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More Than a Turkey Give-Away

Sustaining the great national myth of Thanksgiving these days – happy families gathered from near and far around a groaning table – requires more and more willful denial of the economic realities our neighbors face. More family members must work on Thanksgiving at low paying retail and restaurant jobs. Fewer family members can afford to travel on Thanksgiving. And fewer families can afford the cost of a lavish dinner. Like so much else in our society, the Rockwell-esque myth is more and more distant from the realities of poor and working class people.

While the lavish shopping season opened this weekend on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, The Tribune reported that one of the trends emerging out of the Great Recession is the shift in manufacturing jobs from high paying regular employment to low paying contract employment. Even as the recovery gains strength, and unemployment rates drop, an increasing number of factory jobs are filled with temps hired not by the companies themselves, but by staffing agencies. Wages are low, benefits frequently non-existent and racial discrimination is often hidden behind the actions of outsourced staffing companies. Workers are, of course, non-union, giving them no leverage for addressing abusive employment practices.

The story of one worker tells the tale: As a regular stockroom employee before the Recession Sara earned more than $11 an hour. Now, five years later, Sara was hired as a contract worker to do the same job, but this time as a temp earning $2 less per hour. Even assuming she is able to work 40 hours, she will bring home less than $360 a week. Not much of a Thanksgiving celebration possible with that.

Part of our denial is thinking that Sara is the unfortunate victim of a changing economy shifting away from heavy manufacturing to service and high tech. And of course, there is some truth to this. But most of Sara’s challenges are the result of deliberate policies and decisions, corporate and governmental, going back to the Reagan/Thatcher years in the US and Great Britain. Two bits of data from Thomas Piketty’s landmark study, Capital in the Twenty-First Century tell a sobering tale. First, beginning in 1980 the purchasing power of the minimum wage in the US has been in steady decline from $9.6 to $7.2. Second, from 1987 to 2013 the total number of billionaires in the world rose from 140 to 1,400; the total wealth of these individuals rose from 300 to 5,400 billion dollars.

The list of sins is long: Trade policy that moved jobs out of the US, refusal to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, deregulation of financial institutions that led, in significant measure, to the Great Recession, stripping rights from public employee unions and scaling back benefits of retirees to pay for the misdeeds of politicians who grossly underfunded pensions, the refusal of policy makers to provide adequate job stimulus or address the housing foreclosure crisis while bailing out large financial institutions, the explosive growth of the influence of money in politics (one of those billionaires is now the governor-elect of Illinois, spending over $27 million of his own money to get elected), the radical inequality of public school funding, tax codes that benefit investors over wage earners, corporations over individuals, the refusal of many states to expand Medicaid and the continuing assault on the Affordable Care Act. . . .

Even natural disasters appear to benefit the wealthy these days. Studies of the recovery from the mega storm Sandy show that the historic blue collar bungalow communities that shaped life for generations of families along “the Shore” in New Jersey are now being replaced by multi-story, multi-million dollar mansions. Working class families who used to enjoy a respite from hard work in modest beach homes inherited from their parents and grandparents now watch a new class of residents adding to their real estate portfolios.

The descent of the working class into near or complete poverty is no accident. It is willful policy and willful indifference – private and governmental – and as its corrosive effects creep across our economy the health of our democratic society is increasingly challenged. The great Thanksgiving myth was never an accurate portrait of America. But it did reflect an egalitarian vision of America shared across class lines. Today that vision is fading, replacing the happy family tables across the land with one of wealthier and wealthier people serving up free turkey dinners at churches and shelters to the families their own well protected privilege is relentlessly impoverishing. This Thanksgiving our national prayers of gratitude would do well to include some national repentance as well.

John H. Thomas
Thanksgiving, 2014

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