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Posts Tagged ‘income inequality’

Traveling between worlds can give you whiplash

In animals, beauty, behavior, culture, domestic life, food, journalism, life, travel, world on March 27, 2014 at 1:22 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The first thing I did upon my return from a working week in Nicaragua — the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti?

I took a long, deep, hot bath. In our time there, we only encountered heated water once, in the Best Western Hotel in Managua.

It was the first of multiple culture shocks…

The morning after my return to suburban New York, I got into our 12-year-old Subaru and drove; I hadn’t driven once, as we had drivers there, or took taxis in Managua.

Jose Luis, our driver; Alanna, our team leader -- and our push-to-start-it van

Jose Luis, our driver; Alanna, our team leader — and our push-to-start-it van

The road at home was smooth and paved. I had never thought to question, or appreciate, that.

Our old car started smoothly. That, too. Here’s a push, in 98 degree noon-time heat:

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I drove quickly and easily to my destination, with no bumps or potholes to dodge.

Here, I travel by foot, public transit or car. The bus ride from Bilwi — a 90-minute flight by Cessna — takes 24 hours.

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Here’s the dugout canoe in which we crossed the river to watch Linda work her fields.

 

 

Now that's a commute!

Now that’s a commute!

Here, I walked into a white tiled bathroom, with metal stall walls; this is the toilet at Linda’s home in the countryside.

 

Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp!

Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp!

 

Normal work for me, and many of you, means sitting at a desk, indoors. Here’s our photographer Rodrigo Cruz working in the Wawa River:

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I got into the elevator at my destination this week to ride up five floors — I hadn’t used an escalator or elevator in a week; most Bilwi buildings were made of wood, and two storeys high at most.

Across the street from our hotel in Bilwi

Across the street from our hotel in Bilwi

 

The streets here in New York have no animals on them, unless they’re road kill; on our final morning in Bilwi, a brown horse ambled past our hotel, riderless, unaccompanied. At Linda’s house in the countryside, we were always surrounded by them: a gobbling turkey, a contented, muddy pig, a flock of cheeping chicks, the Brahmin cow who wandered over to the well at sunset and kept me company while I bathedand many piles of fresh dung!

We saw very thin dogs everywhere, but only two cats. Life without the companionship of animals feels lonely!

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Buildings and houses here in New York are black or white or gray or brown, a sea of blandness. The houses we saw, everywhere, in Bilwi and the countryside of RAAN were painted in glorious colors: turquoise, emerald green, fuchsia, brilliant yellow, often using wood cut into patterns or laid on the diagonal for visual interest on a verandah. Beauty relies on imagination, some tools and a can of paint.

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Instead of breakfast alone at my dining table, we ate together from containers on our laps. Here’s a typical lunch:

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Here are Joshua, WaterAid’s country director, Jennifer Barbour and Alanna on Linda’s porch; she has a separate building next to her sleeping quarters for the kitchen.

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Here’s Linda’s (typical) stove/oven:

 

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Because it is still winter here in New York, the landscape is dull — still brown and sterile. The morning we left Bilwi, the town on the Atlantic coast we stayed in, brilliant red hibiscus glowed in the morning sun, as did wide, green palm fronds and lilac bougainvillea. Pale yellow butterflies flitted past us.

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The tropical rain forest glows green with towering banana and coconut palms and curved, feathery bamboo. It felt like walking into a painting by Henri Rousseau.

This painting in a Managua museum captures it

This painting in a Managua museum captures it

On our final night in Bilwi, the team went out to a disco, where men and women – 80 percent of whom live with no running water in their homes — arrived in stilettos and make-up and sequined tank tops. As we stood on the sidewalk afterward, a young man, clearly high and ill, drooled and begged and dropped to the pavement to caress Joshua’s shoes. The national police, rifles slung over their shoulders, cruised past us in a black pick-up truck.

My breakfast blueberrries in New York came from (!) Chile. One afternoon our rural RAAN hosts chopped open some coconuts from their tree with a machete — fresh juice and meat!

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Our view here is of other buildings and the Hudson River. Here’s the view from Linda’s home.

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We ate lunch in Managua in an upscale cafe, its prices marked in U.S. dollars, ordering food common in the U.S. — panini and cappuccinos. After a steady diet of Nicaraguan food: rice, beans, plantains, fish, a bit of meat — no green vegetables and very little fruit — it was disorienting. There was a case filled with cupcakes and cheesecake and cookies; no restaurant we had been to, in a poor town, had ever offered dessert or sweets on the menu. I’d never considered fruit, vegetables or sweetened foods a luxury or oddity. They are, for many people.

At home I work alone, all day every day. Here are Dixie, our translator (in the hammock) and Laxi, WaterAid’s community liaison, on Linda’s porch in the village we visited. Working with a dedicated and easy-going team is a blessing.

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As we canoed the Wawa River in a dugout, we sat on seats freshly-hacked from a piece of bamboo by Ailita’s machete. How refreshing to watch her casually, quickly — and generously! — make it herself. That sort of self-sufficiency is something so many of us now lack.

Every day, The New York Times — even as it runs front-page stories about poverty or income equality — runs ads from luxury purveyors like Chanel ($1,500 shoes) or Tiffany or Seaman Schepps, an old-money jeweler; recently offering a gold bracelet at $18,750.

The currency is the cordoba; 25 = $1 U.S.

The currency is the cordoba; 25 = $1 U.S.

That’s eighteen years’  of an average Nicaraguan’s annual income.

The head spins…

 

 

A country splintering into angry shards

In behavior, business, cities, culture, domestic life, immigration, news, politics, urban life, US on February 20, 2014 at 12:37 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Americans know the expression, E pluribus unum.

(Here’s a definition)

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The idea is that, with more than 300 million people sharing a sense of national identity, we’re all just American.

Not really.

Not any more.

Every day now seems to offer another horrific story of racial, economic and political division splintering the country into angry, gun-toting, vitriol-spewing shards.

Two men shot and killed two people who were behaving, they thought, disrespectfully — one, texting in a movie theater:

It started with a father sending text messages to his daughter during the previews of a movie.

It ended with the 43-year-old man shot dead amid the theater seats, and a 71-year-old retired police officer in custody.

