Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Chill of the Winter Morning

Imagine this. It's the cold of December. Winter has hit. Blustery winds outside of 15-20 mph. Temperatures in the teens but made worse by wind chills in the low single digits (or worse). A good amount of snow outside and definitely more on the way. Just going outside to start your car means breathing in the chill and watching the steam of your warm breath fog up the windshield from the inside. Your fingertips redden quickly and sting from the touch of the freezing cold steering wheel.

Ah yes, it's the dead of winter already. The holidays are over and clearly this is time for these temperatures and the snow to become less and less enjoyable.

Now add this to your imaginary stroll through the winter wonderland in your mind. Instead of just starting the car, you're going inside of it - to live there.

It's happening more and more these days and the worst part is there appears to be no end in sight.

Someone close to me had a predicament come up where they were put in a situation by an unsavory family member who decided to kick them out of their place to live right after Christmas had passed just based on a mood swing. This left these people in a bit of a predicament. Being homeless in the winter, when the conditions are more dangerous than at any point of the year, should invoke a perking up of the consciences in all of us to try to prevent such things. As I have mentioned here before, part of our social structure as children at least in the stories we are read, the movies we watch, who we are as people should be encased in empathy for others.

In America it seems, most of our concerns are for ourselves. The Tea Partiers and Anti-tax crew rode into Washington thanks to a wave of electoral anger from the public in general on the very promise to cut social services that helped the people most in need.

It seems the "welfare queen" narratives of Ronald Reagan have taken shape and thus the poor are vilified for supposedly stealing the money of the hard workers in the middle class. Reality shows that corporate welfare is where there money is really being stolen but hey never let facts get in the way of a good rant against the downtrodden who can do nothing to combat you on it.

In conversations I have had with conservatives personally I have found very much of the same mindset that Fox News host Bill O'Reilly employed during Christmas week (and was promptly crushed in rebuttal by Stephen Colbert on). O'Reilly tried to use the infamous (and found nowhere in the bible) quote about God not helping someone that doesn't help themselves. That is self-justification to hoard your money and not give to others. In fact, Jesus... you know the guy they built the entire CHRISTIAN religion around, had other ideas about holding on to your precious belongings:

Mark 10:21
Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

Here's a few more for good measure:

To conservatives/right wingers it's not their problem. They have no obligation to help the poor or to help people in need. They can if they choose to but ultimately it is these people's belief that many of these people (if not all in their minds) "did it to themselves". The conversations I have personally had have been shocking and eye opening. They make blanketed claims of all homeless and exceptionally poor people being "too lazy to work" or "alcoholics" or "drug addicts". So this is their lot in life. Their penance in a world filled with punishments from their angry God.

To them they have been trained that being taxed is stealing from them. Liberals and most Democrats believe that it is a good thing to be taxed more to pay for public services and to provide a social safety net in case of worst case scenarios.

The rich approach every tax increase, no matter how minuscule, as if they were Mr. Potter - the warped frustrated old man in "It's a Wonderful Life" who basically stole an $8,000 deposit from the Bailey Savings & Loan to try to railroad them and their poor customers out of business for his own personal gain. Our government as it turns out, sided with Mr. Potter back then and would do the same now. They called such themes in a movie, "advancing communism" and "attacking capitalism". Our government has not changed one bit since then.

It's protect the rich and the bankers at all costs these days as well. When TARP and the bailouts came about they were put in place to prop up the banks, not help the people they scammed out of their houses with shady mortgages. Those CEOs who had helped run their companies and the American economy into the ground got bigger bonuses than ever... some even got bonuses just for procuring the TARP funds.

And of course to shore up unemployment extensions for 2 million of the 6 million people that need them, for a whopping 13 weeks, they gave the rich another $700-800 billion in extended tax breaks as well. President Obama, always looking out for the little guy (with as little of a fight as he can muster).

Still getting the tax breaks that have crippled America and helped foster the environment of greed that has collapsed the economy, outsourced millions of jobs (and entire industries) overseas should have been enough to quiet this group of thieves down. Unfortunately it's not. They're now passing around the 'Social Security is broke' meme to eliminate that "entitlement" which is just another way of saying, "Rich people have no problem with their retirements and don't want to contribute to society anymore".

This mentality is prevalent amongst that community of people and their brainwashed political allies on the lower income half of the scale.

The conservatives will pass around the information they find in a few various articles that they, not liberals, are more charitable to dispute my commentary here. ABC News had an interesting little article on this some time back in which they try to dispel myths but sort of avoid the obvious overarching themes to how these "myths" came into existence. A couple assertions they make (with my observations in parenthesis):

-Rich people give more in overall dollars than the poor but the poor give more in total percentage of income. (Well no kidding since the poor have far less to work with in total and anything they give to causes, bills, etc is going to have a greater impact on their total working capital.)

