Two Americas on Inauguration Week

I have two Facebook worlds that show up on my feed every day. My first is the hundreds of people who are poor and struggling and disenfranchised, here in Grays Harbor and around the country. The second is people I know through church and university connections around the country. 

I love all of them, but I am often struck by the different worlds, the two Americas, they sometimes represent. I myself have a foot in both worlds and I see, over and over, the truth of The Rev Liz Theoharis’ words when she says that there are Two Americas. Never was that more apparent to me than this last week.  

As a new president was inaugurated last week, and the final transfer of power did prove peaceful, I saw two realities.

My first Facebook went into mourning for three people who died. They posted urgent requests for food or shelter or rides. A few funny political memes, but the transfer of power honestly went barely noticed. They were too busy mourning and too busy surviving. 

My second Facebook was overjoyed, posting everything from beautiful pictures of the amazing women at the inauguration (and amazing they were) to Bernie Sanders and his very cool mittens. What stopped me in my tracks was when one of my Facebook friends noted that he is so grateful that, for the first time in four years, he doesn’t have to wake up in the morning wondering what new horror awaits him in the news. 

And I realized that, for one America, what happens in the political arena matters very much, in part because their interests are represented. 

For the Other America, I realized that I am still going to continue to wake up every single morning wondering who died in the night, wonder every time I open my phone if there is another preventable crisis or tragedy, wonder if another young life will be cut short. In this other America, death stalks us at every turn, in form of despair, suicide, lack of access to health care, overdoses, infection, chronic disease, violence, cold, hunger, abandonment.

Transfers of power mean a lot less on the bottom. Whatever party is in place, the everyday struggle for survival is much unchanged in our current political climate. 

Before I go on, let me say: it is a huge relief to have a president that does not openly identify with white supremist organizations. It is an incredible thing to have a black and Asian woman as vice president, making history. We should celebrate that.

But white supremacy is not defeated solely by symbolic victories. Written into the fabric of our social structures, white supremacy ensures that black and brown communities stay majority poor. White supremacy ensures that failed white people, poor white people, continue to stay poor. White supremacy, so closely paired with capitalism, ensures that the white men who own the land, the businesses, even the government itself, continue to stay in power at the expense of millions of workers, millions of homeless people, millions of children. Particularly, in this late stage of capitalism, we are seeing the fault lines that will plunge the world, and the earth itself, into ruin. And poor people stand directly above that fault line. 

In every single political campaign I have ever heard in my lifetime, not a single one has issued a comprehensive strategy to deal with poverty. Even now, as 43.5% of Americans are poor and low income, and this was before Covid, not a single candidate talked about poverty with any seriousness or depth. 

There are always a few policy measures that reach us, here in the Other America, in ways that are often unpredictable and confusing. For example, Biden just increased food stamps, by a rather slight margin in the face of the need, and this will have a slight but direct impact, especially on poor families who are going hungry in record numbers. When Obamacare was passed (perhaps the most useful legislation for poor people in my lifetime), people could suddenly go to the hospital, although care was still difficult to get. When Trump was elected, everyone rushed to get their teeth fixed before medicaid ended (thankfully, in Washington state, it didn’t). When the Trump administration finally sent out a $1,200 stimulus, people could get hotels for a little bit or they could pay rent for a month, but it did little to stem everyday poverty. Recent stimulus packages forbid evictions, but landlords find ways around that, and they also provide relief funding for emergency housing, which will make a difference. When Obama increased immigration enforcement, our cannery workers found themselves running from increasing numbers of ICE raids. When Clinton expanded youth incarceration, our county soon reached staggering incarceration rates for our children. 

But, aside from those policy jolts, over the past several decades, the decisions of the president or congress reach us randomly, as if only by accident. Public services are already so defunded, and poverty is at such record heights, that transfers of power have very little practical, material repercussions for poor Americans. There have been no comprehensive, systemic efforts to address poverty in my lifetime, since the War on Poverty in the 60s, even as poverty itself has steadily increased until nearly half of Americans find themselves unable to reliably meet their basic needs. Nor have any politicians in either party unveiled or even signed on to any systemic efforts to end poverty in that period. Even Bernie Sanders stopped short of a comprehensive plan to end poverty in his platform.   

I am not saying these things simply to be a naysayer. Nor am I saying them because I wish for some kind of ideological purity or perfection from our political leaders. 

I am saying them because the actual, material conditions that people endure year to year, endlessly, in our social structure, will not change with scraps alone, or even with good faith alone. Nor will they change without actual, comprehensive efforts to end them. 

Poor people, even as they are a near majority of people who live in this country, are always peripheral in any political discussion. Politicians invoke them occasionally to sound compassionate- or to admonish them- but never address poverty in a systematic way. We get crumbs, randomly, as it meets a political agenda in which we have no part, no priority.

And so, every single morning, I wake up and check my news, the news that never makes a single paper or headline, and wonder who died. Too often, someone did. This last week, while we watched an inauguration, a Native woman in her 30s. A Samoan man around my age. And a white man in his 20s. 

For those of you who do not live with this horror, I am not asking you to cease celebration this week. 

But I am asking you not to forget the Other America. I am asking you to join me in demanding a systemic, comprehensive response to the deadly crisis of poverty. 

It is not enough to give leaders a chance. The crumbs falling down from on high, after over 60 years of austerity and dismantling every social program of the last century, are not enough. Not nearly enough. 

We are dying. And we need you all to notice. 

4 Comments

  1. Thank you for your insight and your commitment to change the status quo that our two America’s might one day be realigned into one!

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  2. Thank you for this vital reminder of reality. It was some sixty years ago the Michael Harrington wrote “The Other America” yet little has changed for the better. PS. Bernie Sanders did speak with concern for the poor. I heard his words directly from his mouth several feet away with my own ears.

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    1. Absolutely, Bernie Sanders definitely has concern for the poor and even programs that would greatly benefit poor communities. However, even he did not have a comprehensive plan specifically to end poverty, something that has not been discussed since the 60s. He certainly had a platform that moved closer to that.

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