No room for poor folks 

City Sage

Here's a question posed by Nicholas Carnes in a recent New York Times op-ed piece:

"Why do so few elections feature candidates who have worked in blue-collar jobs? The working class is the backbone of our society, a majority of our labor force and 90 million people strong. ... Since the 1980s, the number of state legislators whose primary occupations are working-class jobs has fallen from 5 percent to 3 percent. In City Councils, fewer than 10 percent of members have blue-collar day jobs."

Our elected officials appear to fit the national mold. No member of City Council is a working stiff, nor are any of our local state legislators. Remember the jump-rope chant?

"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor / Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief / Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief!"

There are doctors, lawyers and soldiers, but no tinkers or tailors. Well-off, middle-class folks, but no poor people. No Indian chiefs, now that Ben Nighthorse Campbell is gone. No beggar men (unless begging for campaign contributions counts) and no thieves (unless doing the bidding of your contributors counts).

By my count during the past decade, two working-class guys served on Council. Charles Wingate was elected in 2001, Tom Gallagher in 2003. Gallagher, who proudly noted that he was so poor that he slept under a bridge when he first came to town, held office for eight years. He was irascible and straightforward, rarely in step with the go-along-to-get-along majority.

Wingate never alluded to his poverty, but he clearly found it difficult to make a living. He was forced out of office and eventually jailed for using a city-issued credit card to pay for pizzas.

Thanks in part to generous friends and supporters, Gallagher managed to keep it together. It wasn't easy for him, just as it wouldn't be easy for any blue-collar worker to serve on Council. The job pays $6,250 annually, and requires that you spend about 20 hours each week on city-related work.

Pocket-change salary? Unless you're retired, independently wealthy or have a well-paid spouse to support your governing addiction, forget it.

County Commissioner Dennis Hisey is a blue-collar guy who probably would find it difficult to serve without a salary. Luckily for him and fellow commissioners, the job pays a princely $87,300 annually.

Yet money is only part of the reason that working-class people so rarely get elected to office. It's easy enough to run — but winning is another thing. Successful candidates tend to be ambitious self-promoters. They may have working-class origins, but they seldom stay in their parents' worlds.

Many share a common political philosophy. Let's call it Ayn Rand Lite, a curious blend of Malthus, Darwin, Old Testament and Christianity.

From the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus comes the idea that the poverty of lower classes is their own fault — laziness, promiscuity and moral turpitude lead the poor to ruin. Malthus argued that government-funded charity caused poverty, rather than alleviating it. Want to help the poor? Cut off government payments, let private charity step in, and all will be well.

Social Darwinism makes it easy to believe that worldly success is a mark of inherent superiority. The 47 percent are just society's excess baggage, stowaways along for the ride, takers not makers.

And then there's the God of the Old Testament, a God of wrath and revenge. Keep your head down, live righteously, and you'll be OK. If others are smitten by the terrible swift sword, that's their problem.

Yet the fundamental tenets of Christianity are in tension with the instinctive beliefs of our governing class. "Love thy neighbor as thyself." "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

We assume nowadays that ambitious strivers, whatever their politics, want to exit the working class. But between 1945 and 1975, the economy created secure, well-paid jobs throughout the country. Sons followed their fathers, working for solid, well-capitalized, locally owned businesses.

That America has vanished, crushed by globalization, sclerotic unions, predatory plutocrats and feckless wars. It's not coming back soon — and in the meantime, don't expect a lot of blue-collar workers to run for office.

They're trying to pay the rent, feed their families, and keep their jobs.



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