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“Someone else’s nightmare”

May 9, 2011

Source.  “Blackfire performs their song “Someone Elses’ Nightmare” at the first annual NAMM native american pavilion. This was their Sunday performance.”  Not the best performance ever (with an amusingly wooden audience, in that setting), but it was the only one I could find on YouTube. Lyrics.

“Once I had a dream, I woke up to…” An awful lot of people do live it everyday.

This is a post I’ve kept on ice, 75% finished, for a couple of weeks now, since it just kept getting angrier and more despairing as I went. But, derailers’ tone arguments aside, I’ve reached the conclusion that this is one of those subjects where this is totally appropriate.

What got me more determined to finish and publish this one, though, was getting an e-mail from a friend with multiple disabilities whose life is in danger from the continuing “austerity” cuts in the US. Their living situation is jeopardized–and we’re all supposed to want to live “independently”, right?!–and they are already having trouble consistently getting life-sustaining medication. (And, to add insult to injury, the medication in question should be dirt-cheap.) Another example of inhumanity that hit me very hard.  Something else they said got me thinking: this also fits into the category of “my people are not disposable people”.

I mean, I’m aware that we are living in a system in which the comfort of a few people is considered more important than the continued existence of most of the rest of us–but it really, really hurts to get such immediate reminders of this. And to feel so close to powerless.

The post:

Last night, I was already thinking about downward mobility after putting together the last post. Then, trying to find out what’s going on after the very unusual* recent spate of tornadoes back home, I ran across a story that–on top of what I’d already been thinking about–almost broke my heart.

This is the next town over from where I grew up, and my mom’s family is related to half the county.

PULASKI, VA – APRIL 14: Denise Hancock, a community service worker at New River Community Action center helps out client Wanda Prim with her grandson Izae Prim, 5, as the two visited the center with hopes of getting help with money for gasoline on April 14, 2011 in Pulaski, Va. The center was able to help her out with a $20 gas voucher. Government funded agencies such as the New River Community Action center could lose employees or face closure due to lack of funds it normally receives from the government or donations tightening up due to the weak economy. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post) The Roanoke Times’ caption includes: ” Despite talk in Washington of an economic recovery, those who come to see Hancock need the basics of food, utilities, shelter and jobs.”

And yes, as the photo suggests, I would be amazed if the people most affected by this inhumane shit were not the ones already marginalized for some reason(s). As usual.

In Pulaski, the aid cupboard is bare: “Those who help the needy are now needy themselves, with more cuts to come.”:

The destitute people who line up outside her office are asking for more help than ever. The organization where she works has less than ever to give. It falls on Denise Hancock to navigate the chasm in between, so she rubs her forehead, opens her office door and calls out into the waiting room. “Come on in,” she says…

This is how Hancock spends her days: caught in a constant tug of war between competing economic disasters. She works for an emergency assistance program in a town where one-third of people live in poverty and a record number rely on food stamps. Those statistics were true before two tornadoes hit the Pulaski area April 8, destroying more than two dozen homes, damaging hundreds of others and causing an estimated $5.25 million in damage.

While the talk in Washington and on Wall Street is about signs of economic recovery, people in Pulaski come to Hancock’s office seeking the basics for survival: food, shelter and work. Formula for a newborn. Medication for a failing heart.

At a time of such high demand, poverty-assistance programs across the country are facing a financial crisis of their own. Hancock’s organization, which totals four employees in a run-down, two-story house, is almost out of money. Local businesses that once donated thousands each month have yet to donate a single dollar this year. As the national deficit continues to skyrocket, federal and state governments are proposing the most severe budget cuts to social service programs in decades, threatening to reduce spending by 50 percent or more.

Now Hancock, a 43-year-old single woman with no savings account, worries about much more than how much money is left to give. She also worries about losing her own job…

Hancock studies the woman’s file. Outside the door, she can hear other voices in the waiting room, where the characters change but the conversation never does. The only topic that matters in Pulaski, a town of 9,000, is what has been lost: 3,000 textile jobs in the past decade, the Walmart, the Main Street barbershop and all eight restaurants downtown. What remains are mostly vacated furniture factories with busted-out windows, churches, pawnshops and a food kitchen for the poor where Hancock eats lunch because it helps cut back on expenses. Only a year ago, the emergency assistance office routinely handed out $1,000 in vouchers each week. Now it has less than $1,000 total in its bank account until more donations come in.