The shooting Monday during a 1:20 p.m. showing of “Lone Survivor” at a Wesley Chapel, Florida, movie theater escalated from an objection to cell phone use, to a series of arguments, to the sudden and deadly shooting, according to police and witnesses.

the other, annoyed by music from a nearby vehicle:

It was November 23, 2012, when Michael Dunn pulled into a gas station in Jacksonville, parking next to a red Dodge Durango full of teenagers.

The teens had pulled in for gum and cigarettes; Dunn, meanwhile, had just left his son’s wedding with his fiancee, who’d gone inside the convenience store for wine and chips.

Dunn didn’t like the loud music — “rap crap,” as he called it — coming from the teens’ SUV. So he asked them to turn it down.

What followed next depends on whom you believe. Dunn claimed Davis threatened him, and he decided to take matter into his own hands upon seeing what he thought was the barrel of a gun sticking out of the Durango.

But prosecutors asserted that it was Dunn who lost control, firing three volleys of shots — 10 bullets total — at the SUV over music he didn’t like.

Here’s a recent New York Times piece on the ongoing battle to integrate poorer Americans into the wealthy precincts of Westchester County, which stretches from the Hudson River in the west to Long Island Sound.

I live in this county, in a town that has always been, and continues to be, economically and racially mixed: subsidized housing for the poor; rental apartments and houses; owned single-family houses, owned multiple-family houses, co-op apartments and condominiums.

In our town of 10,000, you can find a $10 loaf of bread at one food store while another shop sits between two projects — New York jargon for government-subsidized housing. Here’s a recent story I wrote about Tarrytown, explaining its diversity and appeal.

It’s one of several reasons I felt at home where when I arrived in 1989 and, even though the town has changed with the influx of much wealthier residents in recent years, (many fleeing Brooklyn and Manhattan’s real estate prices), I still like that diversity.

But the town of Chappaqua, a 15-minute drive north of us, is home to former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with a median income of $163,201.

From the Times story:

Few places on the planet are as enviable as this Westchester County hamlet.

Stately houses are set on spacious, hilly lots shaded by old trees; its village center has gourmet restaurants and bakeries; its schools are top notch and its 9,400 residents have a median household income of $163,201, ranking the area roughly 40th among America’s wealthiest communities.

It is no surprise that Chappaqua is the home of a past president and perhaps a future one, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as a Hollywood star or two.

But the hamlet — like many other affluent, overwhelmingly white localities across the country such as Garden City on Long Island, Wellesley in Massachusetts, Marin County in California and several neighborhoods in New York City — has been churned up by plans to build new housing for people of much lower incomes, including black and Hispanic newcomers.

A developer is offering to build 28 units of affordable rental housing with caps on family earnings, though with no income floor; families of four earning no more than roughly $64,000 would qualify, as would poorer families, including those who receive federal vouchers.

It’s been said that Americans today have very few unifying experiences where rich and poor alike are subject to the same stresses and challenges — as they were in the Depression and WWII.

Today, with income inequality the highest since the Gilded Era, the nation feels as though it’s splintering into armed camps, whether the armaments are literal guns or a six or seven or eight-figure income.

Here’s a post from The Root:

Although economic downturns disproportionately affect black unemployment and home ownership, working-class and college-educated whites are now feeling the sting of restricted opportunity. In his book Angry White Men, sociologist Michael Kimmel describes how these men often blame the trifecta of feminism, affirmative action and immigration for their woes.

The relative devaluing of white privilege has been interpreted as racial oppression of whites and “reverse discrimination.” Opinion polls (pdf) suggest that half of all white Americans now see themselves as the targets of racism, and that number pushes past 60 percent among self-identified Republicans and among those who watch Fox News.

It’s a frightening and depressing trend, certainly for those of us who chose to come to the United States from another country with all the idealism and hope that every immigrant brings.

(And yet, watching terrible images of Syrians fleeing their homeland, and Venezuela erupting into protests and Ukraine killing protestors there…this is not [yet] that.)

How do you feel?

Do you see this sort of class warfare or random, ugly violence playing out where you live?

What, if anything, could address it?

Does Dasani’s NYT homeless story leave you angry? Sad? Indifferent?

In behavior, children, cities, culture, domestic life, education, family, journalism, news, parenting, urban life, US on December 12, 2013 at 1:11 am

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s a story that took a year of reporting and writing to produce, prompting more than 600+ comments after the first day — by 5:30 p.m. yesterday, more than 1,713 readers had weighed in.

English: The New York Times building in New Yo...

English: The New York Times building in New York, NY across from the Port Authority. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The New York Times is running a five-part series on Dasani, an 11-year-old African American girl living with her siblings in a squalid New York city shelter that has sucked up millions of tax-payer dollars already.

Her parents take methadone, do not work and have seven other children sharing a 500 square foot room.

Dasani is smart, capable, liked by her teachers, and burdened by caring for her brothers and sisters. She, like them, has nowhere clean, quiet and comfortable in which to do her homework. Their room has no desk. One wall has a hole where mice run freely.

Here’s an excerpt from the first instalment:

Dasani is among 280 children at the shelter. Beyond its walls, she belongs to a vast and invisible tribe of more than 22,000 homeless children in New York, the highest number since the Great Depression, in the most unequal metropolis in America.

Nearly a quarter of Dasani’s childhood has unfolded at Auburn, where she shares a 520-square-foot room with her parents and seven siblings. As they begin to stir on this frigid January day, Dasani sets about her chores.

Her mornings begin with Baby Lele, whom she changes, dresses and feeds, checking that the formula distributed by the shelter is not, once again, expired. She then wipes down the family’s small refrigerator, stuffed with lukewarm milk, Tropicana grape juice and containers of leftover Chinese. After tidying the dresser drawers she shares with a sister, Dasani rushes her younger siblings onto the school bus.

Dasani guards her feelings closely, dispensing with anger through humor. Beneath it all is a child whose existence is defined by her siblings. Her small scrub-worn hands are always tying shoelaces or doling out peanut butter sandwiches, taking the ends of the loaf for herself. The bond is inescapable. In the presence of her brothers and
sisters, Dasani has no peace. Without them, she is incomplete.

I spent more than an hour reading the comments, which came from social workers, past and present; from New York schoolteachers; from the formerly poor and homeless able to escape a difficult past; from the fed-up-with-generational-welfare crowd.

A few readers simply shrugged — the entire United States, not just New York City, is deeply pockmarked by poverty now, with the second-highest rate of child poverty in the developed world.

As one commenter said…wait. This story will soon be only one of many. She is hardly unique.

