“Class Stories”

“Class Stories”
A Sermon by Joshua Leach
Delivered on Sunday, August 7, 2016
At The First Parish in Bedford


Opening Words, by Bertolt Brecht
Truly I live in dark times!
Frank speech is naïve. A smooth forehead Suggests insensitivity. The one who laughs Has simply not yet heard
The terrible news.
What kind of times are these, when
To talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?
When the man over there calmly crossing the street
Is already perhaps beyond the reach of his friends
Who are in need?
It’s true that I still earn my daily bread
But, believe me, that’s only an accident. Nothing
I do gives me the right to eat my fill.
By chance I’ve been spared. (If my luck breaks, I’m lost.)
They say to me: Eat and drink! Be glad you have it!
But how can I eat and drink if I snatch what I eat
From the starving
And my glass of water belongs to someone dying of thirst?
And yet I eat and drink.
I would also like to be wise.
In the old books it says what wisdom is:
To shun the strife of the world and to live out
Your brief time without fear
Also to get along without violence
To return good for evil
[Such] Is accounted wise.
All this I cannot do.
Truly, I live in dark times.
[…] But you, [who come from the future …] when [your] time comes at last
When one person is truly helper to another
Think of [those of us who came before] With forbearance.


The Sermon:

At the beginning of the summer I drove out to Traverse City, Michigan on my way to General Assembly, to help celebrate my grandfather’s 90th birthday. To occupy myself along the way I downloaded an audiobook of Robert Putnam’s recent sociological bestseller, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Putnam, whom you may call from his classic treatise Bowling Alone, has made a name for himself over the past twenty years by crying doom about the decline of “social capital” in this country. What he means by this is what he sees as the fraying of all the small ways in which we encounter one another in this society across class and racial lines, in the form of communities and collective efforts that aren’t defined just by force or economic necessity. In one book after another he has charted the decline of public libraries and schools and churches and civic groups and even bowling leagues (hence the title) – and the rise in their place of the opioid crisis and the prison-industrial complex. Our Kids picks up this same theme, applying it now to what has happened to the real life chances of children in this country over the last several generations, as ours has become a society that is now more stratified and segregated by class than it has been for nearly a century.

From the perspective of a Sunday morning here in leafy-green Bedford, all this can perhaps sound like a bit of a Jeremiad, an out of touch exaggeration of social peril. Bedford reminds me a great deal of the kind of suburban towns I grew up in, and in which most of our UU churches nationwide can be found, and doesn’t give me cause to worry about the dissolution of community. The Boy and Girl Scouts are still here, the public education system appears to be flourishing, we have a Chief of Police and School Superintendent whom everyone seems to know by name – it all fits not only with my notions about how things are supposed to be, but with what I on some level still think of as “average America”. Look around here and you won’t think that our “social capital” has deserted us, or even diminished much over the past few decades.

Driving through the interior of this country and with Robert Putnam going on the speakers, however, I am reminded over again of how little of today’s America is what I and many other privileged people consider to be “average America.” Our “average America” has been built to scale on a model of what we thought that America was supposed to be, but this has become the realm of an ever smaller subset of the country. It occurs to me how much of my life has been spent flying from one Bedford to another – and how much that is not Bedford I pass unseen along the way. I am reminded of a time when I was living in Chicago and a friend from high school was visiting me. The two of us were walking through the heart of downtown Chicago’s shopping district on our way to Water Tower Place when we literally came face to face with two other members of our 75-person graduating class from a small private school in Florida. We were all stunned by the coincidence, but I see now that we shouldn’t have been. Chicago’s Michigan Avenue is one of these many Bedfords – a socio-economic bubble frequented by people who still think of themselves as “average” and “middle class” but who are becoming less and less that, and in which they are likely to run into only people who are very much like them. This is what happens in class societies, and should only surprise us if we still want to believe that ours is not a class society. Old Etonians aren’t surprised to run into each other at Monte Carlo each season – why should we have felt any differently? What would have been surprising is if we had seen each other on 62nd street, or Cermak, or any of the other places in Chicago where some people live, grow up, and go to school, and other people are warned never to go.

