Saturday, September 25, 2010

American Disposables

By its name, the town of Ware, Massachusetts (pop. 9,888) has something in common with two towns in Texas. Like my former home of Pharr, Texas, it sounds like a description or question about a place: Pharr = Far and Ware = Where?

From one of WBUR's reports from Ware this morning, I learned that like Waco, Texas, Ware had a radio station with the town's name for call letters (WARE and WACO). Sadly, the casualties of outsourcing in Ware are so severe that even its namesake radio station has been moved. Though many jobs have gone farther away, WARE radio operates from nearby Palmer. The town of Ware is on the minds of many Bay Staters this week, as it was the second stop on WBUR's weeklong transect of the state.

The title of this post -- American Disposables -- refers to a company that is mentioned in one the report entitled No Work, Only Memories. As my favorite librarian pointed out to me while we were listening over our morning coffee, however, American Disposables serves as an aptonym for its own employees, such as Mike McCarthy, who worked for the company until he was laid off 15 months ago. He has done all the things the unemployed are "supposed" to do: seeking retraining, cutting back on expenses, and constantly looking for any job that he can. American Disposables was not glamorous work -- the company now specializes in training pads for house pets -- but he took pride in that work, as most working people do. His reaction is poignant and belies the stereotype of those on unemployment benefits. Of working in the factory, he said,
“It makes you feel good inside, I think, you know, rather than to sit around all day and collect, I mean, who wants to do that, really?"
Although this and other stories about Ware are focused closely on the day-to-day experience of people suffering in a tough economy, they hint at several of the underlying causes -- collective decisions that make poverty more likely, more painful, or both.

For example, McCarthy tried to improve his chances at employment by taking classes at the "University" of Phoenix, a for-profit university that specializes in short-term, practical training rather programs, rather than general education (hence my scare quotes around the U-word). Short-term, practical training programs, of course, should be part of the higher-education landscape, but when such programs are operated strictly for profit, poor people and taxpayers can suffer for the benefit of unscrupulous owners. In fact, UP and similar companies take public money but avoid public oversight. Meanwhile so-called public universities get less money and more interference, because of the prevailing but wrong-headed notion that private is always better.

Suffering from hyper-privatization

In the story of Mr. McCarthy and his family, two destructive trends that result from flawed libertarian thinking are combined, with ruinous results. He was pursuing a training program that was federally funded but privately sold. This meant that the tuition cost was high, and would have been paid by the government if he had completed the course. Since he did not pay it, he is now responsible for the full cost, which is much higher than it would be at a publicly-operated university. Education and training are a public good, and people who seek to build their skills deserve genuine public support, not sham loan programs that subsidize private companies. (This is why I use the term "flawed libertarian thinking." Some enemies of public services -- Dick Cheney comes to mind -- are pretty adept at collecting public money.)

The second aspect of flawed libertarian thinking that contributes to the woes of the McCarthy family is the refusal to offer publicly funded health care. Again, free-market fundamentalists have managed to convince Americans that single-payer health care could somehow be worse than our current arrangement. (This apparently includes many of the good people of Ware, who voted for Senator Scott Brown in a recent special election). Mr. McCarthy dropped out of his training program because his mother got sick, taking away his hope of employment and putting him in debt to a private company. I cannot see this as anything but an indictment of free-market fundamentalism.
The Waltons use red, white, and blue, but they are no patriots!
I am not prepared to blame a lack of government programs for all that is wrong in Ware, though. I am not a liberal: I'm a radical, meaning that I do not think government largess will not solve problems whose root causes are not addressed. And at least one root of the problems in Ware can be found at the local Walmart. Collectively, the Walton family is as rich as Bill Gates, because they found something more important to Americans than handy computers: cheap stuff. We can vilify WalMart -- and I do -- but they are giving us what we seem to want: low prices at a high cost. One family figured out how to do this relentlessly, busting unions not only in retail but also in manufacturing.

Finally, I heard several people in the story mention that a lack of transportation was preventing them from getting jobs. It was once possible to take a trolley to any job around a town like Ware. I live a hundred yards from buried trolley tracks that would have connected me to an thousand-mile-wide network of rails a couple generations ago. But the primacy of the automobile led to sprawl and auto-dependent landscapes. One of the costs is that it is in some ways easier to be homeless in America than carless, and in fact more people are.

I thank WBUR for telling the story of Ware so powerfully. In a period of increased wealth concentration, it is an incredibly important story.

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