Reader reactions, predictably, are mixed:

outrage at the shelter’s squalor; dismay at the parents’ inability or unwillingness to work, earn money and set an example for their children; anger at the tens of thousands of tax-payer dollars supporting a couple of adults who have made repeatedly poor choices, including producing more and more children they have no way to support; disappointment that the U.S. allows children like her to live in such appalling conditions; confusion as to what can be done to alleviate this kind of poverty.

As I’ve blogged here before, I was a Big Sister in 1998 for 18 months to a 13-year-old child whose family was also deeply dysfunctional.  (For readers outside of North America, Big Sister/Big Brother is a national program that matches volunteers — usually middle or upper middle class, employed and well-educated — with struggling youngsters. The idea is to foster relationships that will help poor children and teens survive and thrive.)

I found the process deeply frustrating, as much because I expected far too much from it and because, I thought, the organizers expected far too little.

My “little sister”, like Dasani, was bright and very likeable, apparently eager to flee the clutches of poverty.

But, sadly also highly unlikely to do so. I saw frightening and destructive behaviors within her family I’d never before encountered en masse — abandonment, laziness, welfare dependence, neglect and passivity — that boded ill for her future.

The desire to flee poverty can also create an impossible choice — between the bosom of a chaotic family a child knows well, and a larger world they don’t. You’re not going to get very far saying “axe” instead of “ask” a question.

I saw this play out with my “little”. The more I tried to find her better options, (even, yes, a scholarship spot at a private school barely 30 minutes drive from her family), the more they shrugged it off.

I admit it. After 18 months, I burned out and walked away.

Children need consistently healthy role models if they’re going to succeed and avoid the pitfalls of addiction and/or teen pregnancy. Dasani’s mother teaches her to fight — physically — which, as the Times reports, gets her suspended from school.

The series’ pathos has left some readers eager to “help” — but what, exactly, can they do?

Donate to charities? Pay even more taxes? Volunteer individually with a child on their own? Foster a child or several?

What do you think?

What — if anything — would change (for good/better) a life like hers?

The endless fight for a living wage: is $15/hour really too much?

In behavior, business, cities, culture, life, Money, news, urban life, US, work on November 6, 2013 at 2:55 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The federal U.S. minimum wage remains $7.25. Five states have no set legal minimum at all; six pay more than $8.00/hour.

(The minimum wage in Australia is already $15.00.)

In an era of almost $4/gallon gasoline and rising costs for food, health care and other necessities, the fight to win a living wage continues.

Official seal of SeaTac, Washington

Official seal of SeaTac, Washington (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The city of SeaTac, in Washington State, is fighting this battle today.

From bbc.co.uk:

Supporters of Proposition 1 say $15 an hour is a “living wage”.

Detractors say that it would see businesses close and lay off some of
the 6,300 workers who would be impacted by the raise.

SeaTac covers just 10 sq miles (26 sq km) and has a population of just 30,000, with only 12,000 registered voters.

But what everyone agrees on is that tiny SeaTac has suddenly become a battleground for one of the biggest issues confronting the US economy – income inequality, or the widening gap between the rich andpoor, which has risen to its highest level since 1917.

“Coming out of the recession, we’ve seen job growth come out of the low-wage service sector,” says Prof Ken Jacobs, head of the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center.

The battle is pitched — desperate workers struggling to make ends meet against employers who insist they cannot possibly pay more.

Or that workers simply offer little to no skills, certainly none they value at that price.

The state of New Jersey — with 50,000 workers employed at minimum wage — will raise its lowest legal wage January 1 to $8.25/hour.

Like every argument, this one contains a blend of truth and perception, of assumption and received wisdom.

One of the issues is really thinking harder about what constitutes a “skill.”

Here are my thoughts, quoted recently in U.S. News and World Report, about what it’s like to work retail.

I worked a low-wage job from September 2007 to December 18, 2009 when the economy fell off a cliff and I desperately needed additional income. I sold costly outdoor clothing and accessories for The North Face, in an upscale suburban mall in New York, a 10-minute drive from my home. I earned $11/hour with no commission, few bonuses and a 30-cent raise in that time.

I typically sold $150+ worth of merchandise every hour; my best day ever, I sold more than $500 worth per hour.

And the company’s “reward” for selling $25,000 worth of its merchandise, virtually all of it sourced from low-wage factories in Peru, China and elsewhere? A gift card for the same merchandise worth $25.

You can exhort your workers and plaster mission statements to your walls, issue edicts, wave your hands…It’s tough for any worker to get excited — or “engaged” as the workplace gurus like to call it — when you’re toiling for pennies and earning significant profits for the person who relies on your labor.

Let alone a major multi-national corporation whose top executives now stagger home bent double with the bags of cash they’re netting — now typically 354 times the wage of their average worker.

When you can’t even pay your bills, no matter how hard you work, work loses much of its meaning.

And all of its dignity.

In January 2009, our store manager cut all our hours. I was only working one seven-hour shift, then cut to five hours, one of which paid for the cost of parking at the mall. We were told “the company can’t afford more.”

That month The Wall Street Journal reported that the parent company of The North Face was sitting on millions in cash — money it used in 2011 to purchase a competitor, Timberland for $2 billion.

The assumption being that no one working a low-wage job would notice this odd and striking definition of “can’t afford.”

I did, and wrote about this in my book about my time there, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, which was published in China in July 2013.

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I do realize what happens when you pay workers poorly — they quit! I’ve been hiring part-time assistants for more than 15 years, when I paid a college undergrad $12/hour for her skills. Jess was amazing: smart, funny, a quick learner and a ferocious work ethic.

That was a lot of money then, and for some workers, it still is. I’d have simply felt embarrassed offering her less; I recently heard from an undergrad at a prestigious American university that a professor offered them $7.25/hour, which I find appalling and abusive.

When I pay $10/hour I can find smart and talented people  — but only for a few weeks, a month or so at most. They leave quickly, as they must, to make more elsewhere. At $15/hour I was able to keep the skills of someone else this year for more than eight months.

Hoping to replace her, (as she now seeks a full-time job), I recently interviewed someone who came highly recommended…and who wants $25/hour.

That’s my breaking point. So, for now, I am mostly assistant-less, and feeling that loss in my reduced productivity.

The pricing of our labor is a delicate dance. But tight-fisted employers who insist that low-wage workers have “no skills” are lying to themselves and to their weary workers.