-People going to church give far more than those who don't and not just to their own church. (The reason is that churches are collecting for their church every single week - be that for food pantry/shelter services or just to use to advertise the church or whatever that may be for, as it seems this is not quantifiable in these reports as to where the donations are going to, so their parishioners are a bit more trained to give for the good of their church. Also they give to other churches - mostly other Christian churches - because many churches have networks in which their faith is practiced regionally in different locations with the same basic tenets of their faith. I doubt very seriously these Christian people are donating to Muslim, Jewish or other faiths' charities for the most part and a lot of times if they donate to non-affiliated Christian charities they do so just seeing the "Christian" label and with a large amount of ignorance as to what that sect stands for.)

There is apparently more overall giving to charity from conservatives than from liberals but we also must take a look into the pervasive mindset that makes that so. A larger portion of liberals are poorer than conservatives are, thus as noted above the dollar amounts will be disproportionate in favor of conservatives. Also, and this is based solely on my personal observations, conservatives will give more to charities to assuage their pesky consciences (for those who have such a thing) because they hope that in doing so it will be enough to allow others to perceive them as good people. Rarely do they research or care about whether a charity is actually doling that money out to the people they profess to help. They just do it hoping for the best and washing their hands of it.

While they give money to charity there are also other nefarious reasons for such that are discounted. Such as: tax benefits. Rich people receive hefty tax breaks for being charitable. Many times the only reason they are being charitable at all is to be compensated for it. Also never figured into this is how much this same cast of characters have spent lobbying Congress or local state governments to do away with social safety net programs. If a person gives $100,000 to charity, if they get a tax benefit for it and spent say $1-2 million lobbying against Unemployment Benefits, against Social Security Benefits, against financial regulation to keep people in their homes and prevent shady mortgages and did all of this while their donation went to say, Sean Hannity's charity - one of the most corrupt out there, should we applaud them for being so "charitable"? Can we figure out a net negative charity figure for them?

On the flip side, while liberals aren't as charitable dollar for dollar, they're usually the ones that attempt to go to Washington to help others. We have ridiculous amounts of money going into tax coffers every year and while tax breaks (especially for the poor and middle class) are valid, the ones for the richest of the rich are overly excessive. Also if we cut off a large majority of our military expenditures, stopped handing out corporate welfare and used the government regulatory commissions in a way where they were law enforcement and not racquetball buddies with the companies they oversee, there would be ample money left for the most generous of charitable expenses: Single Payer Health Care for All, Better Social Security Benefits, Expanded Section 8 Housing and more funding for homeless shelters/food pantries across the country, improved public education with repaired inner city schools and better teachers/class sizes, fully paid college education grants.

All of that is not only doable, but easily so if we stopped giving corporations the money to buy a big shiny knife to stab us in the back with.

So back to the topic at hand, these people that were close to me called around to find a place to stay. I don't live in the same state as them and am not an option for them to get to. They called the local shelter and found out there is a lengthy waiting list to get in. It seems they are full and there is nowhere for most of these people to go. In the dead of winter.

Now if this were an isolated problem I would chalk it up to them being in a smaller community (around 100,000 people) but it's not. In fact it's an epidemic and has been for a couple of years.

Providence, RI: R.I.’s homeless shelters overrun as weather, recession take toll

Dover, DE: No room at the inn this year: Area shelters are full up during the holidays

Omaha, NE: No Room At Homeless Shelters - Micah House, Open Door Mission report higher numbers

Lakeland, FL: Homeless Shelters Maxed

Minneapolis, MN: Homeless in Minneapolis

There are way more articles out there. Some are just byproducts of the people that tough it out normally coming in for the abnormally harsh weather condition days but ultimately that doesn't change much. These people are all still homeless.

Not everyone that is homeless is there because of drugs or alcohol yet the implication is there and made by right wing blowhards that this is their plight.

Nobody wants to talk about the real reasons for most of these situations. The greed of the wealthy. To make more money they step on more people. Massive sectors of the manufacturing industry were shipped to China and Taiwan and anywhere they could send the jobs for exceptionally cheap labor. If they couldn't send the jobs elsewhere because of the required geography for the job, they recruited illegal immigrants (ironically while attending Republican events and angrily yelling against those immigrant workers "taking our jobs"). They then took all the service industry jobs they can like call centers and such and sent those to India. No need for American workers making the American money they need us to spend right?

You can't talk about it because it shines the spotlight on who they are. When the real light shines down the roaches start running. In their protected little circles they can be hateful and spiteful of the poor. They can be bigots and make condescending jokes about those that they rip off and squash. When it's out in the open, they look like assholes and thus they try to turn their anger on you for shining such a light rather than discuss why they feel the way they do at all.

The income gap between the rich and the poor has been growing for a decade. Right now it's wider than it was during the Great Depression (strange how the media doesn't want to mention exactly WHY we had a Great Depression considering the direction we've been taken in the past 30 years).

According to the census:

The income gap between the richest and poorest Americans grew last year to its widest amount on record as young adults and children in particular struggled to stay afloat in the recession.

The top-earning 20 percent of Americans — those making more than $100,000 each year — received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent earned by those below the poverty line, according to newly released census figures. That ratio of 14.5-to-1 was an increase from 13.6 in 2008 and nearly double a low of 7.69 in 1968.

