Hunger in Paradise

If it is humiliating to turn to a church to request food, think how degrading it must be to find oneself turned away. A church here on Mount Desert Island, the home of Acadia National Park and some of the world's most expensive summer homes and yachts, has long run a food pantry.

That pantry generally begins to provide assistance by early November, after many of the most affluent visitors have gone for the season. Unfortunately, due to either lack of interest or miscommunication, resources were not available last Sunday. Those who depend on assistance were not notified and had to be turned away when they arrived at the door of the church. Beyond the specifics of this situation, there is a larger issue here. An island distinguished by extraordinary wealth is one where a surprising percentage of the population depends for their survival on sporadic acts of individual kindness. These hungry families slip through the cracks not only of our private and public relief systems but of our discourse as well.

It has become commonplace to suggest that poverty is a consequence of personal moral failure. Work hard and you'll be able to feed your family. Yet most of Maine's poor already work. They have little control over the pay they receive. As this paper reported earlier this fall the poverty rate in Maine has been exacerbated by the hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs in the last five years. Many of these jobs have been replaced, but the new jobs in tourism and other service sectors generally pay less and offer fewer benefits. Most service sector jobs are non-union and workers lack the market power to demand their full value. Many employers have neither the will nor the know-how to make the best use of their employees.

Here on Mount Desert Island, poverty is equally driven by the rapid escalation of housing costs, a consequence of speculation in second family housing among the most affluent. That boom in turn reflects growing discretionary income in the hands of the truly wealthy and federal tax policies that enable large investments in housing.

More than 10% of Island students qualify for federal support for free school meals. Since the threshold for such assistance is set in the mid 20s and since families must spend at least a third of that just for minimal housing, many local families must be continually on the verge of hunger.

Just as the housing and job markets become more detrimental to poor and working-class citizens, federal support through food stamps, welfare, Medicaid, and heating assistance have become harder to attain. Cuts have been justified on two grounds: Free markets give everyone a chance to succeed and secondly private charity is more caring and efficient in helping those in need.

Yet the so-called free market is not God-given. It is a complex set of laws and regulations governing property and transactions. Those rules, which treat corporations as though they were persons and grant those entities special treatment in taxation and law, are hardly equitable. Nor did the modern markets emerge from nowhere. Textbooks may treat market economies as though every player starts from the same idealized starting line. But many of our early entrepreneurs and business leaders benefited from assets and resources stolen from Native Americans or from public lands, or from the exploitation of imported slaves. Once firmly established, individual and corporate fortunes persist across many generations.

Today, many of the most successful corporations still benefit from lucrative cost-plus contracts from the government or, as in the case of the media and pharmaceutical giants, near monopoly grants of economic power or public assets. Even the so-called free trade laws, which cost Maine so many good manufacturing jobs, are hardly free or equitable. While opening labor to withering international competition, these laws strengthen the international economic privileges of those who hold patent and copyright protections. In the process firms that have already often benefited from public research dollars and domestic monopolies are granted one more favor. In addition, our current trade laws enable and encourage massive subsidies to domestic agribusiness even as they undermine the interests of small farmers worldwide.

Within our corporate order, even the rules designed to curb widely recognized abuses are often only for the little guys. Many great fortunes were and continue to be built on defiance of the law, as Wal-Mart's hiring of illegal immigrants illustrates.

Not to worry, say market defenders. The wealthy will see that the poor do not suffer. Private charity, however, all too often reflects and sustains the very biases and inequities of the market itself. University of Southern Maine's David Wagner, author of What's Love Got To Do With It, points out that philanthropic contributions of the wealthy often focus on foundations that promote their own worldview. In addition, much charitable activity emphasizes reform of the poor rather than provision of assets that would enable them to become more effective players in the modern economy. Wagner also reminds us that the wealthy contribute a far smaller proportion of their income to charity than do working class citizens.

Conservatism in America is a cruel and utopian doctrine. European conservatism generally has treated society as a hierarchical entity in which each element still has a right to exist. This posture may be anti-democratic, but it also fosters noblesse oblige not only in personal attitudes and actions but social policy as well..

American conservatism turns everything over to the workings of the market in the faith that markets will solve all problems of equity and efficiency. Just like the commissars of the Soviet state who believe one plan can solve everything, they scorn politics and treat those who do not fit their worldview as utterly beneath their contempt.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

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