They’re also short-changing their customers, who need, expect and deserve good service for their hard-earned dollars.

Here are some of the skills we used in our retail work:

– Maintaining a sense of humor (let alone having one to start with!)

– Listening carefully and for long periods of time to customers to discern their needs

– Speaking to customers in whatever style/tone/speed (even foreign language) best suited them

– Learning and memorizing a wide array of product knowledge: size/price/technical specs

– Lifting, carrying, stacking, folding and hanging goods

– Cleaning and tidying the entire store, top to bottom

– Ringing up purchases

– Watching the sales floor to deter shoplifting

No skill?

Snort.

Try calming a shrieking one-per-center threatening to “call corporate” if you fail to meet her demands.

Try helping a mentally disabled teen sort through all his jacket options to find something he loves that fits

Try explaining to a Saudi prince’s servant which down jacket will keep the princeling warm in his first New York winter.

walmart beijing

walmart beijing (Photo credit: galaygobi)

When Walmart employees suck up taxpayers’ money in food stamps ad Medicaid because their cannot earn a living wage...we’ve got a problem.

A 2004 study by UC Berkeley’s Institute for Industrial Relations found that, in California, the average Walmart employee required over $500 more in total public assistance than workers from comparable large retailers. Families of Walmart workers required 40% more health care assistance and 38% more in other kinds of public assistance (like food stamps, subsidized housing, and school lunches) than comparable families of large retail workers.

In addition, a 2006 report by the Philadelphia Inquirer found that Walmart had the highest percentage of employees enrolled in Medicaid in the state; one in every six of Walmart’s 48,000 Pennsylvania employees was enrolled. Finally, in January of 2012, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services found that Walmart employees and families were the top recipients of Medicaid, food stamps, and cash assistance in the state.

The American worker is being subjected to a fierce game of chicken — who will blink first? Who will cave most quickly to imperial corporate demands, like these, made to the mayor of a small, economically-strapped town in Idaho:

Another economic rescue with Hoku’s glamour and promise is not on the horizon. Mr. Blad, in an interview in his office, said a big employer had recently expressed interest in coming here, bringing perhaps 1,000 jobs. But the company, which he declined to name — a warehouse distributor that does most of its sales over the Internet — has said it would offer $10 an hour, only a few dollars above the minimum wage.

The company even had the audacity to ask for financial incentives, which the city has politely declined. “We would welcome them, and we would value them,” Mr. Blad said. “But I can’t justify taxpayer dollars for a $10-an-hour job.”

What say you?

Are you working for (or paying) minimum or low wages?

If you’re earning so little, do you have an exit strategy?

“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”

In business, cities, family, journalism, life, Media, Money, news, politics, urban life, US, women, work on September 24, 2013 at 12:59 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The Red Queen's race

The Red Queen’s race (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

The words are from Alice in Wonderland, spoken by the Red Queen.

Sadly, they still apply to millions of American workers, (and those in struggling economies worldwide), for whom the “economic recovery” means little. Their wages are stagnant, their costs rising.

From a recent edition of The New York Times:

For all but the most highly educated and affluent Americans, incomes have stagnated, or worse, for more than a decade. The census report found that median household income, adjusted for inflation, was $51,017 in 2012, down about 9 percent from an inflation-adjusted peak of $56,080 in 1999, mostly as a result of the longest and most damaging recession since the Depression. Most people have had no gains since the economy hit bottom in 2009.

The government’s authoritative annual report on incomes, poverty and health insurance, released Tuesday, underscores that the economic recovery has largely failed to reach the poor and the middle class, even as the unemployment rate continues to sink and growth has returned.

Government programs remain a lifeline for millions. Unemployment insurance, whose eligibility the federal government expanded in response to the downturn, kept 1.7 million people out of poverty last year. Food stamps, if counted as income, would have kept out four million.

Since the recession ended in 2009, income gains have accrued almost entirely to the top earners, the Census Bureau found. The top 5 percent of earners — households making more than about $191,000 a year — have recovered their losses and earned about as much in 2012 as they did before the recession. But those in the bottom 80 percent of the income distribution are generally making considerably less than they had been,hit by high rates of unemployment and nonexistent wage growth.

New York continues to be deeply inhospitable to anyone earning  low wages, like the women profiled here, who work multiple jobs and still cannot afford housing, sleeping instead in shelters:

More than one out of four families in shelters, 28 percent, include at least one employed adult, city figures show, and 16 percent of single adults in shelters hold jobs.

Mostly female, they are engaged in a variety of low-wage jobs as security guards, bank tellers, sales clerks, computer instructors, home health aides and office support staff members. At work they present an image of adult responsibility, while in the shelter they must obey curfews and show evidence that they are actively looking for housing and saving part of their paycheck.

Advocates of affordable housing say that the employed homeless are proof of the widening gap between wages and rents — which rose in the city even during the latest recession — and, given the shortage of subsidized housing, of just how difficult it is to escape the shelter system, even for people with jobs.

In 2011, I was asked to testify to New York’s City Council.

I’d never before been part of the political process, except for voting, as some news journalists are required by their employers to avoid any such signs of partiality.

The city was considering passing a “living wage” bill, which would have required employers accepting city subsidies for development to pay their staff $10/hour.

I assure you that $10/hr, even full-time, is no living — but mere survival in a city where it’s virtually impossible to find any apartment costing less than $1,000 a month.

It was an eye-opening and depressing day as I waited six hours to give my allotted two minutes of testimony. The only people left, wearily waiting, were the councilors listening to us — and the impassioned black pastors of low-income-area churches, fighting hard for social justice in the form of economic redress.

I had written a book about low-wage retail work, the third largest industry in the U.S. and one which employs millions in wearying, poorly-paid work, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.” I’d worked for 2.5 years, part-time, for a multinational outdoor clothing brand much beloved by customers, so I’d seen that life, even briefly.

I saw there, firsthand, the frustration of selling a $600 ski jacket to a banker whisking his family off to Aspen, (whose firm had likely helped to wreck the economy in 2008), while we were earning, at most, $11/hour with no commission. As members of the 99 percent serving the 1 percent, we were just another servant class.

It was chillingly instructive.

I also saw my coworkers, several with multiple young children, desperate to flee.

The living wage bill did pass here.

But for millions of workers, still, a hard-earned income — or several — doesn’t provide a life of any ease or comfort.

