Hello, Gilded Age -- we're back!

By Robert Wasserstrom | Sep 12, 2019

In the early 1900s, Rockland, Bath, Lewiston and Portland were major centers of labor conflict in Maine. Among other reforms, union members wanted young children to attend school. For years, men of property fought back, arguing that mandatory schooling burdened poor families and infringed on their freedom. How could they feed themselves if their kids didn’t work in the mills? That was the choice they offered: starve or make your children work for pennies a day.

Thanks to early reformers, most children now go to school. But hunger is still a big problem in the Midcoast. According to Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn, Maine has the highest percentage of hungry families in New England and the ninth-highest rate in the U.S. More than 40 percent of schoolchildren in Knox County don’t get enough to eat. In parts of Waldo County, the number reaches 80 percent. Even kids who get free breakfasts and lunches in school often face "68 hours of hunger," according to the food bank, between Friday afternoon and Monday morning.

How can this be true? Seasonal work, low wages, an aging population with inadequate retirement savings, high rents and the escalating cost of health care all make life precarious for Maine families. Many working people now live from paycheck to paycheck. “Maine’s employment structure provides a livable wage for only about two thirds of its roughly 620,000 workers,” Good Shepherd notes. Around the state, 200,000 working people don’t earn enough to pay the rent, keep their car running and eat. At $15 an hour, full-time, year-round employment still leaves a family of four far below the poverty level.

The result is predictable. Bucking a national trend, food insecurity in Maine has increased since the Great Recession. In Knox County, as many as 1,360 households – including 1,000 school-age children – face constant worry about food. They often turn to private charities for help: 60 percent of food pantry clients have held a job during the past year. Even with assistance, they remain one illness or layoff away from being unable to put food on the table. Particularly hard-hit are seniors: more than a quarter of them need help. “I do rely on the food pantries and soup kitchens a lot of the time around here,” one older veteran recently told an interviewer, “and it has been especially hard for me to eat.”

The problem we face isn’t personal; it’s structural. Since the 19th century, defenders of capitalism have argued that public goods – transportation, education, utilities, etc. – undermine our willingness to work, our freedom to rise by our own efforts. This cliché bears a long and disgraceful pedigree. During the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1849), for example, British elites invoked it to limit relief supplies for starving Irish farmers. One million people died and another million were forced to emigrate.

Even so, we still hear it in Maine today. Not long ago, an administrator in Belfast was forced to resign because she refused to disburse the city’s General Assistance money or even let people apply for it. “It was like, well, pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” one city councilor complained. Hard to do when you've just lost your job, like the 120 employees at Little River Apparel. Or when you pay half your income in rent, like 20 percent of Knox County tenants.

Around the country, economic mobility since 1970 has slowed to a crawl. Maine is no exception: according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, 65 percent of children born into low-income families here (specifically, the two lowest quintiles) will stay there all their lives. Children born at the top will mostly stay there, too.

What is to be done? Let’s start by seriously rebalancing the dominance of big money in our society. Forget the talking heads: no economic or political law proves that most of us do better when a privileged few own almost everything. Actually, the opposite is true: more Americans faced better prospects in the 1950s and 1960s before “elite capture” overwhelmed our political institutions.

Democrats and Republicans alike participated in this silent takeover. Labor laws were whittled away, education was cut back, money became speech, child hunger and homelessness exploded – all in the name of preserving our individual freedom to become millionaires. Without basic changes, our politics fits Einstein’s often-quoted definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.

A century ago, Maine workers envisioned a future where human needs took priority over coddling millionaires. We need to pick up where they left off, before it’s too late.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Valli Genevieve Geiger | Sep 13, 2019 06:37

Excellent article, thank you.



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