Several forces work against our fully realizing the extent to which we have become a divided society. One, paradoxically, is the very extent and pervasiveness of the class segregation itself. We are so hermetically sealed from one another that we never even see people who live differently than we do, so we assume there is no segregation at all – it must just be that all Americans now have Macbooks and iPhones and advanced degrees.

The second is the fact that it all happened so fast. Those of us who grew up in the different world of yesterday, or who inherited from our parents the expectation that America was a country without social classes, where everyone got a fair shot and an equal chance, we have all been blind-sided by what has happened to this country in a matter of a few years. Robert Putnam tells this story in part through personal stories such as that of David; but he also wields a wealth statistics and sociological detail that add up to a devastating indictment of the turn our country has taken.

As recently as half a century ago, the United States enjoyed a high water mark of social and economic equality – a mutual prosperity that was distributed, if not quite evenly, then at least relatively broadly across America’s social classes. Strong labor unions and collective bargaining rights, robust redistributive taxation, and the new post-war social welfare programs all contributed to make ours into a substantially middle class society.

It should come as no surprise to us that these equalizing social programs were layered on top of profound disparities in the way people were treated on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation. And we are wise to remember that many of these programs were implemented in so deeply uneven a fashion that they may actually have entrenched the economic supremacy of particular groups. As Debby Irving put it when she spoke to First Parish last year, the G.I. Bill was if anything a form of “affirmative action for white people.” As discriminatory as the postwar welfare state may have been, however, its decline has only deepened the inequalities of race and class in this country and has shattered many poor, working class, black and Hispanic communities.

Over the past fifty years, middle class Euro-Americans have always been the first to benefit from public spending – social security for instance – and the last to feel the sting when it is withdrawn. In the 1980s and 1990s, when inner city black and Latino communities were already experiencing the massive hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs and other sources of support, the government pursued a policy of actively divesting from these communities. As the government de-institutionalized the mental health care system, flat-lined funding for Head Start and other social programs, and “ended welfare as we know it,” millions were left to fend for themselves. The epidemic of crack cocaine use was born from this social nightmare, as people turned to the drug as a means of relief from despair or as a form of self-medication after affordable public mental health care had been withdrawn. From following the public discourse of these years coming from America’s pundits and politicians, however, you’d never guess that this is what was going on. Instead, the media in those decades was full of discussions about the quote-unquote “culture of the ghettoes.” A host of culprits were identified – baggy pants, backward hats – everything but the loss of jobs, the deliberate withdrawal of public investment, or the fact, say, that black neighborhoods had been systematically ignored in lead clearance efforts and other public efforts to remove lethal toxins from our homes and waterways.

The government’s only response to the crack epidemic, meanwhile, was not to prioritize addiction counseling or substance abuse treatment, but to incarcerate ever more people for decades of their lives for nonviolent offenses. Which is to say that the U.S. did pour money into one publically-funded social program in these years – namely, the prison system – and the police force that fills it. The result is that today the only interface with public authorities that people now have in many communities is with officers whose only mandate is to uphold of the law through force. The only time when people suffering from mental illness encounter social workers is after they had been taken down to the station as criminals. As Black Lives Matter activist Alicia Garza has put it, we could have been a “care state,” but we chose instead to become a “police state.”

Again, so long as it was primarily minority communities that were experiencing the effects of these changes, however, we heard them discussed only in terms of “crime” and “culture” in the inner cities—in other words, in terms of things which these communities, presumably, had done to themselves, rather than things that had been done to them by decades of public policy. This indifference that so many of us displayed as Euro-Americans is coming home to roost now, however, as substance abuse, addiction, job loss and community breakdown are plaguing white communities to an extent never seen before. The problems of the inner city are all our problems now; and the public discourse has changed accordingly. Our political and pundit classes are now no longer rooting around for the sources of the trouble in our so-called “culture” – they are seeing that the problem is in our economy and politics – the deliberate choices we have made as voters that have had the foreseeable consequence of turning us into an ever more stratified, unequal, and unraveling society.

