A One Act Play: The 2024 Presidential Candidacy of George Santos

Scene: The cloak room of the Senate, often used by Republicans.

Republican Senator One: “Well, since there seems to be a good chance that Trump  might be behind bars when the next election happens in 2024, I think we should have a backup candidate, and my vote would go to George Santos. He’s the guy to carry the torch.

Republican Senator Two: I agree. I favor him as much as you do. He has all the qualities we want and need. He has a fabulous resume, a true Horatio Alger story, plus he stands for everything Trump does and will fight hard.

Republican Staffer: Are you sure? I have been responsible for investigating all the controversy surrounding this man and have done some fact checking. I have some questions.

Republican Senator One: Well, for starters he went to a great college. Baruch College . Hard to get into, terrific school.

 Republican Staffer: Except he didn’t. No record that he attended the school.

Republican Senator One: He had to. He was a volleyball star there plus he has an MBA from NYU. You can’t have an MBA if you don’t go to college.

Republican Staffer: No record of an MBA from NYU or attending the NYU graduate school. In fact, no record of a college degree anywhere. Also, no evidence that he ever played volleyball, not that it is all that important.

Republican Senator One: Well, you are right. That isn’t all that important. Just look at his successful career. He was a high level executive at Citi Group and at Goldman Sachs and worked at Blackstone.

Republican Staffer: Would be great except there is no record of his being employed at any of these firms. I talked with HR people at each firm and no one ever heard of the guy.

Republican Senator Two: Maybe they did not keep good records. And what about his real estate career? He was a big time landlord in New York City and complained about all the deadbeats who owed him rent money.

Republican Staffer: Unfortunately, there is no record of Santos owning any property in New York or anywhere else. But there are numerous court records of Santos being brought into court for failing to pay rent.

Republican Senator Two:  Well, that is a minor item, and I for one do not believe he wouldn’t pay rent.  He has a lot of money, right? Hey, he lent his campaign over $700,000, so he must have a lot of money.

 Republican Staffer: His tax returns showed an income of only $55,000 in 2020. Plus, he applied for and received unemployment benefits from the Covid relief funds of $24,000 in 2020 and 2021.  He may have made around $100,000 during that period when he worked for an investment firm in Florida, but it coincided with the time he claimed unemployment insurance during the covid pandemic. 

 Republican Senator Two: Well, the money had to come from somewhere.

Republican Staffer: That is one of the reasons he is being investigated by the FBI.

Republican Senator One: Partisan attack by scum bag Democrats, who have weaponized the FBI. Who are you going to believe, Santos or the FBI? Plus, he has an inspiring personal history. This makes him a compelling presidential candidate. His Jewish grandparents were Holocaust survivors, for goodness sake! They came to the U.S. penniless.

Republican Staffer: When his mother immigrated from Brazil, she listed her parents as being born in Brazil. And there is also nothing about being Jewish or ever living in Europe.

Republican Senator Two: Well, being a Jew is not all that helpful anyway in a national election as it is in New York City. So, what if he is not Jewish? Think of all that he has been through. Take the Nine-Eleven attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. His mother was working there as a high level business executive in the South Tower and died from the toxic dust. Tragedy, real tragedy. Tear jerker. The American public will relate to that.

Republican Staffer: Except his mother was living in Brazil at the time and listed her occupation as “housekeeper and home aide” on her immigration papers, when she immigrated to the U.S. in 2003.

Republican Senator One: Not all that important. And another inspiring part of his life was his championing animal rights. That should be compelling. He started his own charity, a nonprofit, tax exempt organization called “Friends of Pets United.” He personally rescued 2,400 dogs and 280 cats. This will really go over well with the animal lovers.

Republican Staffer: The part about the nonprofit company appears correct except it was never registered with the IRS as is required, and there are multiple accusations that he stole money from the nonprofit for his personal use. This is another item under investigation by the FBI.

Republican Senator One: Well, another positive factor is that in his first run for office in 2020, his election was stolen just like what happened to Trump that year. Republicans will rally behind a candidate who experienced election fraud and who supports Trump’s proven accusations of election fraud. Look, we all know the Democrats cheat all the time and that Trump won in 2020….Son, you might have tried to find the facts, but all you have told us amounts to a “he said, she said” deal. Believe who you want to, but we know that all this is a  plot by Democrats to keep this likely candidate at bay. What we need now is a strong backup candidate should Trump end up in the slammer, and Santos, frankly, is the best we have. Kevin McCarthy loves him. Lindsley Graham loves him. Mitch loves him. He’s the best we got.

