Hard Living On Clay Street: 50 Years and Counting

This spring marks the 50th anniversary of Hard Living on Clay Street, a book I wrote that was first published in 1973 and has been in continuous print since then. Here is the story of how that happened and how the book has made a difference in my life.

In the spring of 1970, I was finishing my masters degree at the School of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Stu Chapin, a revered professor there, had just received a large grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study white working class, low income neighborhoods. The study was mainly quantitative, but they needed someone on the ground to keep the survey research honest and to function as a participant observer. When Professor Chapin offered me the job, I accepted in a heartbeat. Embry and I moved to Mount Rainier, Maryland, the site of the study, with our infant son, Andrew, in tow, in late August 1970.

Mt Rainer along with several surrounding working class communities was chosen because at the time its neighborhoods were the poorest  in the mid-Atlantic region. We rented an apartment in an old house on “Clay Street” (not its real name) and hung out on front porches, got to know our neighbors, attended community meetings,  and  joined a bowling league and a fishing club (just me).  I dictated my observations almost every day using an old, clunky tape recorder and sent them back to Chapel Hill for transcribing. It was a once in a lifetime experience.

I had no idea that a book would ever come out of this effort, nor was I expected to do much more than write a chapter or two for the book the qualitative researchers planned to publish. At the end of the study period of one year, we said goodbye to the friends we had made on Clay Street and returned to Chapel Hill where my job was to review the transcripts and contribute to the survey research findings as appropriate. You can imagine that the people we got to know were puzzled at first as to what a young family was doing just hanging out all day and talking to people. While my job felt a little like spying, I promised myself never to lie to my “subjects” about why I was there. When people got up the courage to ask me, my spiel went something like this:

“Well, I am on a research project to help the federal government understand how ordinary people live. The officials in Washington often don’t have a clue, so my job is to keep them from doing dumb things by reporting back to them what life is like on the ground in neighborhoods like this.”

“Hold on,” would often come the reply from a person, usually with raised eyebrows and a puzzled look. “You mean to tell me that the federal government is paying you—probably a good salary, right—to just live here and get to know ordinary people so the government won’t screw things up?”

I would nod yes with a sheepish grin. Then usually the question would be repeated two or three more times, each time with a wider grin and a puzzled look of disbelief, to which I would nod yes.

“God damn,” would often come the response. “Ain’t that just like the federal government!”

While I had no intention of writing a book, in November I realized that I might be on to something. I was sick for a week in the middle of that month and was not able to do my job of dictating observations. I got a call from the woman in Chapel Hill who was transcribing my observations, who wanted to know why I had missed several days of dictating and when she would get the next installment. She confessed that a group of over a half dozen people would gather at her apartment every Sunday evening to listen to my observations while they consumed beer and pizza.

When we returned to Chapel Hill, Embry enrolled in the School of Public Health to get her masters in biostatistics, and I hunkered down to try to make sense of 2,500 pages of single spaced transcripts. It took me the better part of a year, but by the spring when I was close to finishing, Professor Chapin encouraged me to send the manuscript to four publishers—McGraw Hill, Wiley, Little Brown, and the long shot, Doubleday. My transcriber typed up the manuscript and made mimeographed copies. Rejections came within a couple of weeks from McGraw Hill and Wiley but no word from either Little Brown or Doubleday. A few weeks after the rejection by the first two, I got a call from the editor-in-chief of Little Brown, leaving a message that it was important for me to call him back, which I did with my heart pounding. They were by far my best hope because they had recently published a very successful book called Tally’s Corner, which was a similar participant-observation study, this one about African American, street corner men in a Washington low income neighborhood. I called him back immediately.

“Mr. Howell,” he began “Just so you don’t get your hopes up, we are not going to publish your book. We have high standards at Little Brown about what we publish, which your manuscript does not meet. There was a brief pause before he continued,” But while I have you on the line, could you tell me how the main characters of the book are doing? Start first with Bobby Jean.”

I spent the next thirty minutes telling him how the two main families, the Shacklefords and the Mosebys, were managing to get by. He listened attentively, asked a few follow up questions, and then asked if I would mind calling him back if I had more stories to tell about these families. I remember hanging up the phone and concluding that this was probably the most bizarre phone call I had ever had.