A different measure, the international Gini index, found U.S. income inequality at its highest level since the Census Bureau began tracking household income in 1967. The U.S. also has the greatest disparity among Western industrialized nations.

At the top, the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans, who earn more than $180,000, added slightly to their annual incomes last year, census data show. Families at the $50,000 median level slipped lower.

Add on top of that the indisputable fact that the poverty number is the highest it has been since 1994 AND that the total number of people in poverty is the highest it has been in 51 years and we're talking about a tidal wave of people requiring the social safety net Republicans and corporate Democrats want to gouge.

So when homeless shelters are out of room at a time when people can easily freeze to death what are they to do? The lack of temporary shelters means gathering together, starting a fire and wait for it, drinking alcohol to increase body heat. Hmm, maybe they're not all listless drunks after all. I suppose if you had to choose between some completely disconnected fool labeling you an alcoholic or staying alive because that same person voted for someone who cut off funding to your shelter or center while propping up the company that laid you off and the company that screwed you with a bad mortgage it would be an easy choice wouldn't it?

What's worse is, it's not just shelters that are strained. It's food pantries across the country that are running out of food. It's low income housing in various communities.

Charities, the ones that operate on the level (and try to use to help decipher how much of your money is actually going to program expenses so you get the best bang for your buck) are important pieces in helping to strengthen a community and providing a helping hand for those in need. However charity is not enough. We need to be a better society and we need our government policies to reflect this.

If you consider yourself a Christian I ask you this: What would Jesus do? According to scripture, not according to the way ideologues in your church or others might manipulate his words. Would Jesus allow his fellow man to die freezing in the cold? Would he allow people to go hungry and starve to death? Would he ask people to stay sick and not provide them with the health care they need? Especially ask yourself this: Would he do it for a couple extra tax dollars back on his paycheck to use for material things like extra DVDs, a TV set, a snuggie?

Outside of Christians I ask the same of you? Is this the type of society you want to partake in? One where the filthy rich on the top of the ladder control all the wealth and you fear for your job every day because to make that much more money, shipping your life away is but a minor inconvenience to them?

What makes you so different than those who are on the streets right now? Most of them were laid off from their jobs and were hard workers just like you are. Very few of them are the lazy stereotype that Reagan and his Neo-Conservatives wanted you to hate and demonize. Most caught a bad break. 20+ years at a manufacturing plant, laid off... weakened unions thanks to years of Republican demonization prevented a very strong severance package from being negotiated on your behalf. Trying to find work is rough especially when other CEOs for other plants in the area did the same exact thing. Move the jobs to China or Mexico to increase their bottom line and fatten their wallet with huge bonuses. You're nothing but a pawn in their game.

The months out of work eat up your savings. No college for your kids. No money for the bills or the mortgage. No place to work soon means no money and no place to live. Just like that you have slipped from one station in life to another. Middle Class Blue Collar worker, The Pride of America, to homeless bum who probably deserves it and is probably a junkie.

Sure, they could have gone back to school. Amassed a ton of school loans they couldn't pay off. Retrain themselves for a new workforce. Of course then when they finally get out of school they'll notice the stark reality that what they went for has now also been outsourced. Computer related jobs? Hope you can relocate to India pal. The piece of paper you thrust yourself into debt for is now but a window dressing to the failure your life appears to be. College Grads with Masters degrees are flipping burgers at Fast Food joints or checking people out at the local big box retailer. They're young and still struggling. Who wants to hire a 40 year old who worked in a now obsolete field in the American workplace and then went to school to train for another obsolete field in the American workplace?

This is not an exaggeration. This is the current landscape. The American experience.

The people I know personally and mentioned above, they're working on various options and may not end up on the street at all. However we know what they're facing if it happens to get that bad.

We need our policies, our politics to be one where we're not just looking out for ourselves right now. Our tax dollars need to be directed in ways that prevent companies from shipping jobs overseas in such a laissez-faire manner. One that protects our money by closing corporate loopholes and regulates companies the way they are supposed to be. One that doesn't waste incredible amounts of money on military boondoggles. One that then redirects that money towards the welfare of the people to give the American people the bailout they deserve.

Protecting Americans from the greediest among us and providing us with the help that charities can't possibly try to provide at every turn.

Aside from politics, find your local shelter or pantry. Donate money or time if you can and try to help. It's rewarding in ways that cannot even be described. I brought my 11 year old son with me to help with last year's Salvation Army Thanksgiving Dinner and honestly I think it helped shape him as a person and probably helped in attempting to make his a better citizen and greater part of society in the future. All of us need to have such an experience. These are our fellow men, women and children. We all live a shared life experience here on this planet and we should do whatever it takes to make that experience one where we look out for one another as well as ourselves.

In Washington with our policies and in our neighborhoods with our deeds, we can prevent more people from having to venture out into the winter cold for good. We can help people from having to worry if every morning they inhale the cold breeze under a blanket, will be their last.

The question is: Who's side are you on? George Bailey or Mr. Potter?