Republican Staffer: Did you know he has been charged with seven counts of wire fraud, three counts of money laundering, one count of theft of public funds, and two counts of making false statements to the House of Representatives?

Senator Number One: So what? Accusations happen in every election. No big deal. He hasn’t been convicted, has he? That is the only thing that counts. All made up charges, if you ask me. Besides, son, you better watch yourself. He may end up being the next President of the United States.

Staffer departs from the cloak room with no comment. Senators rush off to vote.



Don’t Cave, Democrats!

As I write on Saturday, May 20, there is no assurance that the debt ceiling will be raised. To the contrary, the negotiations ceased when the Republicans left the room on Friday evening in a huff hinting that there was no hope for a compromise. The required “compromise,” as they call it, would mean Democrats holding federal spending steady for discretionary items with no increases from the FY 22 budget– for eight years! It also would mean huge cuts in federal subsidies for health care and the social safety net along with gutting environmental initiatives and firing IRS staff. Cuts would average 18 percent on year one for all items not related to defense or national security. The federal bureaucracy would be gutted, support for veterans cut drastically, climate change initiatives blocked. Medicare and Social Security would also be on the chopping block. When the Democrats give into these “reasonable” demands, then and only then will the Republicans agree to allow the proposed programs in the 2024 budget to move forward by raising the debt limit.

These demands, of course, are outrageous and unacceptable to Democrats and to the Administration. The Republicans, however, believe they are coming from a position of strength. They believe they have the poison pill—the law that prevents any spending above the congressionally authorized debt ceiling, which is expected to happen on or around June 1. The average American expects both sides to make concessions and for a compromise to be reached. 

 The crazies have taken over the Republican Party.  I am not hopeful.

I say, Hold your course, Democrats. What is happening now is the equivalent to hostage taking. And make no mistake. This has nothing to do with balanced budgets. No Republican gave so much as a twit when Trump’s laws cut revenues and provided giveaways to the rich through tax cuts. The tax cuts pushed deficits to record highs. This is about an unconditional surrender by Democrats to give Republicans the chance to destroy virtually all that they and President Biden have been able to accomplish in the first two years of the Biden Administration and much more. Plus if they are successful in getting their way now, they will surely pull this trick again. And again.  Mr. President, you can’t let this happen. Dems, you can’t let this happen.

So what to do? So, yes, make compromises, small ones, but do not cave on what is important. If reasonable compromises can’t be reached, accept that  the non essential part of the federal government will be shut down, but do not default on Treasury Bills. We have been through government shut downs before. They are painful, unfair, and totally unnecessary,  but usually are worked out eventually. Not honoring our financial obligations is a bird of a different feather. Economists and historians tell us the results would be catastrophic. Mr. President, continue to pay interest and return principal. The Fourteenth Amendment has a provision that states the following:

“The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”

Argue the law about the debt ceiling is unconstitutional and honor the debt. This would, of course, end up in the Supreme Court. Would the current justices put a stop to  this action by Republicans to set off a catastrophic event? I know, long shot. That is why we all should be concerned.

A “discharge petition” (which I confess I do not understand)  has also been recommended, which would get around the debt ceiling deadline but would need at least five Republicans to sign on, also unlikely.

The situation is in effect a duel at close range where both sides shoot each other dead. It is the financial equivalent of a nuclear war. Yes, the budget deficits need to be addressed by cost cutting combined with raising more revenues. This needs to be a priority going forward but not now, not under the threat of killing all the hostages. Only eleven days are left before the triggering event.  For now, however, the Dems must not cave. Should the Republicans win on this one,  Doomsday comes to mind.