“Well,” I concluded, “That was it.” I figured I probably would not even get the courtesy of a response from Doubleday, by far the highest profile of the four. Good try, I thought, just not in the cards. Finding a publisher was not going to happen. By this time, I had moved on anyway, landing a job in Washington working for a planning and real estate development consulting firm, and was headed in a very different direction from urban anthropology.

Two days later a thin envelope appeared in our mailbox from Doubleday Books. My first response was to throw it in the wastebasket without opening it. I had already suffered enough humiliation as it was, and I knew what was in the letter– “thanks but no thanks.” Embry encouraged me to open it anyway since there was nothing to lose. I reluctantly opened the letter, which read, “Dear Mr. Howell, we have read your manuscript, “Hard Living on Clay Street,” and we will publish it. A representative from Doubleday will call you in a few days.” The letter was signed by Loretta Barrett, editor-in-chief, Doubleday Books.

I do not recall if I let out a shout of joy or not, but in terms of significant moments in one’s life, this is up there at or near the top. The book came so close to never seeing the light of day. I certainly would not have pursued the quest any farther. As I have said many times, life is a matter of inches–and often luck– and as many would agree, mysterious. I recall the great quote from  the book by Amor Towles, A Gentleman From Moscow, that “a coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

Did the book’s publication change my life? Yes, but in subtle ways. For a brief two or three year period I was a minor celebrity with dozens of interviews (mainly radio and lectures at colleges, but I did get interviewed on the CBS Morning News). The book got scores of (generally positive) reviews, many from major publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post. While I was encouraged to use the book to help me get into a PhD program as a steppingstone to pursuing an academic career, this was not what I wanted to do. I did not want to be an observer but to be in the middle of the action where I could have a more immediate impact and had my eye on affordable housing and community revitalization. I was ready to move on.

There was another reason that I was reluctant to take on another similar assignment or go the academic route. I could not help feeling that there was an aspect of exploitation in this kind of work: Academic researcher and a person of privilege goes to poor neighborhood and lives there observing poor people, writes book about it, gets famous (brief and short lived in my case), goes back home to nice neighborhood and good job. His subjects remain poor, struggling from day to day to survive. No thank you. While I tried to ameliorate this dilemma somewhat by sharing a portion  the royalties with the two main families  during the first 10 years  (who fondly accused me of not marketing the book aggressively enough), this was not sufficient justice, not for me anyway. I felt there was something wrong with this picture.

 However, as hard as writing can be, from this experience I did get hooked. I went on to write two more books and to ghost write a third. The publishing world now is very different from what it was in the early 1970s and much harder to get the attention of a publisher. My last book, Civil Rights Journey, had a deal with a publisher which fell through at the last minute, so I opted for self-publishing with Authorhouse in 2012. I also started serious blogging that year and have been at it ever since, as indeed you must know if you are reading this. I have now posted well over 500 blogs, averaging about one a week.

I have also managed to keep a toe in the water in the academic world despite not pursuing a career in teaching and research. In 1981 I took a year of absence from my job in an affordable housing development company to become the first Banneker Professor of Washington Studies at George Washington University (a position I got because of the book) for the spring semester 1981 and later became an Adjunct Professor in the GW Honor’s College where I taught a course on affordable housing and urban development to undergraduates. For years I was a lecturer in affordable housing finance at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

So while the book did not change my life from a career perspective, it did change it by giving me –and also Embry– the opportunity to know people from very different backgrounds and gain appreciation for them and the challenges they faced. My hope was then–and still is–that the book would promote understanding and empathy.

That Hard Living on Clay Street has been read by so many over a 50-year period is something I could never have anticipated in my wildest dreams.  In 1971 before I had sent the manuscript off to the four publishers, I sent a copy to my favorite English professor at Davidson where I attended college and asked him to let me know what he thought. He called me several weeks later with only one comment, “How does it feel to have written a book that people will still be reading fifty years from now?” I dismissed his comment as wishful thinking. To me that this actually happened seems like a miracle.  I certainly rank it as one of the things in my career that I am most proud of and grateful for.