English: Photo of Jared Bernstein testifying t...

English: Photo of Jared Bernstein testifying to the US Senate on May 26, 2005. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the Times:

“The good news from today’s 2012 income and poverty results is that for the first year since the Great Recession hit, things aren’t getting worse,” Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a former Obama economics official and a contributor to The New York Times’s Economix blog, wrote in his analysis of the numbers. “The bad news is that three years into an economic recovery, they’re not getting
better either.”

And, once more from the Times, from Robert Reich:

Put simply, most people are on a downward escalator. Although jobs are slowly returning, pay is not. Most jobs created since the start of the recovery, in 2009, pay less than the jobs that were lost during the Great Recession. This means many people are working harder than ever, but still getting nowhere. They’re increasingly pessimistic about their chances of ever doing better.

As their wages and benefits shrink, though, they see corporate executives and Wall Street bankers doing far better than ever before. And they are keenly aware of bailouts and special subsidies for agribusinesses, pharma, oil and gas, military contractors, finance and every other well-connected industry.

Alice in Wonderland eventually awoke from her visions. It was just, all of it — the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, Tweedledee and Tweedledum — a very odd dream.

Not for the rest of us.

How are you doing economically these days?

Better? Worse? The same?

Do you feel hopeful that things will improve for you — or others?

Rising costs, falling income, and waving at the Rockefeller helicopter

In aging, behavior, business, cities, culture, domestic life, journalism, life, Money, urban life, US, work on April 25, 2013 at 11:02 am
Money Queen

Money Queen (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s an honest, powerful and deeply depressing blog post about what American life when your income is falling and costs going through the roof:

Hubby left and again, he had to stop off at the gas station to fill up his car.  He drives around 150 miles per day for his job.  And yes! he drives a fuel efficient car that gets between 35 and 40mpg.  But it’s not working out like we planned.  With the cost of gas at over $4.15 a gallon (and still rising) and the tightness of available money, it’s becoming a nightmare, with no end in sight.

While at the gas pump, the woman in the next booth came over to my husband and asked him if he had any money to give her.  “I need money to buy gas” she said “to get to work.  I don’t have any money to buy gas to get to work nor even come back from work and get home.  Do you have any money to give me, man?” DH then realized the reality of our own financial predicament. He told the woman that he had just been fighting with his own wife over the tightness of money and our own inability to buy food and gas and pay looming tax bills.

The only money I have that I can give you is this dollar bill,” he said and handed the woman the paper dollar bill I found in the parking lot yesterday.

I had breakfast the other morning, (total cost $11.00 for both, plus $1.00 for parking), with a friend who is single and freelancing and faces monthly living costs of $4,000; just her rent and health insurance is $2,000 every month. She has no savings anymore, having won and lost several jobs in our field over the past few years.

She has worked her whole life, like me, in journalism, and at 58 knows that the odds of finding a new full-time job that allows her to meet her living costs and save for retirement are slim-to-none.

Going back to college? For her, financially impossible. Taking some sort of quick, cheap credential? Maybe — but, really, given a choice of a 30, 40 or 58-year-old, who’s going to hire someone that age?

For millions of hard-working, educated, skilled and experienced Americans, a hand-to-mouth existence is the new normal. Especially those over the age of 50.

Here’s a powerful recent story from the Los Angeles Times about how work, even for the most highly educated, is changing for the worse:

Matt Ides has a doctorate in history and extensive teaching experience. Unable to find a full-time, tenure-track job, he took an adjunct teaching position at Eastern Michigan University, where he was paid $3,500 per class. He taught five classes one semester and four the next. One more class and the university would have had to consider him a full-time employee under university policy.

If not for his girlfriend’s salary, he said, “I would have had to live in a one-room apartment and eat soup every day.”

I moved to the U.S. in January 1988. As a brand-new driver, I was exquisitely attuned to the costs of owning, insuring and fueling a vehicle. Gas, then, cost 89 cents a gallon — today, it’s between $3.90 and $4.15 or more.

The price of groceries has shot through the roof. The cost of commuting to New York City, a daily necessity for my husband who works there, and for me to meet with clients and actually enjoy Manhattan occasionally, just rose, again, by 10 percent.

Jose and some others at his workplace are represented by a union, initially offered a 0 percent (yes) raise by his employer, The New York Times. They won a fat 2 percent a year — and the Times is considered, by some, a career pinnacle, a place you work long and hard to achieve.

I recently pulled out some old paperwork, and found an invoice from 1997 — 16 years ago — for $900. I just accepted an assignment last week from the Times for $900.

Nothing, anywhere — shoes, clothes, food, gas, insurance, dental bills, haircuts — costs what it did 16 years ago. Anyone attending university in the U.S. knows this firsthand, as tuition costs have skyrocketed, while incomes are stagnant and jobs hard to find.

Here’s the story of a graduate student at Duke, (named for the tobacco fortune family who founded it), who lived in a van in a parking lot so he could actually afford school. In a van.

Money - Black and White Money

Money – Black and White Money (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Few of us are less educated, more stupid, more lazy or unwilling to work hard than we were 10 or 15 or 20 years ago.

Stagnant and falling wages for most of us are simply killing our desire, and ability, to get ahead of our monthly basic costs– to save for short or long-term needs, whether retirement, car repair, education, medical bills or (imagine), a vacation.

I’ve thought about moving far upstate, where we could probably buy an old house for cash and pay very little in property taxes. Socially? Death. Professionally, nothing would be there for my husband, who makes almost three times what I do. Making an even longer commute — with less time for himself and for us? Not a great option either.

So, moving isn’t really a smart choice. Neither Jose or I, (both award-winning veterans in our field), have advanced degrees, so no teaching jobs are open to us, even as a poorly-paid adjunct.

I had lunch recently with an editor who did exactly that, moved to the Catskills with her husband and baby. She lasted two miserable, lonely, broke years and now lives back in Manhattan.

We could, I suppose, go to a much smaller, rural place somewhere very far away in the Midwest — distant from our friends, colleagues, neighbors and social networks. But I tried rural life, for 18 months when I was 30. Sorry, for those who thrive on it, I hated it, never so lonely, broke and miserable in my life. Unless in that other place you have dear friends, loving family and/or steady work that will really help you thrive, I don’t see much appeal in moving anywhere else at this point.

