Summer Class War

Poverty, charity and politics.

Last week, Elizabeth Edwards injected some excitement into the Fray, taking John Dickerson to task for misunderstanding her latest campaign commercial. My fellow Fray Editor, Adam Christian, has ably summed up the ensuing discussion. Though the issue danced around the margins, her appearance sparked an equally compelling conversation about her husband’s signature issue – the plight of America’s poorest.

Many readers were downright disdainful of the “Two Americas” theme, decrying it as the worst kind of divisive demagoguery. Some found concern for the impoverished by the privileged to be inherently hypocritical. Others thought it diverted attention from the eternal suffering of America’s beleaguered “middle class.”

As the debate unfolded online, I was on my own short trek through this “other America”—riding the dog from Los Angeles to Oakland. Among my myriad traveling companions was a single mother of four—children ranging in age from one year to seven. I can’t say she had a gentle disposition, but for someone trying to raise four kids with few resources, she was doing an admirable job. Her kids seemed happy and well-behaved, trained to recite their home address, and adequately clothed and fed. At one point, the three-year old cheerfully volunteered that his father was dead. His older sister reprimanded him, insisting that Dad was just in jail for a very long time. A telling insight into the gulf between the lives of these children and that of  the Bazelons came when the toddler spotted two police cars along the side of the road with their lights blazing. “Look, guys! Police cars!” A pause. “Everyone hit the floor!”

In my experience, there are indeed two Americas. From what I’ve observed, the “other America” doesn’t vote, fears rather than respects the law, and fights like mad just to get by in this world. So far as I can tell, political America largely ignores them, resents them, and prefers to rally behind the banner of Bush’s self-interested slogan: “It’s your money.”

While I agree with drdorin that the Edwards are performing an admirable service by injecting this issue into the 2008 campaign, Daniel Gross’ piece on law-firm charity most sharply spot-lighted this issue last week. Gross took to task the charity lunch program of a prominent New York law firm. The program encourages summer associates to cut costs on sponsored lunches and donates the savings to legal service charities. Gross criticizes the program, finding it inadequate, pompous, and self-interested.

The former manager of a non-profit, Pierce N. V. Post, points out that charities don’t care whether donations make you smug: “We just want the money.” Recent law school grad, MADMouse, considers the program an act of resistance to “the decadence of the summer associate experience.” An idealistic law student, bennyprofane, feels personally slighted by Gross’ analysis. “Many [law students] are middle and lower middle class kids who want to change their position on the socio-economic ladder and pay off their substantial debts.” Such programs empower students saddled with tremendous debts to nevertheless direct some money to charitable causes. Acidtongue reminds readers that even such token gestures force one to “stop and think” about the needs of the less fortunate.

First-time Frayster Dare Not Walk Alone offers a powerful anecdote of self-interested altruism:

For the last two years, my wife and I have been involved in the life of very poor family in the small town in North Florida in which we all live. Although this family resides less than two miles from us, they are, in so many ways, a world away. The head of the household, Mary, is now 60 and for nearly two decades she has been raising three of her daughter’s children, two girls and a boy, while their mother has been in jail. One granddaughter is 13 and still in school, the other is 18 and in jail. The grandson is 21 and mentally disabled. Mary’s own son is 20 and just went to jail for what could be the next 20 years. At various times Mary has nursed numerous family members in her home, including the grandmother that raised her. Contrary to popular stereotypes, our country’s welfare programs do not keep this family fed and housed and cared for. Mary was born and raised on a share-cropping farm in Georgia. She was 16 the first time she saw a dollar bill. She worked as a dish-washer at a large hospital here in North Florida for nearly two decades but received no pension or long term benefits when she quit. She had to quit because the engine in her car died and she didn’t have the money to fix it. Most cities in Florida have little or no public transportation and with a heat index that is often over 100 degrees in the Summer, a four mile walk or bike ride to get to work is hardly a realistic option for a woman whose blood pressure is currently around 220/140. When we met Mary she still needed a car to get to work. We found her one and sure enough she found a job and went back to work. But then her house burned down. The fire broke out from a dilapidated stove used for heating. Right after the fire, the Red Cross put the family in a motel, but would only pay for three nights. Through the kindness of strangers, and my wife’s abilities as a negotiator, the family spent two months in an ocean front condo while she corralled all the paperwork required to get Mary into the County’s one federally subsidized housing project. That is where Mary and her family live for now. After 60 years of raising a family, working hard, and caring for others, Mary’s one and only capital asset is the tiny lot on which her house once stood. The cost to rebuild the house so that she has her own home again: about $50,000. Mary may not have much in this world but she definitely has pride and principles. Even so, it is ridiculous to think she would turn down a new house for her family just because the funding came from rich lawyers for whom the gift was a PR stunt that cost nothing.

The American economy is often described as a game, producing winners and losers. This analogy seems to underlie arguments such as gringo_911’s, that “people who fail in a rich country with very small unemployment and abundant opportunities [don’t] deserve to get free housing, free health care, jobs, dignity, respect and voice.”

Not all games treat their losers the same. In “Butts Up,” the savage recess game of my youth, winners pelt losing players with tennis balls. In conventional games, when winners behave with graciousness towards the defeated we call it “sportsmanship.” In the context of the American game, what does sportsmanship look like? Where is the line between honorable victory and vindictive abuse?

If you’ve any thoughts about the role of class, charity, and politics in America, we’d appreciate hearing from you in the FrayGA3:00am PDT