(That my daughter’s family ended up moving to the old Clay Street neighborhood in the early 2000s is another story to be told at another time. How that white, working class neighborhood– which if it had not changed, today would be avid Trump and MAGA country–evolved to become a mix of intellectuals, artists, musicians,  and writers and how it is now racially diverse and won the award for the most gay friendly community in Maryland is the story of how our cities and communities have evolved over the last 50 years. Stay tuned.)



So How Do We Fix This?

Mathew Desmond in his new book Poverty By America does not stake out specific policy recommendations but lists numerous ideas for actions, not to reduce but to eliminate poverty. I have taken a shot at identifying some actions myself though I am not under any illusion that any of them will happen in the short time left on the planet Earth allotted to people my age. In fact, at this moment while there are signs of hope that the equity and social justice movement may be reawakening, at the same time Republicans in Congress are proposing massive cuts to the social safety net. The budget that Kevin McCarthy says the Republicans will not budge one inch on–even if it means defaulting on the national debt, causing massive disruptions to financial markets–is draconian. According to an op ed essay on April 24 by E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post, if it became law, the Republican budget would result in 30 million fewer veteran outpatient visits, layoffs of 108,000 public school teachers in schools serving the poor, 200,000 fewer kids in Head Start, 180,000 children losing access to childcare, and 1.7 million people losing access to supplemental food assistance (SNAP), and this is just the beginning. The Forces of Light and the Forces of Darkness are indeed engaged in a Fight to the Finish.  The stakes could not be higher.

Here is my take on what needs to happen:

  1. Go first for the low hanging fruit and patch the social safety net.

Desmond recommends this and it makes sense.

Contrary to what some may think, we have a broad safety net in this country. We have Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), food stamps (SNAP), public housing, Section 8 housing, Housing Choice Vouchers, Low Income Housing Tax Credits, temporary assistance to needy families (TANF), nutritional aid for women, infants, and children (WIC), the Earned Income Tax Credit, subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, and unemployment compensation.

Republicans, of course, complain that the safety net is too broad and too expensive.The real problem, however, is that too few who are eligible take advantage of these programs. According to the US Census, in 2020, except for Medicaid (62%) and SNAP (49%), fewer than a fourth of those in poverty—the poorest of the poor—used these safety net programs. There are several reasons for this, the most important being that many who are eligible are not aware that these programs exist; or if they are aware, they find the programs confusing and very hard to access due to the paperwork and the documentation requirements. Desmond states that in 2020, there was $142 billion of unused aid in these programs.

Most programs are administered by states, which have different requirements and do not allow the subsidies to continue if a person or family moves to another state. Blue states generally have stronger safety net programs than red states. The good news is that the programs are already in place, can be reformed, expanded, and improved; and if “marketed” aggressively, they can reach many more people. With a career that was in the affordable housing world, I will put in a special plea to expand the Housing Choice Voucher program, to provide the funding for rehabbing and upgrading public housing, to expand the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, and to provide funding for gap financing  in order expand the supply of mixed income housing.

  1. Increase the minimum wage to a living wage, indexed annually for inflation.

It is a disgrace that so many full time jobs in the United States do not pay workers enough for them to escape poverty. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour.  That translates to an annual income of $14,700. Try living on that for a year. Fortunately, most states also have a minimum wage, which for most states is considerably higher than the federal minimum wage, typically in the $10-$12/hour range. It is still not enough for a family with only one minimum wage earner to make ends meet in most areas of the country. Many states now also post a “living wage,” which in my view should be the minimum wage, but sadly it is not. The top states in 2023 are these:

  • Washington:    $15.74.           Living wage: $19.58.
  • California:    $15.50.           Living wage: $21.24.
  • Massachusetts: $15.00.          Living wage:  $21.35.
  • New York: $14.20.            Living wage:  $21.46.
  • New Jersey: $14.13.            Living wage:  $18.71.

In DC the minimum wage is now $16.10 and indexed for inflation, the highest in the country. In Maryland it is $13.25 and Virginia $12.00. Federal legislation should require all states to pay living wages, not minimum wages. The living wage should also be adjusted for family size, and the Earned Income Tax Credit should be used to bring all families up to the true living wage target when taking into account family size. Note that living wages should also be adjusted depending on the state and location. I acknowledge this could be a bit tricky and that employers will push back but believe that until this happens, we will not be able to successfully address the poverty question.