And every day, right over my head, I hear the sound of income inequality — as a helicopter thud-thud-thuds across the sky very close to my balcony. It’s a Rockefeller, flying to work in Manhattan, 25 miles south; their huge, gated estate lies about a 10-minute drive north of our town.

How’s things with you these days financially?

Are you as worried as I am?

Related articles

Hating the poor will not make you rich

In behavior, culture, life, Money, news, parenting, politics, religion, urban life, US on November 9, 2012 at 2:20 pm
Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church http://www.stjohnsashfield.org.au, Ashfield, New South Wales. Illustrates Jesus’ description of himself “I am the Good Shepherd” (from the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verse 11). This version of the image shows the detail of his face. The memorial window is also captioned: “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of William Wright. Died 6th November, 1932. Aged 70 Yrs.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are several strains in the American worldview I find, even after 24 years living here, confusing and wearying.

There is the persistent narrative that government is bad, that self-reliance is good and that no one who needs government help — other than victims of natural disasters — really deserves it. If they were just smarter/harder-working/thriftier/better educated, they’d be fine.

The self-righteousness is pervasive and ugly.

I get it. My first book, which looked at guns in American women’s lives, included interviews with many women who own guns, some of which they use for hunting, for sport and for self-protection. In speaking with 104 men, women and teens of every income level from 29 states, I came away with a much clearer understanding why 45 percent (then “only” 30 percent) of American homes contain a firearm.

This is a nation predicated on the belief that everyone is responsible for themselves.

This is, (and this is the confusing bit), also one of the most overtly religious nations on earth — the percentage of those “churched” is much higher than England or my native Canada. This is a nation where some people proudly, loudly and routinely boast that they are God-fearing Christians, while sneering at the poor and weak, something Christ would have difficulty with.

Here’s an interesting link discussing seven current trends in American church-going.

I’ve seen extreme wealth and extreme poverty here.

Yet, in today’s deeply divided nation, as Romney and his supporters lick their wounds and Obama and his staff prepare for his second term, the rich rarely — if ever — encounter the poor. They remain some weird, distant abstraction, nothing they or their children will ever encounter or experience.

Until its fury erupts within their circle, like the New York City nanny who recently slit the throats of two of the three children she was caring for, commuting from her difficult life in the Bronx. She was, she told police, tired of being told what to do and wanted to earn more money.

The middle class, however you define it, is terrified of falling into poverty. It’s so much easier to hate the poor and struggling than face the reality you are them or soon to be.

The middle class has been told, from birth, that if you just work really hard and go to college and get a degree, and then get another, and maybe another, you too can become wealthy. For some, yes. For many others, who can’t even find any job right now, that ever-receding horizon is starting to look unattainable.

So much easier to look down in terror and disdain than cease gazing up at the private-jet set with awe and envy.

I recently watched a new documentary, “Set For Life” that’s making the rounds of film festivals in the U.S., about workers over the age of 50 out of work, and the struggles they face in this recession. It is sobering, and depressing, made by a recent Columbia University grad named Susan Sipprelle.

I have mixed feelings about this intractable divide, one that is only growing.

I was a Big Sister in the late 90s for 18 months, mentoring a 13-year-old girl living a 10-minute drive east of me in my suburban New York county. I had never, in the U.S., confronted poverty firsthand or known someone personally in its grip.

My time with C was instructive, and ultimately left me less reflexively liberal. I liked her, and admired her grit and humor. She was fun and a loving, affectionate girl. But her family’s behaviors, attitudes and expectations — even with four tax-payer supported workers helping them — horrified me and I struggled to make sense of them. Her mother had simply disappeared for five years, and showed up a week after C and I were matched. I’d feed C fresh vegetables at my apartment, or take her to the library, while her mother — a decade younger than I — watched TV in the basement night and day.

I tried, writing a five-page single-space letter pleading her case, to get C a scholarship to a local private school, where if she boarded, would have offered her a respite from the shouting, filth, junk food and three-generation welfare dependency of her family.

She never showed up for her tryout day at school. I never heard from her, her family or Big Sisters again. I still wonder how she is doing.

In my retail job, I served some of the nation’s wealthiest men and women, in their triple-ply cashmere and five-carat diamond rings. The one word they never hear, the one that makes them recoil in shock and disbelief? “No.” It took me a while to realize that money buys you a lot of agreement: your nanny/au pair/personal trainer/driver/SAT tutor/assistant(s)/maids/staff/employees are unlikely to ever argue with you or deny you your every whim.

Their world is a shiny, pretty, insular one, where material success safely brands you as a winner, a member of the tribe.

They often spoke to us low-wage, part-time, no-benefit hourly workers slowly in words of one syllable. They leaned over the counter as we entered their addresses, certain we couldn’t possibly know how to spell. One man (not in our store) threw a quarter behind him as he left, sneering: “Go to college!”

Everyone in our staff of 15 had. Two were military veterans.

Several different Americas went into the voting booth this week, their mutual incomprehension unmitigated by billions of dollars spent on attack ads, “informed” by Fox News or NPR, but rarely both.

The side that lost is apoplectic, crying foul, red-faced with rage. Romney cut off his workers’ credit cards immediately.

Obama, speaking to his campaign workers, wept openly with pride and gratitude.

The $10.32 loaf of bread

In behavior, business, children, culture, domestic life, family, life, Money, parenting, politics, US on October 22, 2012 at 1:49 pm
2001-2006 Mini CooperS photographed in USA. Ca...

2001-2006 Mini CooperS photographed in USA. Category:BMW Mini R53 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s the price of a loaf of Eli’s Bakery walnut and raisin bread in my town.

I don’t live in some remote Arctic village where everything must be flown in, inflating prices to a crazy degree, but a suburban town 25 miles north of New York City.

$10.32.

For bread.

I asked the men who own and run the store, one they spent $600,000 to expand and renovate recently — who can afford this bread? How many are they selling each week? (Five.) Sometimes they get an order for ten at once. $100, for bread.

Then I went out for lunch with my softball team, a co-ed group I’ve known for a decade. One of them says his teen-aged son refuses to drive one of the family’s two cars, a Toyota Corolla, because it’s “a cleaning lady’s car.”

Excuse me while I shriek: What the fuck?

My town, and county — reflecting the income divide that is deepening and widening in this country at warp speed – are becoming a place I no longer recognize.

The cars in our town’s parking lots now are shiny new Mini Coopers, Range Rovers, Audis and BMWs, not the dusty econoboxes I used to see. There are three art galleries selling garish, huge paintings of dubious beauty.

