Powerlessness in the United States

Denis Murphy

NEW YORK—America voted Republican and repudiated its first black president. It seems to some, myself included, that while the voters censured Barack Obama and issues like his universal healthcare law, they were really censuring issues that lie much deeper in American society, namely the inequality and powerlessness that characterize its present economic and political systems. The voters looked with frustration and even hatred at Obama and his Democratic Party, but they did not lay a hand on the underlying evils. Voting Republican may make matters worse.

Powerlessness. During the recent Great Recession, approximately a million American families lost their homes; they couldn’t meet their mortgage payments, and their homes were repossessed by the banks. (Coincidentally, about a million homes were lost in Central Philippines during Super typhoon “Yolanda.”) Most often the American families first lost their jobs and so couldn’t meet the mortgage payments, or there was some other understandable reason for failure to pay. No mercy was shown; they were in effect evicted and left in the streets.

The right to a decent home is one of humanity’s basic rights. A million American families, despite all their education and contacts and constitutional rights, were unable to save their homes. That is a good definition of powerlessness.

I have been cautioned to add that many families took out very risky mortgages, and that the US government did eventually help some of them. Still and all, the basic truth revealed is that there is extensive powerlessness in the United States, throughout nearly all income groups. The homes lost bridged all levels through the poor and middle classes.

There was no organized protest, local or national, against the repossession of the homes. No small town marshaled its people to resist eviction. No politician took up the people’s defense. No effort was made even to delay the loss of homes. In sum, the families were not united in any people’s organization that would defend their rights. They were not united, and so they all hung separately.

Inequality. Related to the housing problem is the startling revelation that at least from the year 2000 to the present, the income of most poor and middle-class workers in America has stagnated, while the incomes of the top 1 percent of families have soared. In terms of real buying power, the legislated minimum wage in 1968 was higher than the wage today. (This is also true in the urban poor areas in Manila. In Baseco, Tondo, the average family income was P6,500 in 2002; it was P7,500 in 2013. However, adjusting for inflation, we find that the 2013 figure has 14 percent less real spending value than the P6,500 of 2002.)

How can we explain that a nation of hundreds of millions of workers like the United States, including some of the most intelligent men and women in the world, tolerates income stagnation among nearly all of its people, while the incomes of the top 1 percent take off like rockets into second- and third-stage flight? Americans have abandoned institutions, such as labor unions, that safeguarded their incomes, and no institution has taken their place. During the recent election campaign I didn’t hear one mention of inequality in income.

In separate referendums in five states, voters were asked to approve plans to raise the minimum wage, one of President Obama’s key issues. In all five states, the referendum won. If the issue of inequality is presented clearly, voters will choose social justice.

In sum, Americans have lost their homes and incomes because they are not organized to struggle for these. The same processes are underway in the Philippines, which already has one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in all of Asia.

America was once famous for the many different kinds of people’s organizations that met to discuss the people’s problems and take appropriate action. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political thinker who visited the United States in the early 1800s, was delighted with the citizen participation that he found. He warned, however, that if Americans ceased to join such organizations and did nothing more to safeguard their rights than vote once a year, real democracy in the United States would fail.

Americans have given up on labor unions, family farmers associations, Church groups such as the Holy Name Society, immigrant associations, and political party clubhouses. There is no institution now to stand between the ordinary citizens and the state and the very rich. We must restore discussion and common action. How to do so in our very complex societies is the problem.

It is hard not to be sad over Barack Obama’s fate. His administration began with historical hopefulness. It is sad to see it end in such rejection. Let’s hope he can recover and make his mark on history. His first news conference after last week’s election showed that he is still full of determination and passion for his policies.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates

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