  1. Provide and subsidize childcare support so that both parents in a family can hold full time jobs.

Even with a living wage in many areas of the country it will be difficult to get by if there is only one wage earner, especially for large families. Subsidies should be available for childcare so that both parents can work.

  1. Pass laws that limit lenders from taking advantage of poor people.

Banks and other lenders charge extra fees for accounts that do not keep minimum balances. Credit card companies charge exorbitant interest to people who are not able to pay the full amount and penalize late payers. Payday lenders and similar informal lenders charge excessive fees and impose huge penalties for missing a payment. These practices need to be reined in.

  1. Strengthen labor unions.

Unions are what kept working people from falling behind during the first half of the Twentieth Century but have been hurt by globalism with factories moving overseas, right- to-work laws in red states, and technology which eliminates jobs. There are signs that Unions may be starting to make a comeback though they will never be quite the same. The focus now is to organize workers and focus on industry sectors not on single companies.

These five actions are a start. You may be able to think of other things, and I invite you to post ideas on the blog. Of course, there will be some who will say that these ideas may sound great but ask who is going to pay for all this. Where will the dollars come from? Desmond does a good job in identifying where the money could come from and how this should not significantly upset the economy. How much additional revenue that needs to be raised depends on how many initiatives to strengthen the safety net happen. It could total in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually. A lot of the cost would be borne by employers since they will be paying employees more, but since all businesses and employers in a market area will be paying the same living wage, few businesses should be disadvantaged. Perhaps some goods and services will cost more, but consumers should have higher incomes permitting them to pay more. Desmond suggested an annual price tag of just under $200 billion annually, chump change in a federal budget of almost $4 trillion, but still money that must be raised. This provides an opportunity to reduce the huge gap between the income and wealth of the top 20% and the bottom 20%.  The big hitters are the ones who should have to pay.

Closing tax loopholes, nailing high income tax cheats, and increasing the marginal rate from 37% to 45-50% (where it was in the 1970s) all should be considered possibilities. Lowering the estate limit from $12 million to $8 million would also add revenues. Capping the mortgage interest deduction rate at a reduced home value would also help. No large corporations should get off scot free from having to pay their fair share. These are all possibilities which would not impact most taxpayers. Only the top 20% should be affected with the top 1% targeted especially. Of course, more work needs to be done to figure this out, but Desmond makes the point that money is not the main issue. The main issue is having the will to do it. Our future depends on it.

Perhaps the most important part of the book is Desmond’s call to action for people who care about the income disparities, who are concerned about the poor, and who want to become “poverty abolitionists.” Maybe this will catch on. I am ready to sign up.








Wealth and Poverty in America Today: How Did We Get Here?

This may come as a surprise, but the great income and wealth divide that we are experiencing now in the U.S. has not always been the case. The excesses of the Gilded Age followed by the Great Depression resulted in progressive laws, policies and regulations, which put constraints on the excesses of the rich and super-rich. Income taxes were enacted in the early 1900s   with top marginal tax rates of  20% for the richest Americans. This increased gradually to a marginal tax rate of 90%  starting in the mid 1940s to the mid 1960s. Today the top marginal bracket is taxed at 37%, but there are all sorts of exclusions so that the super-rich pay about the same average rate, close to 25% of income, as everyone else. The inheritance tax became law about the same time with estates of more than $1 million taxed at 40% beginning in the early 1900s. An estate now can be as high as $12 million before the 40% tax comes into play. Takeaway here: taxes are a vehicle for leveling the playing field by redistributing income but no longer play the role they have in the past. Republican sponsored legislation “to starve the beast” by lowering taxes on upper income people has been successful.

Following World War II, economic productivity increased from year to year and management and workers’ incomes increased at close to the same rate averaging around 4% a year. That all changed beginning around 1980. Since then, the average pay for workers has stagnated adjusted for inflation, and the pay for most management and higher income workers and professionals increased in pace with productivity and faster than inflation. Salaries of “stars” in business and in entertainment and sports became crazy. Celebrities and CEOs make fortunes. The difference between CEO pay of a typical Fortune 500 company and the average worker in that company was around 20 to 1 in 1960. It is almost 400 to 1 today.

