Today Congress is set to vote on the $825 billion economic stimulus package that is a good political balance between infrastructural, long-term economic stimulus — the multiplier effect — and tax cuts and incentives that will allegedly prime the economic pump in the short term. Great. We have a plan that almost no one is happy with, politically or practically, that no one is sure will work, and that few outside of the neocons think has enough infrastructural stimulus in it. Still, it’s better than what the Reagan Administration did to deal with the last great economic recession of 1981-83, nearly two years of icy cold economic stagnation and decline.
Both Obama’s package and the malignant neglect of the Reagan Administration of the working poor and the bitterly poor have much in common, in that the “raising all boats” philosophy of economic growth remains out in the cold. Yeah, some shoring up of COBRA for un/underemployed workers in need of health care help. Extending unemployment payments and putting more money in the system so that states don’t have to dip more in their bare coffers to make those payments are helpful. More of the plan looks like the same old, same old than even the most optimistic care to admit.
We have more people unemployed now than we did in October-November ’82, when the unemployment rate hovered just under 11 percent. The unemployment rate may be significantly less than that (at least for now), but the number of folks unemployed is currently at a twenty-six-year high. Whatever else could be said, at least Obama’s response has been to do as much of something as possible, even if the “something” isn’t much for the poorest among us.
I should know. This time twenty-six years ago was my mother’s last week or so working for Mount Vernon Hospital as a supervisor of the Dietary Department. Not that she loved the job, but she had been working there for more than sixteen years, including fourteen in a supervisory role.
Now some of what happened to her in this job was her own fault. Six months earlier, my mother had a choice to make, between standing in solidarity with her co-workers on the picket line and crossing the line to keep money coming in. Although she was a decade-and-a-half veteran of Mount Vernon Hospital, my mother never joined the union. She didn’t want to pay “them bloodsuckers” dues, and said that she “couldn’t afford them” anyway. That was her excuse for becoming a strikebreaker.
Who could blame the union for going on strike in July ’82? Now only was unemployment nationally was at ten percent, and Mount Vernon’s rate was probably double that. Inflation in ’79 and ’80 was about 14 and 11 percent respectively, and was over seven percent in ’81. It had easily wiped out any cost-of-living raises over the previous four years and management had refused a five-percent-per-year increase in wages over three years. Even I realized at twelve that the union had little choice but to strike.
Despite my mother’s negative attitude around unions, her co-workers and friends—all union members—hoped that she would join them at the picket line. My mother refused, citing parental hardship and the need for money as reasons. I can only imagine how much spit and venom my mother faced on her way to work every day for three weeks. Considering our financial state, which I knew because I checked the mail and looked at our bills every day, picketing and getting union benefits might have been better than working. It wasn’t as if there was food in the house to eat anyway. She was taking food from work and bringing it home for us to eat for dinner at least three times a week. As much as enjoyed Mount Vernon Hospital’s Boston Cream Pie, I thought that picketing for a better wage was the better way to go. My mother’s fear for our short-term future would be one of the worst mistakes she ever made.
The hospital’s concession of five percent increases per year over three years at the end of July left them looking to cut costs. The only personnel left vulnerable were non-union service workers and their supervisors. In October ’82, my mother had been cut to half-time by her boss Mrs. Hunce. Of the two other supervisors, one was a “West Indian” woman—my mother’s language, not mine—with seniority, the other a “White girl” with less than three years of experience but had a union card. My mother was screwed, but it was a screwing of her own making, at least in part.
I wasn’t surprised, but the news made me ask myself “What else could happen?” After all, our Hebrew-Israelite diet had declined to the point where the last week to ten days of every month was spent eating Great Northern Beans and rice, and that was when my mother worked full-time. The first month after the work reduction, all we had left to eat in our two-refrigerator kitchen was a box of Duncan Hines’ Devil’s Food cake mix, Pillsbury All-Purpose Flour, and some sugar. And this was six days before my mother got paid again. That last weekend in October, we truly ate like Torah-era Jews. Mom made us pancakes out of the flour, without baking powder, eggs or milk, and cooked down some sugar in water to make us a crude glucose syrup.
The other shoe, though, was that my mother was pregnant, again, with the baby that would become my only sister, Sarai. To say the least, this was the first time in my life that I truly thought that my mother was stupid.
It wasn’t completely her fault, though. Between the inflation-fueled recession, the inevitable transition of our economic to cheap service industry labor, and Reagan’s efforts at union busting, my mother had some rather difficult choices to make. Through in an abusive, un/underemployed husband, four post-natal kids and the sheer sense of helplessness that comes from all of this, and it become easier to empathize with what my mother was going through. Like many of us right now, she was desperately attempting to hang on, to her marriage — even though she likely knew he wasn’t worth it — to her kids, to our basic food, clothing and shelter needs.
Reagan’s tax cuts didn’t help matters. Nor did his decisions to keep the minimum wage at $3.35 an hour, to reduce unemployment benefits, to keep what used to be AFDC — welfare — stagnant, to basically shred the already thin social safety net created by FDR during the New Deal years of the Great Depression. My mother and my family, forced to go on welfare in April ’83, had become a socioeconomic statistic because of dumb decisions and the Reagan economic agenda. We were now a part of the underclass. Being on welfare did save us from homelessness, but it did nothing to inspire us to think of having a brighter future.
Whatever else can be said about Obama’s package today and it’s limited impact on the poor, it in no way can be said to be making things worst for the poorest among us. It may well be too much to expect a plan that cleans up more than three decades of political expediency around the nation’s economy and infrastructure, and this package is hardly the best it could be. Maybe, just maybe, it will help to make another mother’s decision to fight for living wages and her kids easier and not harder. And keep those teetering between working poverty and TANF welfare poverty from falling all the way in the rabbit hole.