Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Right to Boast - Part 1

"When it shall be said in any country in the world, 'My poor are happy, neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty, the streets free of beggars; the aged not in want, the taxes not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of happiness': then may that country boast of it's constitution and government."

Those are strong words. Those are the words of Tom Paine I believe, written during the Revolution. In fact, I believe they were in his tract called Common Sense, where he essentailly writes about the failings of what the British called their Constitution.

What I want to do is look at some of these quantifiers in real terms relative to the United States. There are several, including poverty, homelessness, education, crime, the elderly, and taxes.

First I want to point out two things first. One is the indicators that Paine used: the poor, and downtrodden. Notice that he doesn't mention a middle class working group, other than in the issue of oppressive taxes. He mentions the elderly, the poor, and the beggars. I think this is a significant statement. He does not say they don't exist, or that even under a good government they will not exist. What he does acknowledge is that they will be there.

Second, the condition of those people is reflective of a philosophy that the conservative Tories of the day, and the conservatives of today do not believe in. The liberal philosophy that has been consistent through the centuries is that of government being nurturative. A government that cares. Not that it eliminates the state of being poor. But look at the conditions of the poor: they are happy, not ignorant or in distress. The government is some regard has stepped up to provide for basic needs for these people. No needs to look no further than New Orleans to see how little care modern conservatism has for it's own citizens. Conservatives believe they are the disciplining over lord. Mankind is basically bad. Each individual needs to pull themselves up by their own bootstrap, no matter how difficult the government makes it. The liberal philosophy believes that we need to help each other, and that to a certain extent, the government, and the United Sates government in particular, should step in to meet some of those needs. It's a nurturative philosophy, that believes in the eseential goodness of man. The Preamble of the Declaration of Independaence and the Constitution make this fairly clear.

So on to the detail!

First, the poor. Ah, what a fertile field this is. Especially since the word has slight nuances to it these days. First, let's recognize the Census Bureau's report that acknowledges that poverty rose as a percentage as well as actual numbers of people. Most surprisingly, the increase came in the category of non-Hispanic whites. What I find really distubing is the threshold for poverty. A family of four has a threshold of slightly over $19,000. That means that between mom and dad, they make $9 an hour. There are plenty few jobs in America that are paying $9 an hour with benefits. So that means that for those living in poverty, they are getting health care and food subsidies. So lets look at what it costs to live the American dream.

The median house price, accordinding to the March 21, 2006 USA Today, was $213,000. That roughly requires a wage of $35 an hour to purchase. Not to mention a vehicle, insurances, food, savings, etc. The types of jobs developing in this country are not those that pay $35 an hour. They are the low wage retail kind, according to the Bureau of labor Statistics. The BLS also states that the median wage in America is $44,000. Even that won't buy a house unless two parties are working.

Add to this the reality that more and more people lose their health insurance every year, and poverty becomes a real issue. What we have come to call those that make between the poverty threshold and the level required to own a home in America is the working poor. That class of people that are one disaster away from ruin. One incident requiring care that their insurance doesn't cover, or that isn't covered because they aren't insured and they make too much money to meet the state standards for partially subsidized insurance. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, the number of individual foreclosures is up, and those behind on their house payments. These are the working poor. The middle class that is disappearing. The American dream that is turning into a nightmare because poverty is growing, not diminishing.

"My jails are empty." This isn't the America we all live in is it? According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a branch of the Department of Justice, as of year end 2004 there were "2,135,901 prisoners were held in Federal or State prisons or in local jails...." That represents less than 1% of our population of 280,000,000+. Two million sounds like a large number. Less than 1% doesn't. And we all hear the horror stories of prison life. What the numbers reveal though is that this population is growing. Violent crimes is up, property and drug related down slightly. According to, the US has an estimated one fourth of the worlds prison population. has a list of populations country by country, and it lists the US at 295,000,000+, and the world population at 6,446,131,400. That makes the US population 4.57% of the world total, yet we have 25% of the world prisoners? What can this mean?

The first thought that jumps to mind is that our justice system is screwed up. How many of those incarcerated are there for dumb reasons? In other words, how many people are there for small items like petty theft and marijuana possesion? Or are we trying to say that the prison population is primarily serious criminals? And we all know the stories where the guy who kites a check gets 20 years while the murderer gets 8. And how many of those in jail are repeaters? Are we as a society rehabilitating, reintegrating these people back into the world? I suppose when the world they return to is the same slum, that there is a better chance that they will repeat. I think at that point I would have the same opinion: no one cares. And when these felons get out, they are in some states, unable to participate in the system. They can't vote. So legally we bar them from reintegrating to a large extent. But we can certainly take their taxes.

The upshot is, our jails are not empty. They are growing at about 3.4%, according to the Justice Department. So there is work to be done here.

Here ends Part I


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