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I don’t have a television, so I didn’t get to see President Obama deliver his reelection speech last night. Like millions of Americans, the day after the election was much the same as every other day. I spent my first day after Obama’s victory moving forward, but not with the Democrats. I was waiting in line at the Department of Job and Family services.
Immediately upon entering the building we could tell this was going to be quite a wait. The line stretched into the far corner of the room. Mothers were comforting toddlers who had grown impatient and frustrated. Elderly citizens leaned forward into their walkers, shifting and swaying under their own weight. We shuffled the documents that we would need scanned in order to receive food stamps, Medicaid, childcare services, or rental assistance.
And on the wall, just over the heads of the gathered crowd, a news segment displayed the first family glowingly- President Barack Obama, his lovely wife Michelle, and their two beautiful daughters waved to an enthusiastic crowd in Chicago as the candidate made his victory speech.
Though the sound was on low, I could make out the words of our leader:
“We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet. We want to pass on a country that’s safe and respected and admired around the world, a nation that is defended by the strongest military on earth and the best troops this — this world has ever known. But also a country that moves with confidence beyond this time of war, to shape a peace that is built on the promise of freedom and dignity for every human being.”
I glanced around to see the reaction. Surely some of the forty people waiting in line to receive service from the one available JFS worker cared about the man on the screen. His promises. His ideals. What I found was that, like myself, my fellow citizens were more concerned about simply staying alive.
If the election of Barack Obama was a good thing for the poor, the disabled, the elderly, and ordinary working class folks, there was no evidence of that here. For the people assembled, mostly women and people of color, this wait in line is a perfect metaphor for what we’ve been doing our whole lives. What we’ll continue to experience under the United States of Austerity.
Just last year, President Obama was offering cuts that would cripple social safety net programs, such as Social Security and Medicaid (1). The New York Times chronicled the Obama administration’s passivity when it came to destroy the programs that millions depend on:
“The White House agreed to cut at least $250 billion from Medicare in the next 10 years and another $800 billion in the decade after that, in part by raising the eligibility age. The administration had endorsed another $110 billion or so in cuts to Medicaid and other health care programs, with $250 billion more in the second decade. And in a move certain to provoke rebellion in the Democratic ranks, Obama was willing to apply a new, less generous formula for calculating Social Security benefits, which would start in 2015.”
This measure failed, but the fact that it was offered to begin with reveals the true nature of the Democratic party. When it’s politically relevant, when votes are at stake, the Democrats will do anything to please the working poor. But in the post-election world, when you’ve provided one more vote for their machine, you become invisible again.
In Ohio, we know this sensation better than most. Every four years, Ohio becomes the battleground which decides the future of America. Politicians campaign frantically, trying to scrape up every hardened midwestern vote they can manage. We hear a lot of promises, and we’re just hungry, tired, and desperate enough to believe them.
In my hometown, Toledo, extreme poverty grew an astounding 15.3% in the last decade (2). Toledo is ranked number 1 nationally for rise in poverty. Schools around the city are being demolished, with children thrust into ever-larger class sizes and teachers being threatened with joblessness. In April we could lose up to 700 postal worker jobs in the area. Whole neighborhoods are abandoned, with shiny bank “For Sale” signs in the yards.
For my community, and for every community across the country, neo-liberalism has been a devastating force. Instead of addressing the roots of our inequality and poverty, the political establishment has washed their hands of us. The idea being that America gives you all the tools, whether you choose to use them or not is up to you.
That’s a pleasant fantasy, but under capitalism it will always remain a fantasy. The reality that those of us in poverty face paints a very different picture. Workers who had followed the rules, got an education, a career, a home, are finding that simple disasters -such as an illness with no insurance, a car which breaks down just when your mortgage is due- are all that stand between them and the line I stood in today.
It’s easy to see why the capitalist system insists upon workers being paid so little, and having so much expected of them. When you walk into a place like Job and Family Services, being demoralized is contagious. It’s understandable, it’s excusable. This system has installed the perfect safeguard- people are too afraid to be angry.
