Go away.

It is a message largely held by the Portland business community, including the Portland Chamber of Commerce, most of the city councilors and Portland-hating Gov. Paul LePage. During Maine's Republican Convention last year, LePage articulated his feelings toward Maine's welfare recipients quite openly, blasting them to "Get off the couch and get yourself a job!"

Conservative blogger, Tom McLaughlin, echoed LePage's sentiments in a recent post ("Shunning Independence," 06/12/2013). Using his two young granddaughters as a prime example of his definition of "independent Americans," McLaughlin then blasts the rest of the country's citizens for their alleged "dependence" and "addiction" to government "handouts." (McLaughlin's grandchildren, for the record, are 2 and 3-years-old, respectively. So, yes--he is essentially comparing his toddler-aged grandchildren to the majority of "lazy" American adults.)

He writes:

"It's increasingly evident that Americans today can be divided into two categories: those who want to take care of themselves, and those who expect government to do it for them--those proud to be independent like my granddaughters are becoming, and those who not only fear liberty, but crave dependency."

Ah, if only life truly were as neatly monochromatic and easily compartmentalized as conservatives view it. Wouldn't it be so much simpler? I am curious to know if McLaughlin--a retired school teacher--is currently accepting his retirement benefits and/or Social Security. Just curious...

Unfortunately, I fear McLaughlin's blame-the-victim worldview is far more pervasive than I would like to believe.

In discussions about Portland's homeless vagrants, it is not uncommon to hear the claim that these individuals "choose" to live on the streets (sort of like how conservative doctrine still insists homosexuals "choose" to be gay)--an absurd notion, devoid of any intellectual reasoning.

Those on the libertarian-right argue it is the responsibility of homeless individuals to provide for their own economic well-being. Yet, many of those who make this argument have no problem with the exorbitant taxbreaks, subsidies, bailouts and other forms of corporate welfare, which far exceed that of individual welfare. As I wrote earlier this year, corporations--not single mothers on foodstamps--are society's real welfare queens.

The latest front in the war on the poor is panhandling.

Next month, the Portland City Council will vote on a measure to prohibit panhandlers from standing in median strips. Advocates of the ordinance--including Police Chief Michael Sauschuck and Councilor Ed "Mr. Prohibition" Suslovic--claim the roadside panhandlers are a safety risk to motorists. But, according to ABC News affiliate, WMTW-8, lawmakers cannot cite any actual increase in traffic accidents due to panhandling.

Furthermore, the logic is completely disingenuous. If city officials are truly concerned about panhandlers' safety, why not address the problem (i.e. poverty) head on, rather than further criminalizing the poor? As it is, banning panhandlers from median strips will not make them go away. Panhandlers will simply congregate around denser, pedestrian-friendly areas if they cannot stand in busy roadways. Others will simply resort to theft.

For the poor and disenfranchised--many of whom cannot work due to mental or physical disability-- panhandling is their only source of economic sustenance. Last month, The Portland Press Herald highlighted the plight of two regular panhandlers in the city ("Panhandling a Growing Concern in Portland," 5/25/2013). One of them, Alison Prior, is only slightly younger than me, and, according to the story by staff reporter, Randy Billings, has a college degree. She uses her meager donations to buy deodorant.

It is important to understand this anti-panhandling legislation is not coming from Republican Councilor Cheryl Leeman. (Leeman is the sole Republican on the Council.) The measure is widely supported by the council's supposedly liberal members, including Nick Mavodones, Jill Duson and Mayor Michael Brennan. As author Sinclair Lewis illustrated in his satirical novels, Babbitt and Main Street, it is not just conservatives who hate the poor. Middle and upper-class liberals, fearful of losing their own coveted economic status, will often lash out at them as well. When it comes to the politics of class warfare, the traditional Left-Right ideological divisions do not apply.

While many are tempted to dismiss panhandlers as petty swindlers engaging in scams (and no doubt some of them likely are), there is no denying their prevalence has increased nationwide since the Great Recession. Many of these individuals lost their jobs, their homes or both when Wall Street crashed the economy. Some lost their homes due to mounting medical expenses--the leading cause of home foreclosure. The U.S. remains the only industrialized nation in the world that does not provide its citizens with universal, single-payer health care. (Contrary to what you may have read in USA Today, "Obamacare" is not universal health insurance.)

Other homeless people, meanwhile, suffer from alcoholism or substance abuse. Gov. LePage's unrelenting budget cuts have left cities like Portland unable to provide the health services these people desperately need. Homeless shelters like the Preble Street Resource Center are often filled to capacity. As of January, the number of homeless people in Maine has increased 8 percent or 1,175 people.

The homeless, the poor, the disenfranchised and the disabled are society's unseen, silent victims. Like Ralph Ellison's unnamed African American narrator of Invisible Man, poor Americans are invisible "simply because society [refuses] to see" them.

"When they approach me," the narrator explains, "they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination--indeed, everything and anything except me."

This is no way for a moral society to treat its people. It is, in fact, a sign of the "spiritual death" of our nation Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned of nearly 50 years ago. And as long as the wealthy elite--be them conservatives like Tom McLaughlin or liberals like Mavodones--continue to condescendingly blame these victims of fraud, Wall Street greed and corporate crime for their own suffering, the poor will remain invisible.

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