“I’m sorry,” Hancock says, finally. “But $35 is the best we can do.”

“We’re going to be out on the street,” the woman says.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Hancock says. “But we’re hurting, too.”

Twenty miles away, at a coffee shop in Blacksburg, Hancock’s boss works on a math problem of her own. Terry Smusz, the executive director of New River Community Action, runs 11 poverty-assistance organizations in Southwest Virginia on an annual budget of $7 million. Now she studies a pie chart illustrating the sources of her 2010 funding, three-quarters of which is in doubt. “All these pieces of the pie are just disappearing,” she says…

Finally, the trickledown effect reached the two-story house in Pulaski, where people gather around a tray of day-old bread in the lobby, share the grim details of their finances and come away with $35 vouchers that cover a tiny fraction of their bills. Food prices here have jumped 8 percent in the past year; electricity bills are up an average of 20 percent.

The office’s four employees are all local women, each with more than a decade of community action experience. Hancock is the only one who works on the first floor of the house, which means she sees the most traffic, sometimes counseling 30 people per day. She is a college graduate who has devoted 15 years to social service, but she still makes less than $26,000 per year…

Hancock doesn’t much believe in any of that. Sometimes her day ends with a headache or a little back pain, and lately she needs a cigarette on the porch between appointments to calm her nerves. But it’s the people she counsels who are really suffering, she says. And for every one who is likely to snap, there are all the others.

Those are the ones she remembers from earlier this year, when, as a last resort, the emergency office placed an advertisement in the local newspaper asking for donations. The results began arriving in the mail a few days later: envelopes filled with $1 bills and sent from addresses listed in the agency’s database, a surge of donations from the very welfare recipients who come to the office for help.

From last September: S.H.A.R.E. food program ends after quarter-century. We never participated, because it didn’t seem like good value for money; my mom knew how to get a lot more–very nutritious–food for less money than they were charging for the packages. (See the sack of beans, sack of potatoes, sack of cornmeal, reduced price meat, and preferably a garden approach.) I suspect that had something to do with their decline, since besides the increased costs and decreased funding, fewer people were signing up. But, I’m sure that program did help a lot of people, and it’s gone.

I knew things were getting even worse economically back home, but I didn’t realize just how bad. BTW, my mom– a librarian who couldn’t find work as one–used to work in sewing factories at piecework rates (legal in Virginia) barely above minimum wage. At least back then, there were plenty of exploitative sweatshop jobs, and they provided insurance. (It was still possible to job-hop some if you were getting treated too badly, and my mom did. She was also very good at the work.) Most of the sewing factories shut down in the ’80s and ’90s, leaving one sock factory going in Pulaski. Mom was the third generation in her father’s family–including him when he was younger–to work in sewing factories because that’s what was available. Now they’re all gone, and I have no idea what the (mostly poor and poorly educated) Pentecostal women who were at least half of Mom’s coworkers are supposed to do to feed their families now. Most of them were in desperate enough shape already; we weren’t doing so well financially, and my mom kept getting shocked at the multigenerational poverty. ** The area’s main higher-paying employer, a defense manufacturing plant where my mom also worked up to her eyeballs in toxic chemicals, also shut down in the ’90s–and reopened as a non-union shop with a third the pay, minimal or no benefits, and a lot fewer employees. What’s left? Not much. The area universities are fairly big employers, but will only hire local Hillbilly Trash for scut work–in an area where there are a lot of “overeducated” people thanks to fairly ready access. Many of the other businesses with some higher-paying positions, especially in Radford and Blacksburg, also discriminate against local people. It’s a really bad situation.

One thing that struck me hard, which might not be apparent to somebody outside the culture: the people going in and asking for help have really, really hit rock bottom. Not only is there the aversion to charity per se, that probably means that their entire extended families and circles of acquaintance are flat broke and scrabbling to survive. An awful lot of cupboards are bare to an extent I have never seen before. It boggles the mind, as someone raised in that social setting.

