Poor Pay the Rich

By Don Rollins

Threadbare mom, she’s in the checkout line/Holdin’ out the coupons, just starin’ at her feet/Taxpayers strain just to watch her use those food stamps/Thinkin’, hell, she don’t even know how to eat/She’s got a dirty-faced kid with two hollow eyes/It’s all I can do not to cry/It’s plain to see that somethin’ is wrong here/Harder to stand up, stand up and say why.”

These lyrics are from “Feet of the Poor”, a (copyrighted) song I wrote in the early 1980s. The recently re-canonized Ronald Reagan was feeling his economic oats. Thanks to Dutch and his trickle-down brain trust, a new era of governmental callousness was begun. From college grants to job training, public housing to food programs for infants, the nation was witnessing the onset of thirty years (and counting) of an unprecedented and undeclared class war.

When I wrote the thing, I too was “living on” food stamps — a misnomer if ever there was. You’re mighty grateful for the safety net, but along with it you risk the skunk eyes and whispered exchanges from the coiffed couples in line behind you. Your sin? You’re going with the Oreos, not the bananas this week.

“Meanwhile the politicians stand toe to toe/Drivin’ home the message, loud and clear/Shakin’ hands and dinin’ with the rich folks/Christ, how they love election year/All of them sayin’ they’re for all of the people/All of the people, all the time/But it’s time somebody told them, let ‘em in on the secret/About these kids with the hollow eyes.

Flash forward to 2012. Up at The People’s House, it’s build-a-budget time again; and it’s starting to look a lot like 1982. The thing was barely leaked to the press before the Republican tax busters and presidential wannabes were howling that the proposed cuts were nothing more than minor scrapes. (In what alternate universe does slashing $1.1 trillion and 200 programs qualify as a mere flesh wound?) Trouble is, early public polls give them the upper hand.

We don’t like their answers, but by focusing on the deficit, at least they’re asking the hard questions. The bad news: The Party of FDR — the man who got it that economic disparity is also ethical disparity — began the discussion by throwing hurting folks under the bus: heat subsidies for low income persons and families; Pell Grants for low income students; and Community Block Grants for low income neighborhoods.

Now, mister I’ve got just one thing to ask you/And I know you’re heard it all before/But can you tell me, when things go bad to worse/You just lay it at the feet of the poor.

The Thirty-Thousand-Foot View: I suppose it’s inevitable that in capitalist democracies the economic well-being of the dispossessed rises and falls at the behest of the (mostly beholden) privileged few. But in my world, federal budget-making is a deeply theological undertaking. It’s a no-excuses, public declaration of winners and losers — just another way of saying who does and doesn’t matter. When divorced from moral obligation, budgeting becomes little more than the soulless assigning of worth on the basis of utility to the markets, amassed wealth and accompanying influence. And it’s all right there, line item by line item.

The people most vulnerable to these cuts didn’t create this mess, and reducing them to a statistical drag on a dragging economy won’t fix it. If economic self-sufficiency really is the end point the Republicans want for everybody, taking away more and more of the programs that serve that very purpose is a very odd way to go about it. And if the Obama administration really does want to frame money questions in more human terms than the other side, they’ll at least stick with the programs they haven’t already put at jeopardy.

Rev. Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Spartanburg, S.C. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2011


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