The Mystery of Clarence Thomas Unveiled

PBS’s Frontline featured a two-hour special on Clarence and Ginni Thomas a couple of weeks ago. I am a big fan of Frontline and recommend viewing the program on Clarence and Ginni Thomas if you have not already seen it. You can probably find it in the Frontline archives. It is extraordinary. The program consisted mainly of interviews with people who have known them over the years. As you may guess, I have never been a Clarence Thomas fan, but now have a better understanding of the man. Here are my takeaways:

I now know a lot more about the guy than I did before (from the program and from Wikepedia). Clarence was born in 1948, the height of Jim Crow laws and overt racism in the South. He grew up in modest circumstances in Pin Point, Georgia, a tiny village, almost entirely African American, near Savanah where the primary language of most residents was Gullah, a language from  the days of slavery. Gullah was the first language Clarence spoke. “Modest circumstances”, however, does not begin to capture the situation. He grew up in abject poverty. His father abandoned the family when Clarence was two, and his mother, a maid, struggled to make ends meet and provide food for the family. The house they lived in had no indoor plumbing. Unable to cope, his mother gave up her three children to her own father and mother, who lived in Savanah. Clarence’s maternal grandparents, Myers and Christine Anderson, raised their three grandchildren. Myers Anderson owned a modest fuel oil and coal business, which provided a living income but was a hard driving and demanding substitute father. An ardent Catholic, he sent Clarence off to a Catholic boys’ schools and later to high school at a seminary where Clarence studied to become a Catholic priest. He was one of only a handful of Black students and subjected to brutal harassment and racist bullying. He left the seminary early, to the displeasure of his grandfather,  to attend Holy Cross College on a full scholarship and then on to Yale Law School.

Now think about this for a moment. An African American man who was born into poverty during the time of the most rampant racism in the South ends up becoming a Supreme Court Justice in what is now referred to as “the Thomas Court.” Good heavens! Talk about a Cinderella story. Has anyone on the Court ever come from circumstances as humble or challenging as this? Thomas was dealt a tough hand.  How did he do it? And how and why did he become one of the most conservative Justices in the history of the Supreme Court? This is the question  Frontline tries to answer.

The main takeaway for me was that what made this possible was Thomas’s driving ambition to be respected and to overcome personal insecurity. Being an African American in the Jim Crow South affected him greatly as did his early years living in poverty and the continuing racism he experienced. Hurtful racist experiences continued throughout his life– at the mostly white Holy Cross College and the mostly white Yale Law School where he often felt dissed by white students and professors.

What I did not know –and I suspect that what most do not know– was that as a young man Thomas was a civil rights activist. At Holy Cross Clarence was part of the Black Power Movement, a fan and devotee of Malcom X, and a student radical. My goodness, how do you go from a Black radical to Black conservative in only a few years?

Thomas began to change when he was at Yale. He was influenced by several conservative professors and some conservative friends. His goal was to land a job at a prestigious law firm. When Clarence did not get the plum law firm offers that most of his classmates were getting, he was crushed. He had made good grades, worked very hard and yet felt dissed again. Oddly in my view, he attributed the situation to affirmative action: He believed the fancy law firms did not hire him because they had concluded that the only reason he had gotten into an elite law school was because he was Black, not because he was smart or had earned it.

This was a pivotal moment for Thomas. He switched from Plan A to Plan B, which was to become a government attorney and work his way up the bureaucratic ladder to the top. He also observed there were a whole lot more Black people in the Democratic line to get the good government jobs than in the Republican line. According to friends interviewed on the show, his choice was not so much ideological as practical. He concluded it would be a lot easier to succeed as a Black Republican than as a Black Democrat.

He also was aware that the Republican Party was becoming much more conservative. To succeed not only did he have to be a member of the party, to tow the ideological line, he had to stand out from the crowd. The more conservative the better. This would seem to be another practical decision and explains the shift from the campus radical he was at Holy Cross to his bona fides that made him a rising star among Republicans. Promotions came quickly and with some lucky breaks —serving under Reagan as head of the EEOC at one point and making the right connections with elected officials and the Republican elite– he got his chance. The rest is history. In 1991 he was nominated by President George H. W. Bush and sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice at age 43.

But his success had come with a price. Clarence went through two failed marriages, and at one point had a serious drinking problem. In many of the film clips on the show, he seemed to be anything but a happy camper. The Anita Hill testimony during the nomination hearings about his sexual harassment history was said by his friends to have devastated him. His denial of the charges was vehement, but no one interviewed on the Frontline program said they doubted that Anita Hill was telling the truth.  