To give only one example of the choices we have made, we can look to the 1996 welfare reform bill. Many of us here will have a clearer memory than I do of when this legislation was passed, and the justifications that were given for it at the time. The intent of the bill was to “end welfare as we know it,” and was informed by a belief that cash assistance to families in need was actually deepening the hold of poverty in many parts of the country, by trapping people in the so-called “cycle of dependence.” The goal of the bill therefore was to reduce the number of people whose only source of income was the welfare check, and on its own terms, it was relatively successful. Across the country after 1996, welfare rolls shrank state-by-state. This was taken as a sign of progress. People must be finding jobs and building new lives, if they are getting themselves off the rolls.

To assume this, however, is a bit like assuming that the closure of a hospital must mean that there are no more sick people. We know enough now from seeing the 20-year impact of the reform bill to know that people weren’t all leaving the welfare rolls because they’d found better opportunities – they were leaving because the state-run welfare programs were downsizing. As the older Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program was eliminated with the 1996 reform bill, poor families were left with a much narrower range of support. The food stamp program, WIC, Medicaid, Section 8 and other programs continue to provide in-kind benefits of various kinds, but they offer no cash assistance for the sorts of routine household expenses that any family needs to survive – clothing, new shoes, school supplies, furniture or appliances. The result, as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities now estimates, is that the number of families living on two dollars a day or less of actual liquid cash has doubled in the 20 years since welfare reform.

While the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program that replaced AFDC offers some cash benefits for a defined window of time, the program funds are allotted in block grants to the states, who decide how to use them. Each of the states is required, in theory, to direct these TANF funds toward the alleviation of poverty, but the 1996 reform bill defines this goal in such vague terms that there is no guarantee the money will ever reach families who actually need it. A recent report by an NPR podcast The Uncertain Hour, tried to follow up, state-by-state, on just who was getting the welfare money and where it was going. They found states where TANF funds were being devoted to marital counseling sessions for middle class couples, where they were urged to compare their “love styles” in order to become more compatible. They found TANF-funded pregnancy crisis centers that served primarily to steer women away from abortion services. And they found TANF-funded scholarships to higher education that were going primarily to children from upper-middle-class families whose parents were making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. The reporters on the podcast interviewed some of these well-heeled families to ask how they felt about receiving funds that had originally been designated for people living in extreme poverty. One scholarship recipient whose family makes $200,000 replied that she hoped there were still enough funds left over for needy families after she received her tuition assistance.

Your child needs a new jacket, and it’s winter time then by all means I hope that there’s enough money […] [But] I [also] know that I’m going to take my education and use it wisely and get a great job and hopefully I can buy a jacket for Christmas for one of those other kids that needs to stay warm.

Here is the response her parents gave:

I personally think it’s terrific because just because a kid grows up in a home that might have a little bit more money than the next, [it] doesn’t mean that they’re not entitled to some help from the government for college. I mean, it doesn’t matter how much money you make, you’re still forking over $30,000 a year for college is a hardship.
[…]the welfare money is supporting the kids, to go to college and if this is something that can help, make an experience better for them, they’re going to pay taxes and contribute to the society in the long run. I won’t necessarily think of it as a welfare gift to the family, I would think of it as a welfare gift to the kid.

Plainly, it is not hard for privileged Euro-Americans to understand the advantages of public investment in children and families when we are benefitting from it ourselves. We believe in the virtuous circle such investment creates, whereby one person is granted a helping hand and is thereby empowered in turn to help another, when it is our kids who are getting the help. But so soon as other social groups are on the receiving end we start to talk about “dependence” and waste.

Thus, even as the impact of rising inequality is beginning to be felt across racial lines, and even as the relatively well-off are beginning to see that none of us can go it alone – that we all occasionally need help along the way from the larger community – I am worried that this is not leading us in the direction of the “care state” to which Black Lives Matter activists refer, but to a scare state – to a world in which each group – precisely because we have finally realized what we’ve turned our society into – will try to clutch its advantages even closer to the chest than it did before.

From the vantage point of the summer of 2016, at any rate, it does not appear that the devastation that many white rural and rust belt communities are experiencing is leading us to act in a spirit of solidarity with black and Latino communities who are suffering under the same economic forces. Rather, we are hearing ever more rhetoric that blames our problems on immigrants and “crime” – often a code word in American politics for racial others. This is an old pattern in American life, a tried and true method for keeping people apart from one another who should have a community of interest – a Southern Strategy for the twenty-first century. Never before in recent history, though, has it taken on such exaggerated and alarming forms.

