Recently, Clare Crawford of the Center on Policy Initiatives noted that, “Even three full-time minimum wage jobs don’t make enough to make ends meet in San Diego County.” Crawford was responding to the release of a report by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development that documented how it now costs a family of three nearly $63,000 to make ends meet in San Diego.
This is according to the 2011 California Family Self-Sufficiency Standard and the grim news is that more than one million San Diegans are living in households earning less than that threshold. That’s close to a third of all San Diegans, much higher than the fifteen percent of San Diegans who fall under the official poverty line.
As the Insight Center’s report notes, “The Self- Sufficiency Standard provides county-specific costs for housing, food, and health care, as well as costs associated with work including transportation, child care, and taxes. The Self-Sufficiency Standard is a more accurate calculation of income adequacy than other measures of economic well-being, such as the Federal Poverty Level.” Thus, much like the official unemployment numbers that dramatically underestimate the number of unemployed, the official poverty rate ignores what it really takes for people to make a decent living.
And if we consider the fact that many more of us are uncomfortably near that margin, we start getting a very different image of the city than the one we see on the local news. Indeed, as the gap between the rich and the poor has grown, the middle class has shrunk and social mobility has decreased, even here in America’s Finest City. But the invisibility of that fact in our media and politics is a kind of quiet violence. It’s what helps keep the current hegemony going. If you conceal the fact that most of us are much closer (maybe just a paycheck away) to the poor than we are to the rich, it makes easier to shield the obscenely privileged elite that has profited greatly at our expense.
Before Occupy Wall Street stole the national spotlight, Americans had been blaming all the wrong people—unions, immigrants, government workers, the poor—everybody but the folks who actually caused the economic crisis. It’s always easier to blame the guy who lives across the street, it seems, so we direct our fire at each other rather than aiming up at the real culprits.
All this makes me think of the scene in the Grapes of Wrath where the tenant farmer comes out to confront another guy on a tractor who is just about to roll over his house. The farmer levels his gun at the driver, who tells him it’s not his fault, that he is just working for his boss who answers to the bank in town who answers to other folks back east who answer to a system that is out of everyone’s control.
The monster is not a man but a system that makes it nearly impossible for ordinary folks to know “who to shoot,” as the farmer puts it. So we aim down (at the poor or the weak or the children) because we can’t comprehend how to grapple with our faceless masters, those who have greatly benefited while most of us have suffered during this economic crisis—the corporations who get tax breaks while we keep paying, the rich people who never seem to pay even when their economic behavior verges on the criminal.
This has been the miracle of the Tea Party movement that has harnessed the same sort of populist anger that back in the ’30s helped create the CIO and the New Deal. Today, some of the folks with the pitchforks are pushing in the other direction, however, hollering for policies that will benefit those who are most responsible for the economic crisis—budget cuts, more tax cuts, less government, less regulation and weakened unions.
It’s the anti-New Deal era in many ways, and in the Golden State we are pink slipping teachers, cutting aid to the most-needy, and downsizing our expectations for the future in the service of the notion that if we just shrink government, somehow the economy will work better for all of us. It’s a perverse irony, but, for some, a new social Darwinism is the God’s truth.
If one good thing comes out of the Occupation of America, I hope it is a reawakening to the realities of class and economic inequality. It’s only when we understand that wealth has been radically redistributed upward, that we can have an accurate cognitive map of power at the national and local level.
Maybe people are starting to get a clue and figuring out “who to shoot.” If it’s Wall Street and its allies at the international and national level, where do we aim here at home in San Diego?
Perhaps you can only be duped into blaming your sanitation workers, librarians, and firefighters for all things evil for so long. The real power in San Diego doesn’t lie with these working and middle class folks or with any other “special interests” other than the corporate welfare hogs that have consistently milked our municipal cow for their pet projects. As I pointed out in my recent review of Paradise Plundered: Fiscal Crisis and Governance Failures in San Diego, the authors thoroughly document how, “San Diego’s political and business elite have done a fantastic job of ‘using pubic resources to maximize private profit’ with little to no oversight from our ‘shadow governments’ and local media who they accuse of ‘largely representing downtown business interests.’”
And no one embodies the lust for privatization and social Darwinist economics better than Carl DeMaio whose agenda, as I illustrated earlier this year in my “Wisconsin of the West” columns, “is connected to a larger, nationwide web of think tanks whose decades-long intellectual assault on unions, the public sector, and even the very notion of government is now bearing fruit from Wisconsin to California.”
If DeMaio or any of his Republican allies win the mayor’s race, we are in for Wisconsin style austerity in San Diego. Don’t let the smiling face of Nathan Fletcher or the milder manner of Bonnie Dumanis fool you either. The Right as a whole is no friend of affordable public services. Hence it is crucial to understand that, as I noted, “while some on the local right might be happy to oppose cuts in some services when it serves their political interests, don’t let that take your eye off the ball. Anyone who wants to go anywhere in the contemporary Republican Party, can’t stand by any public service for too long—especially if he or she can find a private enterprise to run it ‘more efficiently.’ OB library and/or Balboa Park brought to you by company X can’t be too far down the line.”
So the mayoral race here in San Diego between DeMaio et al and Bob Filner is really about something bigger. As I concluded in the “Wisconsin of the West” series: “the battle to save unions, nationally and here in San Diego, is really, at its heart, a battle to save the middle class. If you side with Carl DeMaio and his ilk, you side with plutocracy, growing inequality, and a weaker middle class. As the old song says, ‘Whose side are you on,’ San Diego? Are you with fear and envy or hope and solidarity?”
I know there will be readers of this column who will disdain the focus on the partisan politics of our broken system, but, in this case, they really matter. Yes, one mayor’s race won’t bring down the system, but it will have a tangible effect on real peoples lives. You can keep up direct action, maintain skepticism, and vote at the same time. The perfect need not be the enemy of the good.
If the early polls are indicative, it will be a race between DeMaio, the pure product of the right wing, corporate-funded think tanks and Filner, a man who began his career as a Freedom Rider, going to jail for civil rights. DeMaio wouldn’t even show up at a forum held by community activists and labor, while Filner said he was “inspired” by the Occupy Wall Street movement and wants to get rid of San Diego’s shadow government by disbanding the Center City Development Corporation. He also wants to solve the pension crisis without throwing workers under the bus and use the savings to fund public services. He wants to make it a central goal of the city to eliminate homelessness and create a working port to provide good jobs. The choice could not be starker.
Let’s hope that some of the energy coming out of OWS will seep into our race for mayor and change the frame of the debate. Bob Filner is not our political messiah by any stretch of the imagination, but, if elected, he would be the most progressive mayor in the history of San Diego and his victory would be a big defeat for the San Diego’s own plutocrats. And then . . . the struggle will continue.