The unanswered question for me is why he continued to move farther to the right after his appointment to the Supreme Court. Did he really believe all Republican talking points when voting against things like equal opportunity and affirmative action? Was he aware that many of his votes would hurt low income people of color? Why didn’t he move toward the middle? With a guaranteed job for life and the prestige that went with it, what did he have to lose by being true to values of fairness and opportunity that he had benefited from himself? What were his values when he was involved in civil rights protests in the 1970s? The Frontline show never really answers this question though his marriage to Ginni Lamp in 1987 might have played a part.

Ginni Lamp was an ambitious Republican operative from Nebraska, nine years younger than Clarence, and whose wealthy parents at the time were in the John Birch Society. They were extreme rightwing conservatives. That she is white and from a very wealthy family adds complexity and irony to the Clarence Thomas story. Since their marriage they have been what I would call “partners in crime.”

The program also touched on the current scandal of having a long term, unreported relationship with Harlan Crow, the billionaire son of the real estate developer Trammel Crow. Over a long period, they have wined and dined in expensive restaurants with Harlan Crow, accompanied Crow on his mega yacht for cruises to exotic places, and with Crow, visited luxury resorts, all bills paid. Crow is a mega donor to the Republican Party and rightwing causes. Are we to believe that politics and legal issues were never discussed, and that Crow never introduced the Thomases to his rightwing friends?

The conundrum is whether Thomas is a sellout without principles or strong values other than personal success, who changed colors in order to succeed in his career, or whether he is a converted, true believer in “conservative” values and principles. Does he have a moral compass? Did he ever have one?

One of his friends interviewed said that “Clarence became a Republican so he could get a job. Now he is one of them.”

Ok, I get this. I can understand why the need for respect is important and why personal insecurity is a motivator, for better or for worse. While I do not “like” him, and will likely never agree with him, I think I now can begin to understand him. The humanity of the man came through in the Frontline program. He seemed to me to be something of a lost soul. But I also have to confess that there is something to admire about the journey of the flawed man from Pin Point, given his start in life. But on the other hand there is no question that our country would have been far better off if Clarence Thomas had gotten his dream job working for a prestigious New York law firm.












My No Good, Horrible, Terrible Day

Tuesday, May 11, got started well enough with not much happening in the morning. Reading about how many lies George Santos had been telling, around one in the afternoon, I decided to write a blog post about the scoundrel and typed in “Lies by George Santos” on Google where I was directed to a website with that name, which I clicked. A red warning sign popped up that this was a risky website. Before I was able to read more than five or six of his lies, a sound like a siren went off, and the following message with the Apple logo appeared: “Apple Has Determined Your Computer Has Been Hacked. We have locked It to protect your device. Contact Apple now and do not shut off or unplug your computer since it may result in severe damage. Call Apple Help now. Call this number.” The message took up the whole screen and flashed on and off. The siren continued.

It seemed a bit odd. I tried to cancel the message and unlock the computer to no avail. Embry came in my office, and we both suspected it might be a scam. Despite the dire warning not to turn off the computer, I turned off the computer and unplugged it anyway. When I turned it back on again, the flashing continued. The computer remained locked, and the siren was even louder. What to do?

I was wary of calling the telephone number on the screen, so using my iPhone decided to call the Apple Help number listed on the internet so I would be sure to get an Apple technician. I noticed there were several Apple Help numbers and without giving it much thought called the first one. Someone from Apple immediately answered. “Yes,” he said,” We understand your problem and can help. There is a lot of computer theft like this going around.” The technician had what seemed to me a slight Indian accent.

The usual procedure is to let Apple see your screen enabling them to use an arrow to point to things you need to do to fix what is wrong. I agreed to screen sharing. The Apple tech guy immediately reported that he thought this was part of a hacking scheme going on and stated that he could fix it but would need the use of my iPhone and asked for permission to screen share that also. I agreed to that as well.

The procedure of using the iPhone took quite a bit of time and I had no idea of what he was doing. After about 15 minutes, he said, “Mr. Howell, l can confirm that your computer has been hacked. I have determined that the hackers are in Houston, Texas, and that they have targeted your bank, PNC, and are on the verge of taking all your money. They have been able to hack into your computer and get all the information they need to rob you. I can stop this from happening, but I will need to get into your system to stop them.

