THE OLD HOMESTEAD – It’s not my grandparents’ shack, but it is a close facsimile. If Mitt Romney would live in a place like this for a week, I’d vote for him.
Much has been said about how multi-millionaire candidates relate to the middle class. Most of them advize Americans who are part of the shrinking middle class to simply get new jobs. They’re understandably silent on just how to pull that off in the recession they’ve created. In their opinion, any grousing from Americans caught in the vice of diminishing means is just class warfare against the wealthy, Cayman Island, tax-dodging, outsourcing, politically powerful. BANG! You’re very poor.
No Rusty Iron Spoons for Mitt
Candidates, as often as not, speak as though the very poor don’t even exist. Much like their notion that gay soldiers didn’t exist unless you asked if they were gay. And when they infrequently talk of the working poor, it’s usually along the lines of Mitt Romney’s statement that he doesn’t worry about them because they have an adequate safety net. Fine words from a man not born with a rusty iron spoon in his mouth.
I’m very lucky. I started as a marginal middle class blue collar worker and made my way up with a lot of luck and the ability to know to jump ship when I heard the deckchairs scraping. These days, I defy the odds as an upper middle class man with a nice house, good job, health benefits, and enough money to fund a retirement and buy most anything I truly want or need (not yachts and airplanes and multiple summer “cottages” in Vail you understand) without stretching too much.
My parents were more middle-middle class. They were acutely aware that money didn’t grow on trees. My father was one of those grossly overpaid civil servants you hear so much about these days. Even though he was lucky to have his job, his “overly generous benefits” didn’t cover my mother’s and grandmother’s schizophrenia or my sister’s bipolar illnesses. In fact, it didn’t pay for most extras and most of the disposable income was already disposed of when the check arrived.
But, just because I led a modestly middle class life doesn’t mean I’m inexperienced in the lives of the very poor.
Meet My Grandparents
The “safety net” mental hospital where my grandmother spent decades.
Meet my grandparents. They lived a life straight out of the mid-1800s. My zero grade school grandfather had no steady job because in the backwoods of the Appalachians, there weren’t any, steady or otherwise. And my grandmother, similarly uneducated and dogged nearly all her life with multiple incarcerations in a state mental hospital that was every bit as scary as those in the mid1800s.
I know. I visited her there many times and heard the screams of the “patients” and the stink of their urine while she slowly rocked in a chair almost comatose from medication.
They lived in a leaking tar-paper shack one step removed from a cardboard box. Heat and cooking fuel came from wood cut a ½ a mile up a steep embankment. During a particularly bad winter they burned one of the rooms of the house because they couldn’t reach the wood pile in hip deep snow.
Drinking water came several times a day from a hole in the ground by bucket and drunk with a community ladle. They bathed and washed clothes in a small creek, polluted from mine waste, behind their tar-paper manse. The outhouse was nearby where, yes, they used actual Sears catalog pages. It was a 2-holer though. They lived over a hole of luxury.
They owned a small “farm” with soil so poor they grew only potatoes and cabbage – everything else died. Meat came from the occasional chicken that stopped laying and daily hunts for squirrel, raccoon, and possum. Once, my uncle even downed a bobcat. After my mother dropped out of school in the 8th grade to help support the family she vowed never to eat another ‘coon. And, she never did.
They Day Electricity Came on the Back of a Mule
I’m 57 and remember when electricity arrived in the holler. It came from the road a mile away and strung from the back of a mule slipping and sliding down the almost impassable slope. It dangerously provided one light fixture with no switch in a house without wiring. You unscrewed the bulb to turn it off.
The closest telephone was a mile away at Speed’s General Store. Because of the snow, winter calls were impossible.
There’s more, but you get the essence.
From them, I learned much about the lives of the very poor. It’s easy for people like Gov. Romney to call safety nets with holes so big millions of people fall through them “adequate”. It’s easy for the fast-disappearing middle class to ignore these people…until they’re outsourced and suddenly find the safety net not nearly so safe as they thought.
I’d like to think I would be more compassionate than them, but without that experience I possibly would have been as blind to the “have nots” as Romney and the Tea Partiers (BTW, I don’t think my grandparents ever drank a cup of tea. They couldn’t afford it).
Just Another Muttonhead With Slicked Back Hair
I may not have had the privilege of seeing the back-breaking labor that stood between my grandparents and, in some cases, death. It would have been possible that I could never have fathomed a life that poor. That deprived. I’d like to think I wouldn’t turn into just another muttonhead with slicked back hair, a limo, and a gold spoon hanging from his mouth. But there for the grace…
I’m willing to vote for anyone in any party if, for once, they’d go live like my grandparents, or in the projects, or under a highway overpass for a week. I’d like to give them a sense of what an “adequate safety net” means. Just once. Just once.
Gov. Romney, my vote is yours for the taking. I’ll vote for you if you have the courage to live like so many other people in this country for only a week – hell, even a day. After that, I’ll campaign for you if you can just define exactly how it is that our safety nets are adequate. I’m waiting to give my vote to you right now.
Cross posted at The Omnipotent Poobah Speaks!