I called a man today. After he said
hello and I said hello came a pause
during which it would have been
confusing to say hello again so I said
how are you doing and guess what, he said
fine and wondered aloud how I was
and it turns out I’m OK… I said
he could have his job back and during
the pause that followed his whiskers
scrubbed the mouthpiece clean
and his breath passed in and out
in the tidal fashion popular
with mammals until he broke through
with the words how soon thank you
ohmyGod which crossed his lips and drove
through the wires on the backs of ions
as one long word as one hard prayer
of relief meant to be heard
by the sky. When he began to cry I tried
with the shape of my silence to say
I understood but each confession
of fear and poverty was more awkward
than what you learn in the shower.
After he hung up I went outside and sat
with one hand in the bower of the other
and thought if I turn my head to the left
it changes the song of the oriole
and if I give a job to one stomach other
forks are naked and if tonight a steak
sizzles in his kitchen do the seven
other people staring at their phones
~ Calling Him Back from Layoff, modern Euro-American poet Bob Hicok
In mid-September, the Boston Globe’s editorial staffpublished a handful of articles reflecting on these ten years since the Great Recession. The Great Recession and financial crisis deeply harmed our nation’s and global economies in 2007-2009, but now I regularly read that our country’s economy has bounced back and that the markets are strong again. Per media reports, stock market is booming; the official unemployment percentage is low; poverty rates are decreasing; and, median household income has returned to pre-Recession levels.
Though historically used for investigating criminal suspects, the Latin phrase cui bono?comes to my mind: “to whom is it a benefit?” I do keep wondering: who is benefitting from our country’s economic resurgence, and who is still being left behind?
Despite strong reports about our economy post-Recession, the data show that many Americans are impoverished, or extremely vulnerable to becoming so. The Census Bureau reportsthat in 2017, 12.3% of Americans (about 320,000 people) meet the federal guidelines for being impoverished. As reflected in our local Boston GlobeSpotlight team articles about racism, there are stark racial disparities in the poverty rate, with black and Latinx Americans suffering more often in poverty, due to generational impacts of racism and xenophobia. Though household income has bounced back from 2007, CNN reportsthat Americans’ wealth and savings have not recovered in the same time frame. And, while average household income has reached pre-Recession levels, that does not mean it has kept up with inflation, nor that every household has recovered. As reported by CBS News, nearly 80% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck.
When Revere’s Necco plant abruptly closed this summer, there was an outcry in local media outlets for the two hundred workers suddenly without jobs. Many elected officials met with Necco employees, organized job fairs, and kept the workers’ struggle in the public eye. But, in the latest article I could find on the topic, many of those workers (especially those who had worked at Necco for many years and expected to retire from the company) still hadn’t found new jobs. What about those workers and their families who had lost savings during the financial crisis and Recession, and were already struggling to make ends meet? I wonder the same for families in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, where many homes and businesses were destroyed by Columbia Gas’s negligence — how many of them lived paycheck-to-paycheck, and fear now that their homes won’t be rebuilt or their jobs won’t come back in time?
In an analysis of a recent Luxembourg Income Study, economics professor Timothy Smeeding found that when countries invest in social services beyond common basics for senior citizens, they are rewarded with a massive decrease in poverty. For example, Sweden invested 11.6% of their GDP into social services, and it yielded a 77.4% reduction in their poverty rate. Smeeding also found that the United States spent far less of their GDP (only 2.3%) on social services beyond senior citizens, and as a result, reduced poverty in our country by a much smaller degree (only a 26.4% reduction). Our country has simply not invested enough in our social safety net, and many are being left behind. In Needham and MetroWest Boston, the lacking social safety net is obvious to those of us living at the poverty line and those of us who work in public service roles. While wonderful organizations like Needham’s Community Council and Center at the Heights offer essential services, many in our community still struggle to make ends meet and there isn’t enough public funding to help. Slate reportsthis is common throughout high-cost-of-living suburbs. Our local, state, and federal governments need to re-prioritize spending and invest in social services.
In short, it seems to me that the United States isn’t a true sanctuary for its residents, especially not those who are financially vulnerable. As we look ahead to our congregation’s justice work and to the upcoming midterm elections, I pray that we First Parishioners, Unitarian Universalists across the nation, and all those who hope for a better America, will work and vote together to co-create a country without any poverty at all.