“Are there no prisons? … (no) Union workhouses?”
— Ebenezer Scrooge, expressing his indifference toward people in need.
In the strange and divisive politics of our time, there’s one thing we know for sure: In an otherwise wealthy country, more people are being left behind.
Coal miners in West Virginia, textile workers in North Carolina, factory workers in Michigan, mill workers in Oregon, farmworkers in California, homeless people in Santa Rosa — all can testify to the paradox of American prosperity in 2018.
There are, after all, two Sonoma counties — one featuring Wine Country estates and the other featuring people living in cars and alleyways.
In a wealthy country, this makes no sense. It’s neither smart nor humane.
Nevertheless, the chasm between rich and poor continues to widen.
Close to home, there is this: A 2014 study, using census tract data, found that someone born into a household in east Santa Rosa can expect to live nine years longer than someone born only a few miles away in west Santa Rosa. Median incomes in some eastside neighborhoods are more than twice the median incomes of some westside neighborhoods.
Here’s what the Economist magazine reported last month: “If you were to ask most Americans which is the poorest state in the nation, they might say Alabama or Mississippi, with their low average incomes and concentrations of African-American poverty. In fact, the state with the largest share of people in poverty is California. As the most populous state, it also has by far the largest number of poor people, 7.4 million.”
This happens in big cities and small. Drive around some of the small towns in this state, and you’ll see parts of California you won’t recognize. Economic growth is happening in large cities, while small towns are suffering economic decline.
In our politics, we try to assign blame to people who have less. If only they got a job, it is said, they wouldn’t need the help of others.
It’s just not true. In 80 percent of California households living below the poverty line, one or more residents is holding down a full-time job. They are, literally, the working poor.
The California Budget and Policy Center estimates that a Sonoma County family with two children and one wage earner would need to make $59,000 a year to cover basic needs (even with employer-paid health care). That would be the equivalent of a job that pays more than $28 an hour. Lots of folks wish they were so lucky.
Wages are not keeping pace with the cost of living. The Economist reported that more than half the Californians living below the poverty line spend more than half their income on housing. For them, there’s not enough left over for food and clothing — and all the things others get to take for granted.
In the past, homelessness was blamed on addiction, mental illness and other social ills. Now it’s common also to list the cost of housing among the principle reasons for people living on the street.
Even in the turbulence of the current political debate, there’s nothing liberal or conservative about worrying about the decline of the middle class. This ought to be everyone’s concern.