 Unions were strong in the early 1900s and became the base of the Democratic Party, which under Franklin Roosevelt became the party of the working class. Most workers could make a living wage, and their lives were improving. Most white workers, that is. Today due to the global economy where owners can move jobs overseas more easily, anti-union laws, and technology that eliminates jobs, the working class is hurting.

Of course all was not hunky dory during the first part of the 20th Century. During this period Jim Crow laws ruled the South, and segregation was embraced in the North as well. Redlining prevented African Americans from buying homes in decent neighborhoods, and even the early public housing projects were segregated. Many unions were also segregated by race.

This situation prevailed from the late 1930s to the late 1950s. Brown versus Board of Education happened in 1954, which ignited the civil rights movement, which began in earnest with the Montgomery Bus boycott in 1955-1956 followed by the Greensborough sit-ins and the Freedom Rides in 1961 with major protests continuing throughout the 1960s.

The dilemma that happened beginning in the mid 1960s with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the conflict between the white working class, which had managed significant economic gains due largely to strong unions and to Democratic presidents and majorities in Congress, and African Americans who up to that point had been essentially excluded by law and by custom from participating in economic gains. It should not have been viewed as a zero sum game, but to many in the white working class it felt like one. The gains that then were being made by African Americans were viewed by many in the white working class as hurting them—hence the pushback by people who felt that policies like busing and school desegregation were coming mainly at their expense, not at the expense of people who they felt looked down on them and who they suspected were not all that affected by integration–white people living in fancy neighborhoods and sending their kids to private schools and good colleges.

 Then along came Barak Obama in 2008. Having an African American president was for many the last straw.  

But it was not just working class and poor whites who resisted civil rights legislation and were uncomfortable with an African American president. Many middle- and upper-class white people did as well. Old fashioned racism, it turns out, is tough to kill. A lot of white people in all income groups were fearful of racial change. There is a lot of guilt to be spread around.

Regarding regressive legislation that allowed the rich to keep more of what they earned, there are other players as well. “Traditional conservatives” and libertarians were fearful of large government, higher taxes and regulations that they believed hindered capitalism and free enterprise. Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan were their heroes. The country became divided pretty much down the middle in the 1980s and remains that way today.

The year that the pushback against liberal and progressive actions came into its own was the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In 1981 Congress passed the Economic Recovery Tax Act (ERTA) which reduced the highest marginal tax rate to 50% (from 70% at the time), cut taxes in other ways and stimulated commerce and economic growth but also resulted in growing inequality. ERTA was the first of many tax “reforms” that followed under subsequent  Republican presidents and elected officials that enhanced income for business and reduced income for workers and for social safety net programs. For the higher income workers income has kept pace with productivity. For some at the top it has skyrocketed. The top 20% of households now account for more than half the income today.  In the meantime, the percent of households below the poverty line has remained between 12% and 15% of the population with no significant improvements, and it is impossible in most states and cities for a family with only one wage earner to make ends meet on  a 40-hour week job earning $12-$16/hour .

Almost every Republican president has tried to cut taxes and to cut safety net programs. Trump’s major tax cut in 2017 favored the rich big time, did little for his working class supporters, and resulted in the loss of almost trillion dollars  in tax revenues. Today the top marginal rate is 37%, compared to 90% in the 1950s and 1960s. Inheritance taxes do not start until the value of estates reaches $12,000,000. Many large corporations pay no taxes at all.    

So there is no wonder that discontent and unrest exist in our country right now. The rich and well off are getting richer, and most everyone else is hobbling along about the same or are worse off. We are the wealthiest country on the planet but are behind many developed countries in how wealth and incomes are distributed and the strength of social safety nets. We are less equitable than we were decades ago and getting worse.

Many Republicans complain about safety net subsidies, saying they disincentivize work, but it turns out that more “welfare” goes to the well off than the poor. The number one culprit is the tax deduction for mortgage interest, which amounted to $193 billion in non collectible tax revenues in 2021 compared to the $53 billion spent by HUD on public housing, Section 8 Housing, and Housing Choice vouchers combined—almost four times as much. But there are many more subsidies you also don’t hear many of us in the “privileged class” complaining about. The biggest is the private health care subsidy. When companies provide coverage for health care for workers, this is not considered taxable income for those who obtain the insurance and benefit from it. This amounts to about $316 billion dollars a year in subsidies.  According to Mathew Desmond in his new book, Poverty By America, the government subsidies received by an average tax payer in the top 20% of wage earners was over $35,000 in 2021 (mainly in tax subsidies) compared to average subsidies of just over $25,000 per tax payer in the bottom 20% (mainly in social safety net programs).

