I’ve never heard of anyone here in this rich land “of opportunity” or anywhere else express the ambition of being poor. We don’t have to be economists or social scientists to know that, beyond its impact on our daily existence, where we are on the economic spectrum is a matter of life and death. As reported in a recent the Harvard Gazette article, “Being poor in the United States is so hazardous to your health…that the average life expectancy of the lowest-income classes in America is now equal to that in Sudan or Pakistan.” Researchers found that the richest American men live 15 years longer than the poorest; the richest women 10 years. While people at the top are doing better than ever and the gap between them and everyone else continues to widen, eight out of ten American workers make $10.50 or lower in hourly wages. The idea that the poor don’t work is a heartless myth. They do, and often at more than one low paying job. Despite all the hours, they have no guarantee of staying, much less climbing, out of poverty. Perhaps the majority of us are living reasonably (or even very) well, but a huge percentage of our fellow human beings live at the precarious edge.
We have spent considerable time since November pondering the impact and dangers of Donald Trump’s ascendency. But without the rise of the twenty-first century GOP and its prevailing rightest orientation, there would be no Trump presidency. He is a natural progression, not an anomaly. That brings me to the current House generated healthcare overhaul proposal and the accompanying debate. While not sharing their point of view, I can understand an argument for smaller government or greater state empowered federalism. What boggles the mind is why the contemporary Republican mindset seems so heartless and mean spirited. It is an ideology which, beyond all else, is particularly harsh on the least fortunate among us. Their reluctance first to expand and now to attack Medicaid in the currently proposed legislation is but a metaphor for a larger and more profound poor-punishing agenda including, but certainly not limited to, a frontal assault on public education.
The purposeful, and in my view criminal, disregard for environmental science and its potential dire consequences will also disproportionately have life and death consequences for the less well off. I was reminded of that in a weekly farmer’s market conversation with a fellow relocated New Yorker and lifelong Democrat. An affluent retired surgeon, he vehemently opposed Trump’s candidacy and was set on edge by his victory. He told me last week that he and his wife are so concerned that they are actively considering relocating to Canada. He added, and here is the point, “because we can afford it, something which sadly most people can’t.” He was talking about politics but also about the advantage of wealth. When it comes to the environment, that's a life and death differentiator. Those with means will surely suffer from climate change, but they can move from the coasts and shield themselves more from polluted air – perhaps not for ever, but longer than others. The poor will disproportionately lose their shelter and on the Coasts will likely helplessly drown as seas rise. They will go hungry first when parched inland soil no longer yields sufficient food for survival. That current 15/10-year differential in male/female life expectancy is likely to expand further if heartless no-action or regressive environmental policies are put into place.
Presidential budgets, regardless of who issues them, are routinely “dead on arrival”. Only Congress can initiate and pass budgets. What they do tell us is the president’s intent, his philosophical mindset. Despite pious campaign and continued pronouncements that, for example, everyone will be covered by and pay less for healthcare, Trump’s budget carries no good news for the poor or for the many more who live at the hazardous margin. They won’t be seeing any greater return for their efforts. According to a 2015 piece by economist Robert Reich, more of these people are working, and working harder than ever. In contrast, at the top more of the rich are living on inherited wealth and among them the trend is working less. Heratio Alger’s children and grandchildren are well taken care of, thank you. They have more disposable income and time on their hands than they, or their heirs, can ever use. Yes, I’ve never met anyone who aspired to be poor, to be a victim of the heartlessness that abounds in the land these days.
Public policy is headed in the wrong direction with these people in charge. Trump’s faux populism may still resonate at his ongoing rallies, but it’s born of systematic disinformation, the kind that feeds on, though not exclusively, a fear of “the other”. But authentic fact-based populism is bound to follow. People may be fooled once or even a couple of times, but not for ever. At some point, they do reach that “can’t take it anymore” moment. It will require a response, one that is both openhearted and substantive. Clocks can’t be turned back even if the current leadership gang is working so diligently to do just that at this moment in time. As I write, the train of our future certainly hasn’t yet departed, but be sure it is already waiting at the station. It’s in our national power to keep it from leaving. How we care for those who have less, how much extra life we afford them, will ultimately determine our future and well-being. It’s really a matter of urgency, of life and death.