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The Poor Get Poorer

When Jamie Dimon arrived on Capitol Hill a couple of weeks ago to explain his bank’s two to three billion dollar mishap, Senators fawned all over the dutifully repentant banker turning the hearing from accountability into an object lesson in the cozy relationship between Washington and Wall Street.  Senators were assured that this was a one-time fumble on the part of the bank and that those responsible would see their bonuses reduced.  Don’t expect the resulting belt tightening to be too severe.  Dimon used the occasion to argue against banking regulation, arguing that no customer money was lost.  The Senators decided this was an appropriate time to ask Dimon for his advice on pending legislation.  What a lovely time they all had!

Meanwhile, the Senate passed a new farm bill this week that cuts $4.5 billion dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps).  Bread for the World estimates that this could impact as many as 500,000 families and would reduce monthly SNAP benefits by $90.  The majority of those affected, of course, are children, the disabled, and the elderly.  Advocates for the poor were left having to express gratitude to the Senators for not eviscerating the program even more and, as the bill moves to the House of Representatives, the fight to limit the cuts to the Senate proposal will be fierce.  Paul Ryan’s Republican budget proposal would cut SNAP by $134 billion over the next decade.

As far as I know the Senate Agriculture Committee did not invite poor people to testify about the bill.  As those most severely affected by the legislation, one could make a case for making the Senators listen to the impact of their votes.  The representatives of the industry that plunged our country into recession roam the halls of Congress freely, finding open doors everywhere.  Poor people?  Not so much.  When I was meeting with Senate and House staff earlier this week to discuss Israel-Palestine policy, I didn’t see anyone who looked poor.  It makes it easy to lay the burdens of our economic disaster on them.

MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes describes the phenomenon as “social distance.”  It’s not so much that people of wealth buy votes.  What they buy is relationships that shape worldviews and perspectives.  Like the group of $50,000 plus donors who are spending the weekend with Mitt Romney at a resort retreat in the Rockies.  The social distance between these folk and poor people is vast.  If you’re planning a huge addition to your oceanfront house in California, as Mitt is, that includes a four car garage and an elevator to move them up and down from storage, it is hard to really get inside the life of a person who has just managed to move out of a shelter into a small apartment on the west side of Chicago.  And with social distance often comes a kind of functional indifference.

Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s book, On the Brink, describes the efforts to save Wall Street and the economy in 2008 and 2009.  What struck me about this fascinating book was the lack of social distance among the principals – the heads of Wall Street banks, the senior layer of leadership at the Treasury Department, the regulators, the Federal Reserve Bank, and the White House.  Hectic days were filled with phone calls and meetings of people who represent different interests – allegedly – in our political and financial system, but who are essentially all members of the same club, all referring to each other by nick names with frequent references to family and school connections.  It was all about social intimacy.   But between almost all of them and the poor there exists vast social distance.  Is it any wonder that these vulnerable voices are seldom heard and rarely represented?  Is it any wonder that recovery has become a trickle down operation that rescued those at the top first, and is making its way down toward the most vulnerable Americans at an agonizingly slow pace?

When candidates spend the majority of their time courting wealthy donors, the social distance from the poor increases.  And as our financial system consolidates into fewer and fewer banks “too big to fail,” and financial service institutions grow far removed from the local communities they are expected to serve, social distance and the resulting invisibility of the poor breeds unconscionable behavior.  Cutting only $4.5 billion from food stamps begins to look like generosity to those who host $10,000 a plate fund raising dinners, who wouldn’t know how to use food stamps if they were given a card to try at the super market, and who haven’t had a real conversation with a poor person in years, if ever.  So be grateful, you poor.  But for my beneficence it could have been worse.    “Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5.20)  Lord, have mercy.

John Thomas

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