Bankrupting the Middle Class

New Orleans: Looking at the increasing stratification apparent in higher education leads one inexorably to the fact that even as poor and working families are locked out of a better future, many middle class families are falling rapidly on the slippery economic slope. 

 Statistics included in several articles recently in The American Prospect made this point in some alarming ways.  Among them were these:

  • In 2004 more families with children will file for bankruptcy than divorce. By most standards of measurement, these families that are busting out would have been considered solidly middle class.
  • A family with children is now 75% more likely to be late on credit card payments than a family with no children.
  • Home foreclosures have tripled in less than 25 years and – you guessed it – families with children are more likely to lose the roof over their heads.
  • Economists estimate that for every family filing officially in bankruptcy court, another seven (7) should have done so.

The authors of these notes, Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, are hopefully sisters, which would at least say something good about families!  Underlying their point was the fact that one of the critical drivers for the economic misfortunes of families in contemporary society is the increased cost of education – even so-called public education.  They make a compelling case by adding the cost of pre-school education (not provided publicly in most locales); the hidden costs of buying houses outside income ranges in order to located near the “best” schools; and, then having to finance college educations by hook or crook, which have soared phenomenally when compared to other increases including those involving wages.  No wonder these families are falling below the financial waterline.

This has to be a classic paradigm of a rat race on a quick turning wheel.  Families believe in education as the way up and out.  They do everything they can to get ahead, including betting the “ranch” in many cases on the future – and the gamble is increasingly losing.

And, here’s the bitter harvest. 

First, as we saw the educational wealth gap has increased, so even if they get jane or junior in the fancy school, the misery is not going to find much company, among the increasing rich and wellborn. 

And, worse, despite the depth of the worldwide ideology of education being the surest ticket to success, it turns out that is also a cruel illusion.  A study by American University’s Thomas Hertz finds that “only 7 percent of those born into the bottom economic fifth make it to the top fifth as adults, while about 40 percent stay in the lower fifth like their parents.” 

So, gotcha!  1 of every 14 or so is ever going to crawl up the economic ladder to the top while about an equal number will make it up a couple of rungs perhaps and their places will be filled by others from the middle class who are as likely to move down these days, as to move up.

There’s a country song that used to ask, “How do you get someone like that to vote Democrat?”  God knows, but however these middle income families are voting, it sure as heck isn’t working out too well for them or anybody else.

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Looking Under the Hood

Kansas City: There is no small amount of excitement in writing about a significant victory in a serious and long-term fight as I did in reporting on the tentative agreement with H&R Block.  The campaigns are so intense and riveting that once done, the report feels mundane.  Partly because it is hard to adequately convey all of the events, large and small, which drive our work to victory and allow us to get the traction to win. 

 I thought about this today standing in the gray drizzle of the late Kansas City morning and helping the ACORN national board load-up on the yellow school buses to go on an action which in this case targeting Jim Oglesby, the CEO of MGE (Missouri Gas & Electric) to prevent continued shutoffs.  It made me smile remembering Mary Daley, the executive director of Northwest Bronx, Clergy & Laity Concerned, when she jumped up in a meeting in North Carolina some years ago and stated in the loudest terms that she wanted to address her remarks to real organizers, and not freelance activists.  She turned on the crowd and demanded to know how many of them had ever loaded up yellow school buses?  And, the organizers roared!  They knew what she was talking about, and the rest were clueless.  Little yellow school buses mean direct actions.  Actions mean members getting in the bench seats and rolling to action.  A modest count in a recent three month period indicated that “the little yellow buses” rolled on H&R Block more than 400 times between December and February alone! 

 Looking under the hood one can see how the engine driving these programs really works!  There are a couple of other stories that give the more humorous side of how actions, campaigns, and negotiations really work. 

 Yesterday, literally as our committee walked in after our prep session before what we hoped would be our final session with H&R Block, as I walked into the conference room, I took my glasses out of their case and they FELL APART IN MY HANDS!  So, there we are looking at the company spokespeople across the table, and I was blind as a bat.  Blackberry messages and cell phone calls vibrating at my hips, proposals being passed back and forth, and I had to get my fellow committee members to read me the documents every time we took a caucus and finger out the messages on the blackberry.  Madness!  We were bringing this agreement in on a blind man’s bluff!

 In a similar vein we had gotten some support to put up an “opposition” website directed at H&R Block called www.dontbeablockhead.org.   Our contractor got the site up finally about a month after we had begun hitting the company, luckily the very weekend before our first meeting with representatives of H&R Block in New Orleans.  Like many of these sites, the whole point was to barrage the company throughout the campaign with emails from supporters.  We thought that was happening, but a rep of the contractor finally asked us right before tax day, April 15th,  if we wanted to send the whole 800 odd emails to the company then:  aaaarrgh!  In short this tactic had effectively yielded NO pressure on the company – so much for our slick stuff, eh?  Our web guy, the unparalleled Mark Madere, tried to make us feel better by pointing out that at least we were a little slicker than the company, because we (which is to say, he!) had figured out how to send all 800 emails out at once, and the company seemed to have been forced to literally have some person individually type out email answers to every one of the messages by hand.  Sort of a, “we may be horse-and-buggy, but they’re still caveman” kind of comfort, which is not much comfort, really!

 Our car drives smoothly and powerfully enough, and over the long haul can really purr, but often when one looks under the hood, the engine is a confusing and mysterious thing.  As one stares down in the guts of it, it is sometimes an amazement that it gets going on the highway at all.

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