I must admit that when I watched the President deliver his speech, I could barely contain myself. While he spoke of this gleaming promise of America, I wondered what cuts he’d be willing to offer up next. Will four more years obliterate a social safety net which is already threadbare and over-extended? What will happen to the beautiful young mother behind me, who likely depends on a combination of programs to help her raise her son in these desperate times?
The poor, the disabled, and the elderly did not cause this crisis. But we are certainly paying for it. Our houses are being taken by banks that use fraudulent practices, we lose our jobs because enormous profits are more important than preserving any decent standard of living for the working class. Everything within our system functions on the Roulette rules of capitalism- where our modern day robber barons gamble with our lives. When they lose, we suffer. And boy have they been on a losing streak.
The realm of politics seems so far removed for people like us sometimes. If we had power, we wouldn’t be in this horrible situation to begin with. What we often fail to realize is that we do have power. We have power in numbers. If the lines at every state and federal aid office poured into the streets, we’d have millions rising up in America.
We have the power to force change. In fact, force is the only effective tool in our arsenal. Poor people and workers can determine the course of the country. The invigorated LGBTQ movement which rose from the ashes of Proposition 8 was able to change the conversation- now Barack Obama claims to personally support gay marriage. In Walmart stores across the country, workers are organizing to demand change. When we display solidarity in mass actions, we frighten the powerful men who want us to remain quiet.
We cannot look to the smiling man who has praised the “middle class” to their faces and then enforced austerity and inequality behind the scenes. His false promises have nothing to do with us. Change happens when we demand it.
As we put this election in our rear-view mirror, it’s important that we acknowledge how far the Left has come. Under a Democratic president the Occupy movement took hold, Wisconsin waged an epic battle to protect public sector employees, Chicago teachers and their supportive community shut down their city and marched in the tens of thousands to protect free, quality, public education.
The election of Barack Obama is not a victory for the poor and working class. The movements that we have nurtured, the connections we’ve made, and the rapid-fire political development we’ve undergone — those are our victories. Those are the kind of victories that can bring change, that have brought change.
If we channel our fear, our frustration, and our rage towards the responsible parties- the corrupt politicians and their corporate masters- we are truly unstoppable. We have a lot to lose, but when we join together with a common purpose we have so very much to gain.
For the poor who have been shuffled around, have dealt with untreated illnesses, lived in their cars, and sold plasma to put food in their children’s bellies, this is an urgent matter. The poor are an endangered species, and the Democrats and Republicans are destroying our habitat.
This is not a theoretical oppression. This is a very real, very degrading, and oftentimes an extremely embarrassing experience. We shout at the top of our lungs, but the liberal agenda ignores our distress calls.
We are our only solution. Our power, people power, can turn the tide of austerity — but only if we harness it collectively. If we apply pressure on every rusted support beam that holds up this disgusting system we can topple it. The further they push us, the more we must push back.
This is truly a fight for our lives. Americans die from treatable illnesses, go into bankruptcy over medical debt, get trapped in expensive student loans, lose years of our lives to make money for the prison industry over non-violent drug offenses. We lose our livelihoods at the whims of the ruling class. The poor are not a priority, we aren’t even a concern.
Socialism is not just an ideal. We do not speak of socialism as an abstract notion which could happen someday. Socialism, to me, is my very survival. Capitalists want to root out the poor, make us into victims, or worse yet, blame us for their greedy ways. We are being picked off by the poverty they create.
We’ve heard the president’s vision of the future, now we must define our own. Capitalism takes risks with our lives and the wealth we produce. The solution to this crisis is not going to be in the White House, the Congress, the Corporations. The solution comes from us. From the human spirit which unites in times of struggle and fights for a better world.
As capitalism continues its downward spiral, we need that human spirit more than ever. We’ve made great gains in the last two years. People are awakening, movements are started. This is a struggle for survival. We will not be silenced; we will not be ignored.
Katrina Bacome is from Toledo, Ohio and is a member of the Central Committee of the Lucas County Green Party. She is actively campaigning for Jill Stein and also works with the local chapter of the International Socialist Organization and Occupy Toledo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) New York Times March 28, 2012
(2) Toledo Blade/Brookings Institute Study