You get the idea. There is something wrong with this picture. And on top of this, we are more divided on the social and cultural issues than ever—abortion, gender identity issues, “wokeness,” and book censorship, among others. Good heavens!  Is there a way out?

The next post tries to deal with this question.








Wealth and Poverty in America Today

Almost sixty years ago for a brief period–during Lyndon Johnson’s term as President– the issues of race and poverty were headline news. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a huge leap forward in abolishing Jim Crow and statutory segregation, and a start in trying to level the playing field based on the color of one’s skin. The War on Poverty and the Great Society programs were big deals that captured the imagination of a lot of young people, including me and addressed poverty as well as racism. Embry and I worked in Head Start for one summer when we worked in the Civil Rights Movement with SNCC in Southwest Georgia in 1966. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 followed a few years later, and there was even considerable talk about a “guaranteed annual income” to bridge the wage and wealth gaps. Unions were strong, and there were even a handful of “progressives” in the Republican Party like Everett Dirksen and Nelson Rockefeller permitting occasional bipartisan progressive legislation. Though far from perfect, those days were a time for optimism and hope. Are we now approaching a time when some of the same issues are starting to bubble up to the top again?

I am about half way through reading Poverty By America, a new book and number one on the New York Times Best Seller List by Mathew Desmond, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Evicted (also a book about poverty). I am also “auditing” on line Robert Reich’s class at UC Berkely called “Wealth and Poverty.” (YouTube videos every Friday morning.) I highly recommend both. The message of both Desmond’s book and Reich’s class is that while we have made progress in some areas, we still have a long way to go, and actually the income and wealth gaps are much more extreme now than they were sixty years ago. They argue that this accounts for much of the alienation and malaise of the White working class and helps explain the Trump phenomenon.

What is going on and what can we do about it?

The poverty experience in our country became evident to me this year in our work with an Afghan refugee family. Embry and I are part of a task force representing three Episcopal parishes in helping this refugee family of five get a start in the U.S. After a year of financial support from the churches, however, they now have to try to make it on their own. The father has a job as a security guard at a local hospital, which pays $16/hour. This is close to the defacto minimum wage in the Washington metro area right now and is what many in the health care, hospitality, services, and restaurant sectors are making, even though the statutory minimum wage is lower. So how does a family live on a $16/hour, full-time job, earning about $32,500/year? Do the arithmetic:

  • Their rent for their modest two-bedroom unit is $2,000/month or $24,000/year.
  • Utilities add another $200/month or $2,400/year.
  • The federal minimum standard for the cost of food is $4.00/day per person or $20/day for the refugee family amounting to $7,300/year.
  • The cost of rent, utilities and food comes to $33,700. This leaves no room for paying taxes or for transportation costs like getting to and from work and shopping for groceries, the cost of clothing, health care, or anything else. There are various “standards” as to how much it costs to live in various states and cities in the U.S. For a family of five in the DC metro area the estimate is a family  needs over $50,000/year minimum, just to get by. (Median living expenditures for all households in the Washington metro area were slightly above $70,000 in 2022.).  The “survival budget” has no frills. No movies or dinners out at Denny’s. No vacations or trips. No money for birthday presents or religious holidays and assumes low rents. Yet a huge number of full time jobs in the DC area pay only $33,700, some even less. And most of these jobs involve hard work.

What is wrong with this picture? In 2023 in the United States of America you can work full time in a demanding job and still not make enough money to cover the costs of barebones living. Note that over a third of the households in the United States made less than $55,000 in 2022, which puts them in the category of struggling to make ends meet. At the same time the top one percent of households, and especially the top one tenth of one percent are getting richer and richer. This is a rerun of the Age of the Robber Barons but this time on steroids.

But, you point out, surely I am crying wolf.  Families are not starving all over the place. So they must be getting by somehow. How do they do it?