I talked about this kind of thing some in “Gadugi” and “charity”. As the equally poor people sending in dollar bills example from the story illustrates, people still feel like they should help one another. If your family is in too bad a shape to help keep you in food or your electricity working, people at work, church, etc. will take up material and monetary donations to help you–and usually make sure it’s given anonymously so as to avoid awkwardness and preserve face for everyone. When my mom was working with truly long-term poor people in the sewing factories, somebody was always having to collect for something: somebody’s husband or brother was injured at work, somebody else’s fellow church member’s house burned down with 3 kids to support, etc. There was a lot of “Secret Santa”-type activity with bags of garden vegetables and “extra” meat and fish from hunting, fishing, and/or the family pig. (For those fortunate enough to live in situations where they could keep larger gardens and animals, considering the continuing land loss.) People knew good and well that luck had one hell of a lot more to do with all of it than hard work and deservingness, and extremely poor people would go without more things to help those who were having an even harder time.

And, based on my own family’s experiences***, if people are asking for the dwindling charity help, they must really be hurting. Sometimes all you’ve got is dignity, but that won’t pay the electric bill and property taxes. Dignity won’t make sure your loved ones have the medical care they need. Though trying to get all these things you need to survive can make the dignity wear thin, oh my.

An awful lot of people were barely squeaking by in the ’80s, when there were more jobs available, however lousy and low-paying. I seriously doubt that the whole culture of gadugi has died out since I last spent time in the New River Valley a few years ago, and people were going well out of their way to try to do little things for me once they found out I was looking after a dying parent. (To an extent that surprised and touched me.) It’s hard to reach any other conclusion but that, in economic terms if not in sympathy and kindness, it has reached the point of trying to get blood out of a turnip. Even with people doing what they can to help one another, there really isn’t enough to go around.

I have been appalled and hurt by economic conditions in the coalfields for a long while now; it’s just taken longer for things in some other areas of Appalachia to catch up in terms of greed sucking the life out of the land and trying to from the people. “[R]ipping off the scalp of Mother Earth for the scalp bounty”# is maybe the best description I have ever run across of this process.

Fuck the zero-sum economics of false scarcity, which can so easily turn into real scarcity on the ground. Then people suffer and die. Just fuck that inhumane system. My people are not disposable people living on a disposable patch of the Earth.

It also makes me very upset that I am not physically there to try to help people directly. I mean, I may not be up to physically climbing up at helping people fix their roofs–and gods know that if I had enough money to help so many people with gas money and light bills and prescriptions, I would!–but there are other things I could do if I were there. Even if it’s just taking people who are doing DIY repairs (because that’s what they can afford!) a gallon jug of iced tea and a bag of sandwiches to help give already-overworked people a break, and helping watch some distant cousins’ kids so it’s easier for them to do other needed work. There’s something anybody can do, on the spot–and the tornado damage is just the latest thing–but the need is also so great it’s overwhelming. From a distance? I can donate, and that’s about it. Better than nothing, but, yeah, these are my people, and it hurts me not to be able to do more.

The thing is, people back home don’t have as many options now as they did during the Great Depression and earlier hard times. There’s been no shortage of those over the past 400 years or so! Take the continued land loss (please!)–OK, pretty bad, but I couldn’t resist. 😉 With that  and the connected push toward living in towns, a lot of people don’t have nearly the space to grow and forage food for themselves. Pretty much the whole watershed is so polluted from the beforementioned defense plant and other illegal industrial dumping that you’re taking your life into your hands now if you eat many fish out of it–much less mussels and the like. (Or that classic easy-to-catch poverty food, catfish.) Animals out of the river and creeks have been a staple for thousands of years. And you can bet, much like around the Gulf of Mexico now, poor people are having to catch and eat them knowing they’re dangerous; that, or go hungry. Most people should at least have access to places they can hunt, and the deer population has finally recovered to the point that it was 400 years ago.

