Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Honest Work, Honest Toil, Honest Living

“Work—honest work —is not degrading. The man who by honest toil earns an honest living is a peer of the realm.” – Eugene V. Debs

Terre Haute’s Gene Debs was concerned with respect, social and personal respect, for the working class. And “honest work” and “honest toil” always deserves unqualified respect.  But today that kind of honesty often does not add up to “an honest living.”  The “living” part is the problem. In far too many cases today, honest work fails to earn what most of us would call a living.

It is a good thing that the jobless rate in the country continues to fall.  During the Obama years the unemployment rate has fallen from 7.8% to 5.1%  (A seven-year low, see “Tribune-Star,” Sept. 5, 2015).  Thank you, President Obama.  Ask the gaggle of Republicans running for president about these impressive figures and they change the subject very quickly. 

Except for Donald Trump, of course.  He seems to think the Labor Department has it all wrong. His secret calculation comes out to 40% being unemployed.  I have a secret calculation as well. It places the Chicago Cubs in an eight game lead in the Eastern Division of the National League. Unfortunately the Cubs are in the Central Division.

But Republicans and Democrats know the unemployment rate does not tell the whole tale, let alone the worn sneakers on the ground real story, of honest workers in America.  Facts show the working poor and much of the fast disintegrating middle-class has been on a downward slide for at least forty years.

And during the Obama years, as a National Employment Law Project reports, taking inflation into account, “median wages across all occupations fell by 4 percent between 2009 and 2014. Wage declines in the lowest-paid occupations were much worse, dropping 8.9 percent for restaurant cooks and 6.2 percent for home health aides.”  Honest work in restaurant kitchens and honest toil caring for the sick and the infirm just aren’t adding up to Debs’s “honest living.”

Bernie Sanders is trying to pound this issue home.  Hillary Clinton is sternly considering and proposing plans to rectify it.  All Democrats who have been near a union hall in the last five years know about it and show slip-sliding degrees of concern. They know what the realities are.  Now they have to do something about it. Something like putting the $15/hour minimum wage high in their talking points speeches, and front and center in the 2016 Democratic Party Platform.

And the Republicans? Not so much in terms of reality or empathic understanding. From their sealed realm of privilege, luck, and dollar-bill success, we hear of public policy being based on random passages from the Bible. After all, the working poor are the meek who will collect trust fund checks in the next, better world. Let’s not mess with a good thing. And besides, the working poor don’t vote, won’t vote or can’t vote.

And when worship-the-magic-market Republicans leave the shelter of church pews and put on their green eye-shades and crunch numbers (and families in the process), they convince themselves that the U. S. of A. is all about mountain high profits and tooth and claw individuality.  No room here for reasoned paths to equal opportunities and cooperative social justice.  Again, let’s not mess with a good thing. And besides, the working poor don’t vote, won’t vote or can’t vote.

Now the Labor Day holiday is over.  And honest work still fails to yield an honest living for far too many in our labor force.  And timid Democrats are still complicit in this disturbing prospect. And  lock-step Republicans still support this disaster.  And Governor Pence (Tribune Star, September 6, 2015) still asks Hoosiers to celebrate the state’s economy while a whopping 34% of working Hoosier families live on incomes 200% below the poverty line, the child poverty rate in Indiana is a heart-rending 22%, and women living in poverty is a grinding 17%.

We are a fortunate, rich country. And Debs's honest living is still within our reach. We can become the peers of the realm if we act on the promise and fulfill the duties of our representative democracy.

[Letter appeared in  Terre Haute Tribune Star, September 13, 2015]


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