It makes a huge difference if both parents are able to work, but this is not possible for a family with three kids under six. Also a large number of poor families are single parent households. It is true that in the U.S. we do have a social safety net, which varies by jurisdiction, since it is part federal, part state and part local.  In my view it is far from being as good as it should be, very costly to administer, difficult for poor people to access, and not the same for everyone. In the case of our refugee family, representatives from the three churches were able to help them access food stamps (now called “SNAP,” the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), which made a huge difference in their food budget. We were able to get them enrolled in the Medicaid program, and we initially paid the rent on their apartment for about a year. When that money ran out, we were able to help them get a Housing Voucher from their jurisdiction, which provides $475 toward the $2,000 rent. Not enough in my view, but every penny counts. They probably will be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Fortunately, the schools and social services are very strong where they live, so, yes, they will be able to survive. But what if the three parishes had not been able to help? How could they have managed to figure out all this on their own? How could anyone? If you think being poor does not require extraordinary expertise in navigating through the social service labyrinth, think again. I observed this when we lived on “Clay Street” in 1970, and I wrote a book about it (Hard Living on Clay Street, still in print). For some people life is very, very hard. It was hard then. It is probably harder now. In addition to trying to access social safety net programs, many will work as much overtime as they can, take on an additional part time job and maybe even try to work two full time jobs. And yet the attitude of many of us privileged folks is to look down on those who do the work no one else wants to do and get paid very little for it. Some suspect they are lazy or lack ambition and conclude it is their own fault that they are where they are.


So, yes, it is long overdue to focus on income disparities due to economic, class and race issues. It is reassuring that Poverty By America has received such a strong initial response. But is there any chance of a meaningful conversation given the strong divisions in Congress and in our country where the worlds of Red and the worlds of Blue seem to be drifting more apart than coming closer together?

My belief is that if we can’t figure out how to fix this situation and start to level the playing field on the issue of wealth and poverty, the problems of unrest and anger will only get worse.

More to follow. Stay tuned.



The Trump Show: Welcome to Act II

Tighten your seat belts. Here we go again!

I am pleased that the New York DA got an indictment on the Stormy Daniels sleaze coverup charge, but with the grand jury decision comes unlimited news coverage and attention focused on The Donald, calls by his followers to overthrow the government, and heightened regional, class, and racial tensions. Trump is now using the word “Armageddon” to describe the situation. He is raking in millions of dollars every day for his legal defense and anything else he wants to spend the money on. Many pundits now say because of all this attention his nomination to be the Republican candidate for President is a done deal.

But the Fat Lat Lady has not yet sung in this sordid drama. There are three other investigations, each of which would appear to be more serious than the Stormy Daniels indictment, which some say is risky and by comparison relatively frivolous. Still in the works are the investigation about Trump’s trying to change the results of the Georgia election, his misuse of classified documents at Mar a Lago, and his role in the January 6 Insurrection. What are the chances one or more of these investigations could result in an indictment? Pretty high, it seems to me.

Most interesting is that the New York trial is not expected to begin until January 2024 just when the primary campaigns will be heating up. Some legal experts predict that the trial could take weeks or longer. Imagine Trump sitting in a courtroom when the Republican primary campaign is in full swing. If other indictments happen, Trump could be sitting in courtrooms all spring. Good heavens! Talk about grist for the American history mill. The whole world will be watching.

So how are we going to get through the Trump Show, Act II? We have enormous issues facing us: climate change, inflation, a possible recession, racial tensions, economic disparities, regional and class divisions,, and social/cultural issues like woke book banning in public schools, abortion and sexuality. And then there is the War in Ukraine where Putin is now threatening to use nuclear  weapons.  China has labeled us Enemy Number One. And historians have observed that the United States is more divided today than at any time except the Civil War. How are we going to weather these challenges?

I do not know the answer to this, and  will admit that not all is doom and gloom. If nothing else the months ahead will likely be entertaining, and there are some hopeful signs as well. The Democratic candidate for the Supreme Court in Wisconsin won yesterday–and that is huge. It could mean weakening the Republican grip on gerrymandering in that state and weakening the Republican extremist actions on abortion. The progressive Democrat won the Chicago mayor’s race yesterday beating a law and order candidate. The 2022 elections surprised a lot of people that Democrats did as well as we did, and there are hints that moderate Republicans are becoming weary of the Trumpster. Plus, if Trump does have to endure  multiple trials and is convicted in one or more of them, certainly that would assure he would  lose in a general election. Right? Right?