What to do?

He continued, “We at Apple are familiar with this scheme and can keep the hackers from steeling your money but we must act now. And you must do everything I say and do it immediately.”

“Are you really an Apple technician?” I asked timidly.

“Please, Mr. Howell, of course, I am. You insult me. We know this scam. We deal with scams like this every day. If you don’t act fast now, you will lose everything in your account, which I believe is $23,526.33.”

“Good heavens,” I thought. “This guy knows exactly how much money is in my PNC bank account. How did he figure this out? How did he get this information?”

With some reservations I agreed to let the Apple technician move forward in fixing the problem, which involved beating the hackers to the punch by transferring all the money out of PNC to a safe haven bank account in San Francisco, which only I would be able to access. I complained that I did not fully understand how this would work. He assured me it was standard protocol and the only way of averting catastrophe. The clock was ticking, and Apple is a trusted company.

It turned out the process of transferring my money from PNC to a California bank took over an hour. He was constantly telling me what to do and scolding me for taking too much time. He kept reminding me that the hackers would steel my money it if I didn’t move faster in following his instructions. Toward the end of the hour, he said that everything was in place and all that was needed was the password I used for the PNC account. No one would see the password except for PNC so I need not worry.

I took a deep breath and typed in my password.

It was at this point that I realized that I had just given my PNC password to someone I did not know and who probably was not actually an Apple employee. I broke into a cold sweat.

“Hurry, Mr. Howell, do as I say, do it now or all will be lost. All you have to do is click on “transfer.” Do it now. Now!

I clicked on “transfer.”

“Good job, Mr. Howell. You have saved the day. We have beaten the hackers. Your money is safe. Now look at your phone and tell me what you see. I am unlocking your computer.”

I looked at my phone and reported back, “Transfer denied.”

“Shit,” he said, “I am bringing in my boss.

The boss got on the phone. His accent was much stronger than that of the technician I had been dealing with. I could barely understand what he was saying, and he was surely not a happy camper. He then directed me to go to the nearest Target store to purchase what I thought he said was an Apple card, which he said would be needed to complete the transfer. He would remain on the line, and I should hurry.

What? This made no sense.

There are idiots in the world and there are outrageous, hopeless idiots. Clearly, I fall into the former category, but even for a naïve, trusting idiot like me, this was too much.

“You know where you can stick the Apple Card–or whatever it is I am supposed to buy. I am reporting you to the police.”

I hung up.

But I had to act fast. The hackers had my bank account information and password and probably would eventually figure out how to make the transfer. I immediately called PNC and after giving the automated system my name, social security number, and date of birth, finally got a person and told her my predicament. She transferred me to the fraud and abuse line. An automated voice came on the line announcing that the wait would be approximately 45 minutes, and all calls would be taken in order.

Forty-five minutes? All could be lost in 45 minutes. I felt a panic attack coming on. On pins and needles, I waited for the call to be answered while trying to keep my composure.

Finally, a woman’s voice answered. I told her what had happened and that she needed to protect my account. She then asked me the usual security questions—full name, date of birth, address, social security number, last for digits of my PNC account, the name of my first pet and my mother’s maiden name.

“All good,” she said, “Just one more question: What is your oral password?”

“My what?”

“Your oral password. If you are who you say you are, you have an oral password. Without an oral password there is no way PNC can help you.”

I was not aware of ever having had an “oral password.” I told her I had been a PNC customer for over 25 years, and no one had ever given me or asked for an oral password. And furthermore, I stood to lose $23,000, which would be transferred to a bank in California. I begged her to help me now. There was no time to spare. How could she think it was not me when I knew the name of my first pet, for God’s sake?

“Don’t raise your voice with me.” She replied, I don’t care what the name of your first pet was. No oral password, no business!” The phone line suddenly went dead.

I was stunned. Over an hour had passed. The hackers had all the information they needed. Somehow the transfer had not gone through the first time, but it could happen at any minute. The end of this movie was starting to look like a tragedy.

I reported back to Embry regarding the desperate situation and told her I was headed to the nearest PNC branch and arrived there in about ten minutes. It was now after four p.m. I had been consumed by the hacker scam for over three hours. I stumbled into the branch, shaking. The manager greeted me and invited me into her office. Someone brought me a bottle of water.