Toward the end of Our Kids, Putnam offers the following prognosis. “An inert and atomized mass of alienated and estranged citizens,” he writes, “might under normal circumstances pose only a minimal threat to political stability[….] But under severe economic or international pressures […] that ‘inert’ mass might suddenly prove highly volatile and open to manipulation by anti-democratic demagogues at the ideological extremes. […] Without succumbing to political nightmares, we might ponder whether the bleak, socially estranged future facing poor kids in American today could have unanticipated political consequences tomorrow.” Putnam’s book was published in its final form only last year. I don’t think he could have imagined while writing it how very quickly this dark prophecy would burst into reality.

It is not only Donald Trump and his followers, however, who are trying to hoard what privileges they have in our increasingly polarized society. Each of us, no matter how apparently secure our own economic future, becomes less generous, more afraid, more miserly the more unequal our society becomes.

This is one of the ways in which the inequality is a terribly self-reinforcing problem. The worse life becomes “on the other side,” the more dangerous and over-policed the other folks’ neighborhoods, the worse their school system, the more the bonds of community and social support are attenuated across the tracks, the more we cling to our own advantages so that we never have to go there. As one well-off parent – the beneficiary of a flourishing suburban public school district — told Robert Putnam and the other researchers in Our Kids: “If my kids are going to be successful, I don’t think they should have to pay other people who are sitting around doing nothing for their success.” This quality – or inequality – of American life – this fevered race for advantage and devil-take-the-hindmost attitude is not only distorting our personalities and our values – it also, as Bertolt Brecht once wrote – has the potential to make life in this country positively infernal, and not just for the poor.

Even the houses in Hell are not all ugly, Brecht writes.
But concern about being thrown into the street
Consumes the inhabitants of the villas no less
Than the inhabitants of the slums.

This is the means by which we become prisoners of our privileges as much as our disadvantages. In the very effort to get ahead of the curve in a stratified world so that we no longer have to be afraid, we end up making ourselves captive to fear.

By contrast, a sharing society, a helping society, one that invests in all its people, regardless of race or class, would liberate the rich as well as the poor, Euro-Americans as well as black Americans. We would be empowered to help others more generously when we are able to trust that our larger national community will be there for us too, when we need help. This is what the Black Lives Matter movement means when it speaks of building the care state, and putting to rest at last the police state we have reared in its place.

The alternative course is to compartmentalize, to try to exclude the world outside our bubbles from the range of our conscious awareness, to warn one another not to go past 60th street in Chicago or into Dorchester on the Red Line, or perhaps to tell ourselves that it could not be otherwise, anyways — that some will have and others will lack and that is the way of the world. To think this way, however, is not only to deny the full humanity of others, it is to deny our own. We can never be complete so long as we exclude from our minds and hearts those parts of ourselves that belong to others, and that yearn – whatever we sometimes say to the contrary – to live in a different kind of world. I am reminded of the words of Robert Burns:

If [one is] design’d [another’s serf],
By Nature’s law design’d,
Why was an independent wish
E[v]er planted in my mind?

Sometimes the problems can seem so great as to be overwhelming and impossible to solve. I take comfort, though, from some of very things that make this problem so frightening. I said toward the beginning that we have been blindsided by our crisis of inequality and it’s true—it happened alarmingly fast. But we know that something that happened in so short a time can be remade just as quickly. We know from our own pasts or from the pasts of our parents that it does not have to be this way. Our own society was not this way even forty or fifty years ago. We have a different model, and better way, before us. We have seen time and again in our country’s history how much we all lose when we erode our institutions of helping, and how much we all have to gain from building them up.

Please join me in singing our final hymn, # 149, Lift Every Voice and Sing

Closing Words from Amos 5 (Adapted):

It is an evil time. The poor are turned away at the gate. The rich impose a heavy rent upon them, and exact a tribute of grain.

Therefore thus says the LORD,
“I hate, I reject your festivals,
Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.
“Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.
“Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
“But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.