The median income in my town, in 1989, was $40,000, then $60,000. It’s now, I believe, about $80,000. That sounds like a fortune depending where you live.

But it doesn’t buy you much around here.

And the sort of hyper-competitive materialism my friend despairs of in his own son is normal amongst his status-obsessed peers, in a town far wealthier than ours.

Over lunch  — wondering, as we all are, who will become the new President in two weeks and what our world will look like if uber-rich Romney wins — we had a long and impassioned discussion of the rich and the poor and the disappearing, desperate, job-seeking middle class.

Why do so many rich Americans not give a shit about those lower down the socioeconomic ladder?

“They’re losers!” said one, a retired iron-worker. He doesn’t think that, but many rich people now do — if they live in a big house and drive a shiny new Beemer and their wife wears designer clothes and their privately schooled kids are headed as legacies for an Ivy school and grad school, why, they deserve it!

And anyone who’s failed to scale the greasy pole of material success at their speed and height does not. Poor people are shiftless, lazy, poorly educated, unwilling to work hard. So goes the mythology.

It must be all their fault.

The two largest sources of new jobs in the American economy are part-time, pay minimum wage and offer no benefits. Slinging burgers at McDonald’s or folding T-shirts at the Gap will not, contrary to any Republican fantasy, help propel the hardest worker on earth into the middle class. These are working class jobs.

I know. I worked retail for 27 months, then wrote my book “Malled.” I saw firsthand the disdain the wealthy have for those who serve them.

Romney’s contemptuous remark — that 47 percent of Americans, those paying no federal income tax, are leaching off the rest of them, the productive ones — revealed a raw, vicious and useful truth. Many of this economy’s winners, gloating on third base, are convinced they hit a triple.

The rest of us can go to hell.

Here’s a recent New York Times piece about minority kids who get into top prep schools but can’t relate in any way to the privilege therein:

WHEN Ayinde Alleyne arrived at the Trinity School, an elite independent school on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, he was eager to make new friends. A brainy 14-year-old, he was the son of immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago, a teacher and an auto-body repairman, in the South Bronx. He was soon overwhelmed by the privilege he saw. Talk of fancy vacations and weekends in the Hamptons rankled — “I couldn’t handle that at that stage of my life,” said Mr. Alleyne, now a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania — and he eventually found comfort in the school’s “minority corner,” where other minority students, of lesser means, hung out.

In 2011, when Mr. Alleyne was preparing to graduate, seniors were buzzing about the $1,300-per-student class trip to the Bahamas.

He recalls feeling stunned when some of his classmates, with whom he had spent the last four years at the school, asked him if he planned to go along.

“How do I get you to understand that going to the Bahamas is unimaginable for my family?” he said in a recent interview. “My family has never taken a vacation.”

It was a moment of disconnection, a common theme in conversations with minority students who have attended the city’s top-drawer private schools.

There was once a very clear understanding of noblesse oblige — that the privileged owe a responsibility to help those less well-off. No longer.

Increasingly, Americans have a servant class and a class that ignores them, until it needs their kids cared for or their doddering mother attended or their cars washed or their groceries delivered. They live in different neighborhoods, attend different schools, shop in different stores. They do not attend the same churches or share a bus, train or subway car. Rich kids think being “poor” means driving a car costing less than $75,000.

I watch it in dismay and wonder where, truly, the United States is headed as a nation, a polity, an identity in which to take pride. Social mobility is now at its lowest in decades.

From Foreign Policy Journal:

During the second half of the 20th century, the United States was an opportunity society. The ladders of upward mobility were plentiful, and the middle class expanded. Incomes rose, and ordinary people were able to achieve old-age security.

In the 21st century, the opportunity society has disappeared. Middle class jobs are scarce. Indeed, jobs of any kind are scarce.

Are you seeing this growing divide in your own schools, neighborhood, life or work?

How — if at all — is it affecting you and your kids?

Want to flee poverty? Don’t be American

In behavior, business, culture, life, Money, politics, urban life, US, work on July 24, 2012 at 1:56 am
Gini_Coefficient_World_Human_Development_Repor...

Gini_Coefficient_World_Human_Development_Report_2007-2008 (Photo credit: jiruan)

Depressing, lucid and infuriating, this recent piece in Bloomberg Businessweek lays out a stark analysis of American income inequality, now at its worst level in decades:

A recent finding nicknamed the Great Gatsby Curve may be the most controversial of all. With it, University of Ottawa economist Miles Corak makes the strongest case yet that inequality and mobility are intertwined—the more unequal a society is, the greater the likelihood that children will remain in the same economic standing as their parents. His research comes as the country—and the presidential candidates—debate inequality and what, if anything, government should do to slow or reverse its trajectory. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project, Americans believe more ardently than their global counterparts that “people are rewarded for intelligence and skill.” And yet, according to Corak, it’s as simple as this: “More inequality means less opportunity.”

The reporter only had to travel an hour out of New York City, where the magazine is published, to find extraordinary wealth — Greewnwich, Darien, New Canaan, Connecticut, home to billionaires — right next to grinding poverty, in towns like Bridgeport.

If the region were a country, it’d be the world’s 12th-most unequal, ranking just below Guatemala. Economists measure income disparity using the Gini coefficient: A measure of 0 means all money is evenly distributed; 1 means one person has it all. The U.S. had a Gini of .467 in 2010, up 2 percent since 2000, census data show. (With the exception of Chile and Mexico, it has the highest level of disparity of the 34 countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.) The Bridgeport region’s Gini grew 17 percent during this time, to .537, making this 625-square-mile swath home to the biggest income divide of any metropolitan area in the U.S.

I live a 20-minute drive from these towns, so I see these disparities in my own life.

They are increasingly common here, and increasingly intractable.

– If you can prepare sufficiently to get into college, can you handle the work and graduate?

-- Can you even afford college? How?

– Can you get a job that pays your bills and your student loans?

– Can you save any money?

– Can you afford to acquire, if necessary, even further educational credentials?

– Do you have the requisite social skill and emotional intelligence to take advantage  of — and create for yourself — every possible connection and opportunity?

The leap from poverty to even relative affluence seems unimaginably large now for too many.

My husband grew up in a moderate-income family, his father a Baptist minister of a very small congregation in a small city. Thanks to his father’s service, Jose was able to attend college on full scholarship and graduate debt-free.