Then came the security clearance–driver’s license, debit card, and check book. Then she asked me for the oral password.


“I am not supposed to do this but I will give you a hint. All are numbers and there are six of them.”

Immediately I responded with a guess: a special date, which I will not divulge. She smiled. I had gotten it right!

I described what had happened and how the account needed to be frozen. She made a quick call to someone and reported back that the account already was frozen. PNCs security system had immediately identified the transaction as fraudulent, and shut it down.


Disaster averted. She opened new accounts with new passwords and transferred all the money to the new accounts. I was finally able to relax. The next day I called the real Apple line and got my computer cleaned up wiping out all the cookies and changing all passwords.

The question that I suspect many will be asking is how I could have fallen for the scheme in the first place. The short answer is that yes, I am an idiot and way too trusting. This is certainly true, but at the same time I have got to say that the scam was well executed. The fake Apple guy was knowledgeable and very convincing that this was all legitimate. He answered most of my questions assuring me that this was the proper protocol. Since I got the telephone number off the internet under the name Apple Help—not from the number that was on the warning on my computer screen–I  can’t figure out how were they were able to pull this off. But in the end, PNC’s software and algorithms saved me. They have picked up fraudulent activity in my account within minutes of the activity on several occasions. They surely came through on this one. In the end, all I can say is that I was lucky. The horrible, no good, terrible day had a happy ending.


The Times We Are In

So, the question of the day is how concerned we should be about what is happening in our country and our world right now. Certainly, every age has its challenges, its existential moments, and its times of despair. Think of what our parents and grandparents must have experienced during the Great Depression. What if we had not been able to claw our way back? What if communism had become a viable alternative to capitalism? And what about World War II? It was not a foregone conclusion that the Allies would defeat the Nazis. What would the world have looked like if Hitler and the Axis countries had defeated us? What if Germany had developed the atomic bomb before we did? We tend to look at history as if it were a part of a script already written. The way that things turned out was the way they were supposed to. But at the time, for the people who experienced the events when they were happening, the end of the story remained a big question mark.

You can make the case that the two World Wars, the Great Depression, the rise of communism in Russia and China, and the Cold War were part of an era that ultimately yielded positive outcomes for the world, but which were far from certain at the time. Had the chips fallen differently, we could be living in a very different—and probably very dismal– world.

I also think that you can argue that the 60 plus years following World War II ushered in a period of relative peace and prosperity, which when compared to the preceding 50 years was easy sledding. The U.S. became the world’s only true superpower. The European Union stabilized Western Europe. The Korean War came to a stalemate. In the 1990s the Cold War was over, and we won. Communism was officially over in Russia and unofficially over in China. For a period of about 20 years, it looked like both countries would be our friends. Yes, the United States made mistakes in Vietnam and in the second Iraq War, but we also made great strides in civil rights, gender equality, and in helping poorer countries. For a good 50 years it has been our game to lose. Leadership was mixed during this period. We had some great presidents along with some not-so-great but gratefully were spared the crazies. There was a national consensus that the middle road was the path to peace and prosperity.  My generation has had it easy when compared to our parent’s generation.

Fast forward to today. Since the early 2000s, we have witnessed these events:

  • Russia and China are no longer our friends. This change has come gradually. When Embry and I visited both countries in our around-the-world-without-flying adventure in 2015, we were welcomed as friends in both countries. This would not be the case today. Both countries are ruled by ruthless dictators. Russia is engaged in a senseless and devasting war in Ukraine with no end in sight, which could spill into a world war, if mistakes or miscalculations happen. China has its eye on Taiwan and is focused on overtaking the U.S. as the world’s greatest economic power.
  • The World Population Review lists 52 countries as dictatorships in 2020—about a fourth of all countries, and the number is rising–in Hungary, Egypt, Turkey, and some formerly Communist Eastern European countries, with others at risk like India, Israel, and, I would argue, the United States, if Trump were to win in 2024.
  • Climate change looms large. For decades scientists have warned us to reduce our carbon output or risk catastrophe. Progress has been made but nowhere near enough to avert serious consequences. The extreme weather the world is experiencing now is Exhibit A. Some countries, especially those in Africa are being devasted by chronic drought. A food crisis may result in starvation of several hundred thousand people in North Africa this year. California is deluged by flooding.
  • The Covid pandemic has had a huge impact on many millions of people all over the world; and though the crisis has eased, much damage has been done. There have been over a million deaths in the United States and at least eight million worldwide—probably a lot more. Isolation, depression, and loneliness have affected many, and there is no guarantee that it is over. Covid is still around and could morph into a more lethal variant. We continue to be uneasy.
  • The United States has experienced the trauma of the Trump election denial, the January 6 Insurrection, the overturning of abortion rights by the Supreme Court and Red State draconian restrictions, the almost daily mass killings that never seem to stop, the resistance to reasonable gun laws, and the move toward authoritarianism by Trump and his MAGA followers. Except for the Civil War, many scholars say we have never been so divided.
  • AI has just arrived, and nobody knows how that it going to impact our planet.

