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Poverty is not a character flaw

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a liberal, political independent and all-around good egg, has put together a book of excerpts of letters he's received from Vermonters who are struggling through the recession. In short, blunt paragraphs, the writers tell of how they are falling out of the middle class:

"I can't find a job to save my soul that will pay enough to make a difference," says Sue, who is described as "jobless since April" and "facing foreclosure."

"I patch together a full-time job making $12/hour and various painting jobs and still can't afford to get myself out of debt, or make necessary repairs on my home," laments a single mom in her late 40s.

"I am a 35-year-old man living paycheck to paycheck trying to make ends meet while working at a chain retailer. I feel I am being overworked and underpaid," offers a writer from Middlebury who lives with his parents because he can't afford housing.

While Republicans in Congress push to unravel more of America's frayed social safety net, they have no plans to help rock-ribbed, hard-working Americans earn a decent living.

Do conservative politicians think, if you're not rich, you're not working hard enough? No one works harder than a roofer in the Florida sun or a tomato picker. But in the GOP's world, it is as if poverty indicates a character flaw. It's an unconscious bias that metastasizes into contempt for people who are struggling economically.

As a result, the financial anxieties and uncertainty felt by so many American workers who can't seem to get ahead, don't penetrate the GOP's worldview. The only uncertainty that leaders like Republican House Speaker John Boehner speak of is the kind faced by business.

For months, Republicans have been painting President Barack Obama as the prince of business climate uncertainty. Boehner's statement on last month's positive job numbers reeked of it.

"Removing the uncertainty caused by those looming tax hikes provided much-needed relief for private-sector job creators in America. Now we must build on it by eliminating the job-crushing uncertainty being caused by excessive spending, borrowing, and regulating in Washington," Boehner said.

The absurdity of tying near-term job growth to extending tax cuts for the rich aside, Boehner's concern about jobs is as empty as a flat tire. In the same way so many Republicans only care about children from the moment of conception until birth, they seem to care about jobs only as a means of getting people off unemployment benefits, which they view as payment for being lazy. Their epic battles against raising the minimum wage or giving workers organizing power to demand higher pay indicate they are just fine with jobs offering poverty-level wages. And the more desperate people are to accept those terms the better.

But the only way people like Sanders' constituents are going to climb back into the middle class is if jobs are required to pay living wages, and provide affordable health care and retirement benefits. And only government can help make that happen.

As a start, Obama's health reform law tells big companies to offer their workers good health insurance by 2014 or pay a fine. Republicans can't wait to overturn this — you know, because of the uncertainty.

One promising reform that Democrats should push would give rank-and-file workers a share of the wealth created by their company's gains through profit-sharing or stock awards.

This is not a new idea, but the twist, laid out in the report, "Inclusive Capitalism for the American Workforce," from the Center for American Progress, is that government would only give these pay incentives favored tax treatment if companies award at least as much to the bottom 80 percent of their full-time workforce as to the top 5 percent.

In other words, no tax deductions for executive stock options without secretaries getting a proportionately equivalent deal. Otherwise companies wouldn't feel pressure to include the bottom rungs — so they wouldn't — like now.

American workers are plaintively calling out for help. Whether or not the government answers will determine if Sanders' book of hardships is to be part of America's past or its future.

Poverty is not a character flaw 03/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 12, 2011 3:30am]
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