Armed with talent and drive, my husband won a secure job at The New York Times in his mid-20s. Today, I wonder how many could replicate that leap.

I came to the U.S. from Canada in June 1989, seeking better work opportunities. I had several clear advantages: no children; serious savings; a demanding liberal arts education and college degree, no debt; fluent English; competence in two other foreign languages.

Plus, perhaps most crucially, confidence in my abilities and the (ugh) willingness to cold-call more than 150 strangers to land my first New York City job.

Today, full-time freelance, earning about that same staff salary 24 years ago, I probably look like a downwardly-mobile failure, which is pretty ironic, given my initial ambitions for immigrating. But I still have short and long-term savings, thanks to a combination of extreme frugality, a lucky lawsuit settlement and a husband with a decent, union-protected income.

A low-wage job, part-time with no health insurance, is no way out out of poverty. In the United States, in 2012, the word “job” is now about as meaningless as the word ‘blue” to describe the sky. 

Millions of working-class and middle-class Americans are being totally knee-capped by crappy wages, part-time work, no union protection, (7 percent unioized in the private sector, 12 percent in the public), chronic unemployment or underemployment — and no one who really gives a damn whether things get better for them.

Yesterday, The New York Times ran a story about how many older Americans are now losing their homes, even those who lived frugally. The cost of living here is crazily rising while many home values have plummeted:

Once viewed as the most fiscally stable age group, older people are flailing…while people under 50 are the group most likely to face foreclosure, the risk of “serious delinquency” on mortgages has grown fastest for people over 50…

Among people over 75, the foreclosure rate grew more than eightfold from 2007 to 2011, to 3 percent of that group of homeowners…

Older Americans are losing their homes because of pension cuts, rising medical costs, shrinking stock portfolios and falling property values, according to Debra Whitman, AARP’s executive vice president for policy. They are also not saving enough money.

Half of households whose head is between 65 and 74 have no money in retirement accounts, according to the Federal Reserve.

I’ve put that last sentence in boldface because it is so deeply shocking and depressing. Fifty percent of Americans facing the traditional age for retirement have no money at all beyond their Social Security benefits?

So, even if you flee poverty in your teens or early adulthood, you’ve got a 50 percent chance of hitting the skids in your golden years?

Nice.

Do you fear falling (further) into poverty?

Any thoughts on how to fix this mess?

Why We Love (Or Hate) Downton Abbey

In culture, design, domestic life, entertainment, life, television, women on January 19, 2012 at 3:55 pm
Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle, aka Downton Abbey Image via Wikipedia

The big deal here in the U.S. these days is a series being shown on PBS called Downton Abbey, filmed at a breathtaking enormous and beautiful country house, and centred on an aristocratic British family at the start of World War I.

It’s also created some controversy, as the larger cultural dialogue here is also increasingly focused on the 99% versus the 1%, i.e. the wealthy versus…the rest of us.

Why are we all eagerly watching a show about lazy rich people?

I admit to really enjoying DA, and look forward to it every week. Some fellow New Yorkers are even having British-themed parties and dinners to celebrate watching the show together, from Pimms cups to Eton mess.

Here are the reasons I like it, and think millions of others do as well:

Who doesn’t crave a life of leisure? Seriously. As Americans slog through their third recession in 20 years, millions out of work and losing their homes and trying to get a new job, never having to work ever again at all looks mighty alluring. We can easily resent today’s plutocrats, but watching long-dead British aristos lounge about? Not so much.

The production values! Anyone who loves beautiful design and vintage objects is loving the elaborate costumes and set design.

We can still identify with and cheer for the women’s wish for a less-constricted life. It’s an interesting plot line to watch all the women, servants and their employers, struggle to re-define themselves as workers, voters, something more than decorative or drudges.

Meals, eaten together. I don’t need footmen or candleabra, but I do love eating my meals seated at a proper dining table with linen napkins and china. In an era when so many families eat microwaved junk, fast food or rarely eat a meal at the same table together, the banter and baiting that happens at the Abbey dinner table is central to the story.

The Granthams have character flaws. Republican candidate Mitt Romney —  worth an estimated quarter of a billion dollars, paying only 15 percent tax on his income and refusing to reveal his income tax returns — leaves many voters are deeply uneasy with his hail-fellow facade and his photogenic posse of handsome sons and blond daughters-in-law. We know there’s dirt in there somewhere; on Downton Abbey, those beautifully dressed and bejeweled sisters hiss and scratch at one another like…some sisters really do.

There’s never a mention of religion. Thank God! It’s interesting that none of the Grantham family, nor their servants, ever attend church or show anything resembling a spiritual life, ensuring no viewer can tune out for them professing the wrong faith. Whatever else the Granthams do, they’re not spouting pious platitudes, (like those Republican millionaire candidates), about how much they love God.

They talk to — and listen to — their servants on a personal level. Completely unrealistic, but makes for a set of relationships that go beyond silent, servile hair-brushing and silver-polishing.

They gainfully employ, house and feed a dozen adults. I’m in no way romanticizing the servants’ life below stairs! But when the valet Bates offers to leave — and is offered two months’ wages — we gape in envy. Virtually no American worker can rely on even a day’s severance pay, even after decades of loyalty to their employer. Given the growing and persistent income inequality now dividing American society, a family actually employing, feeding and housing workers seems a welcome anomaly. (They exist here. We just don’t hear much about them.)

So that’s how the 1% really think. In an era when we’re obsessed with the wealthy — and our irrelevance to them politically and economically –a television show offering a peek behind the velvet curtain allows us to eavesdrop on their private lives and pillow talk.

We already feel like servants. Many of the Republicans now running for President in the U.S. are so wealthy it’s absurd;  Mitt Romney has spent $35 million of his own money so far. Many of us feel as distant, and irrelevant, to these men  — who want to represent us politically — as DA’s servants do to their employers. Yet the servants at Downton share physical space with their employers, while today’s wealthy usually live very far away from the many minions tending to their needs. $35 million of disposable income? The toffs of DA look like pikers in comparison.

Here’s a published dust-up over the show — their knickers in a serious twist, as the Brits might say — between historian Simon Schama and creator Julian Fellowes.

Here’s a recent radio interview with John Lunn, the composer of the show’s music.

And a post about DA by a fellow fan.

If you’ve seen it, what do you think?

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