This brings us to the next Presidential election.  From 2016-2020, we endured four years of the most dangerous President in the history of the United States. Yet Trump is still in the picture for the 2024 Presidential election, like a vicious wild beast lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce on its prey. And even though a majority of Americans dislike Trump, he has the Republican Party wrapped around his little finger. Unless something unanticipated happens, he will be the Republican candidate. So, we will have two old codgers duking it out for President when what we need is a Democrat with more youthful energy, vision, and charisma. Now don’t get me wrong. In my view Biden has been a good president. That he has accomplished so much on the legislative front in his first two years is remarkable, given the Republican opposition. The issue for me is his age. It turns out he is only seven months younger than me. I and everybody I know after reaching 80 has slowed down. Ask any octogenarian if they think Biden is too old to go another four years after he finishes his first term. “Are you kidding me?” will likely be the response. Good heavens!   Yet here we are at a time when strong, compassionate, energetic, visionary leadership is desperately needed. That we do not and will not have it unless something changes is concerning. Never have the stakes been higher.

The latest poll came out today, May 7, showing Biden’s approval rating of 36% compared to 56% disapproval due mainly to concerns about his age, health and acuity. He would not stand a chance against a young moderate Republican, who fortunately for us Democrats is an extinct species. But still. Is this really the candidate who can win?  Wake up Democrats!

And there  is another nightmare scenario. Trump will not beat Biden in a head-to-head race if no other serious, third party candidates are on the ballot. A solid majority of Americans dislike Trump. However, a head to head choice might not happen. We learned this week that Joe Manchin is seriously considering running as a moderate, third party, independent candidate. If that happens—or if another credible moderate runs on an alternative ticket—such as someone supported by the “No Labels” initiative–Trump could and probably would win. Biden cannot afford to lose votes from moderate, independent voters. Enthusiasm about Biden is weak.  Trump’s base is rock solid. A viable moderate, third party candidate  could result in a doomsday scenario of four more years of Trump, which  scares the bejesus out of me.

Of course, we do not know the outcome of the various legal investigations underway, the rape lawsuits, or whether Trump will be convicted. Who knows, maybe he will end up taking the oath of office from a jail or penitentiary.  His MAGA base will stick with him regardless.

So think of all the issues that our country is facing—climate change, continuing divisions by race and class, the vast income and wealth disparity between the Big Hitters and just about everybody else, women’s right to choose, the militia movement to overthrow the government, and the need to responsibly reduce the deficit, for starters. The list is long. Leadership has never been more important. If only we had a youngish, popular, progressive leader waiting in the wings.

And finally, we have the self-inflicted debt default crisis looming. The Republicans have sworn there will be no compromising. Cut social safety net spending and climate change initiatives or shut down the government and tumble the world financial order into chaos.  They are essentially engaged in hostage taking, thinking Biden will blink and that they will be victorious allowing them to claim victory by drastically cutting programs designed to help the working poor, killing the climate change initiatives, and hurting Biden.  But they will not win. Their game of chicken will not work. Biden can’t and won’t cave. So what will happen? The optimists believe that a compromise will happen. I hope they are right– if the compromises are reasonable– though I am not hopeful.

So welcome to the 2020s. The five or six decades of relative calm and stability are over. These are the times we now live in. Tighten your seat belts. It is going to be a bumpy ride.




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?