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Peter Van Buren Headshot

Who are the #99Percent? (Answer: They're Us)

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The House voted to reduce food stamp benefits (the program is now called SNAP actually, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, so you can sound odd while starving; it also uses a debit card system now, not actual stamps or coupons anymore.)

In the U.S. 47 million people get SNAP. In Ohio, like most places, they pay out the whole state on the first of the month, millions of people, Pay Day, Food Day, Mother's Day, people call it. Their kind of stores open early and stay open late on the first of the month because most people are pretty hungry come the Day, kind of mini-economic boom, or maybe more like a bear waking up in the winter to eat before going back to sleep. It's the government keeping families -- and businesses -- alive, 30 days at a time.

A single person with nothing to her name in my state of Virginia would qualify for about $200 a month in SNAP. We'll assume by now she's pretty skinny but 50 bucks a week for food is hard, hard. Sure, she can skip a meal if she needs to, and she does. However, in our America, something like ten percent of families with kids don't have enough to eat. Our system is trending toward telling those kids to go to hell if they're hungry.

Trick question; they're already there.

Attempts to provide health care to more people, however flawed or hesitant, are opposed by too many of us. The quality of education kids get depends on how much money they have. Buy a nice house in a good neighborhood, or settle for whatever is nearby staffed by whoever they can get for whatever they are paying. Worse for college, where it is just all about the Benji's. Same for safety. There's no surprise that six of the ten most dangerous cities in America are decayed industrial towns -- Flint and Detroit and Cleveland top the list. If the cops show up at all in those bad neighborhoods it's to stop and frisk. They're not there to protect you, but to protect them. While much of the disparity has been along racial lines, the new apartheid is one of dollars, not color, suburbanized.

So Get a Job

Unlike many other first world nations, we in America equate minimal life standards that benefit society as a whole and make a place more worth living in -- eating, health care, education -- with a certain level of employment. So, don't like what you got? Go get a better job loser. Lazy, dumb people get what they deserve. I work for a living. Sound familiar? Dickens had his character Scrooge say back in Victorian England that hungry children might best "starve so as to reduce the surplus population."

OK, I'll go get a job. But then our society creates a significant portion of our available jobs to fall under the level of livable employment. More and more jobs tumble into minimum wage (or less; any employee eligible for tips does not have to be paid even the minimum) and limit the number of hours available each week to keep everyone below "full time" so no benefits need be paid. This creates the Working Poor, a permanent underclass.

The system also allows ignorant people to blame the working poor for their own suffering (and the ignorant people can then content themselves "knowing" it is not their responsibility to help) when in fact there is no way out. Not everyone can get or afford an education (see above), and of course even with an education the number of "good" jobs is limited. Education and training do not create new jobs. New jobs create the need for training and education. Without those jobs, all you are doing is making trained unemployed people out of untrained unemployed people.

Welcome to the Jungle

Having lived and traveled in the real Third World, it is clear where the lines meet out in the future distance. In many of those countries, two worlds exist in proximity. Out "there" are shanty towns where life expectancy is short and life is mean and hard, where kids die of diseases easily fixed with common vaccines and medicine, where access to clean water is a daily challenge and where scavenging through the garbage of wealthy people counts as a job. The real 99 Percent.

Meanwhile, the smaller one percent group of wealthy people literally wall themselves off inside compounds. They send their children to private schools, they shop at exclusive stores and they either fly out for medical care or import doctors in. Other than household servants (paid as little as possible by people who keep as much money for themselves as possible) or perhaps some poverty tourism, the two worlds rarely meet. And don't talk about guns and some mythical American Spring. The rich are well-armed, up to private paramilitaries in some parts of the world. Opiates of all flavors work to destroy will. Poverty creates it's own sense of weakness, and in most cases the poor come along to too-quietly just accept their fate. Medieval serfs and Confederate slaves mostly did the same.

Future's Now

Absent a change in America, that's our future. Actually, some parts of America are ahead of the curve. Go to any large American city and we are mostly there; a few miles from some of the highest-priced real estate in the world in midtown Manhattan you fall into the free-fire zone of the South Bronx.

Prefer numbers? Between 1947 and 1973 actual incomes rose percentage-wise at the same level for about everyone. But from 1973-1993 the top one percent of Americans saw income grow seventy-to-eighty percent and today the one percent own forty percent of U.S. wealth. They own the jobs, the businesses, the stock, the land, maybe the people themselves.

We have created what is essentially a growing third world inside of our shrinking first world society. These collective issues -- and the question of what type of America we wish to live in -- are the most important events of our last 50 years, and the key challenges of our time. I hope to wrestle with them further here, and to explore them in depth in an upcoming book.