But  at times  the uncertainties are unsettling. Sometimes it seems that the storm clouds gathering on the horizon may be too much. The stakes right now are so high, given the warnings about climate change. In addressing climate change and the other major issues, the margin for error is narrowing. We do not have time to waste. I think of the poem written in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I by Yeats:


The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?








A Cat Story: Oreo, Oreo, Where Art Thou, Oreo?

Embry and I have always been cat lovers and adoring cat owners. Minette was our first cat, who we bought from a pet shop in Manhattan in 1966 when we were newlyweds and students in New York City. I was at Union Seminary and Embry a senior at Barnard. Minette was part Russian Blue and part Siamese and very smart and very athletic. She lived to be over 18 and will always be our favorite cat. In her heyday she could easily jump from the floor to the top of a door; and when we were traveling in Europe in the summer of 1967 and left our apartment with a friend whose main duty was to take care of her, Minette escaped and ended up spending several weeks on her own on the mean streets of the city. One day just before we returned she found her way back and was found by the super scratching at the main door of the apartment house building trying to get in. Embry said that Minette taught her how to age with dignity—keep doing what you always have been doing, just slow down.

We moved to Chapel Hill in 1968 and then to Washington in 1972. When Minette died in the early 1980s, we adopted Maggie, short for “Magnificat,” a streetwise Tabby, who spent more time outdoors chasing insects but still a great cat, who also lived a long time. 

She was followed by the era of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, littermates whom we adopted as kittens in the early 2000s from a lady who befriended pregnant street cats and helped place their offspring with loving families. They were both fabulous animals, an important part of our family for another 15 years. These four animals all had “long lives well lived.” When Freddie and Fannie died we took a break starting in 2016, but it turned out to be a short one because a petite, black cat—“Beleza”–that Jessica’s family had adopted was freaked out when they adopted a stray Pit Bull prompting a move to our apartment. She was very quiet and withdrawn and died of a heart attack during the Kavanaugh hearings regarding his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018. She was captivated by the hearings on television and was fine when the lady, Cristine Blasey Ford, spoke; but when Kavanaugh came on, she collapsed and died on the spot. He was too much for her, and now we know why.

Just as covid was arriving in the U.S., early in 2020, we adopted from the shelter in neighboring Calvert County, a beautiful Burmese, whom we named Queen. Queen was about eleven and had been placed in a shelter on two previous occasions because she had a bad habit of biting children. Given her advanced age and reputation, no one wanted to adopt her.  Not us, however, and in many was she turned out to be a great cat once she got over her urge to bite when displeased. She was the perfect companion for us during the covid outbreak. Unfortunately, she died last summer at age 13; and since then, we have been cat less—until this week.

We had not been planning to adopt another cat due mainly to our traveling a lot, but my serious  traveling days are reaching their end; and Embry and I had been thinking it might be nice to adopt for the last time one more feline creature. This week a notice came out that an elderly lady living in our apartment house had died who had owned a cat that now had no home. The cat, “Oreo,” was five years old and described as a cuddly animal who loved people. We could not resist the temptation. His age seemed about right. We might even outlive him. We visited the apartment, met the owner’s daughter, who introduced us to a beautiful purring, black cat with white markings on his feet and neck. We took him to our apartment that afternoon. That was on Thursday. From Thursday to Sunday we did not see the cat. For three days we spent hours trying to find the little guy in our 1,700sf apartment. How could an animal find so many places to hide in such a small space? One spot was behind a bookcase and under our tv. Another was behind books in a small bookcase in my office. A third was in one of our closets. Once we discovered one of his hiding places he would move to another and then disappear again. But on Sunday, when Embry found him in a closet, he finally hopped down and was ready to be petted. The trauma of losing his owner and his familiar surroundings had been too much to take. It turns out that cats (and many other mammals) have emotions just like us humans.

So here we go again with Oreo, certainly our last creature.