All those traditional survival strategies, of course, depend on one having enough free time and energy to do all of this. Easier for the totally unemployed, not so much for the working poor who are exhausted when they get home and have other work waiting there. Not so much for disabled people, which you are more likely to be if you are/have been working poor with dodgy access to health care. The average person’s lifestyle has changed a lot since the Great Depression–rarely for the better in terms of chronic stress and working hours, I might add. And, again, that won’t pay for things like electricity and property taxes, which have already led to a lot more land loss in past.

So–you might be thinking–why don’t these poor people just move somewhere there are more jobs available? Well, moving involves a monetary outlay, for transportation and for getting set up on the other end; that might be out of range if you’re already poor enough. Plus, there are the cultural factors which I wrote some about before as they pertained to the wrench I felt in moving away:

While researchers have argued that it is necessary to reconceptualize the people of Appalachia as something other than an impoverished population or stubborn/fatalistic mountaineers who are unwilling to change, little progress seems to have been made. The current study examines if the residents of Appalachia may share a collectivist culture orientation rather than the individualist orientation of mainstream American culture…Results revealed that Appalachians do score higher on collectivism than individualism and higher on collectivism than individuals from outside of Appalachia. Contrary to expectations, Appalachians also score higher on horizontal collectivism than vertical collectivism.

What is horizontal collectivism? Briefly, ‘individuals emphasize interdependence but “do not submit easily to authority.”‘ *snort* Also, ‘Collectivism can be typified as “horizontal collectivism”, wherein equality is emphasized and people engage in sharing and cooperation, or “vertical collectivism”, wherein hierarchy is emphasized and people submit to authorities to the point of self-sacrifice.’3 Yeah, sounds a lot like many Native societies too (for good reason).

Not all of that was needed to make the point here, but any opportunity for stereotype-busting. 😉 How is this collectivism relevant?

Kinship communities usually include one’s immediate family as well as family of origin, grandparents, and siblings and their families (Abbot, 1992). Family members play a central role in all aspects of one’s life. The Rural and Appalachian Youth and Families Consortium (1996) report that “in addition to providing a sense of identity and belonging, these extended family groups play roles…in obtaining employment, finding places to live, and enforcing moral codes” (p. 390)… For Appalachian people, therefore, family ties and family obligations are of primary importance; however, the differences do not end here. . .

[pp. 14-16] Considering the characteristics of collectivism, one would begin to look at an Appalachian individual’s unwillingness to leave the area and aging family members just to obtain higher education or a better paying job. Such behavior would be contrary to the values with which they were raised… It is not merely a lack of ambition or lack of willingness to better oneself that drives that choice, but rather cultural values that run contrary to moving away simply to profit oneself.

I would throw in connection to the land itself as a related factor. But, hesitant as a lot of people are to do that, eventually it comes time that you will starve out if you don’t find decent-paying work somewhere. As witnessed by the actually decent Wikipedia entry on Urban Appalachians (good enough that I suspect it must have been written by one or more). Which also points out (bolding added):

Urban Appalachians might be white, black, or Native American, and they might be Protestant, Catholic or Jewish, or possess a sectarian heritage that defies denominational classification. They might be rich or poor, live in the inner city or in an affluent suburb. Most are employed in blue collar and service jobs, but urban Appalachians are also professionals, owners of businesses and managers. Some are artists, engineers, or architects. Many are educators and health care workers. During the period of the nation’s industrial expansion the majority worked in factories. More recently work in the service economy is becoming more predominant.[1]

All of this diversity, however, does not mean there is no such thing as an Appalachian heritage. A shared history and the common experience of living in the hills, the towns, the valleys or the foothill sections of the Appalachian region did produce a sense of regional culture that many urban Appalachians celebrate today…

A balanced view of urban Appalachians needs to include the ravages that decades of industrialization, out-migration, de-industrialization, and deterioration of core city neighborhoods have wreaked on some. But one should never stereotypically confuse the negative adaptations and pathologies that affect a minority of people from the mountains with all Appalachians. Appalachian culture does not cause poverty, crime, or school failure. Lack of good jobs, decent housing and good schools in safe neighborhoods have condemned millions of Americans of all backgrounds to lives on the margin of society in rural and urban enclaves.Urban Appalachians resent having the poverty stereotypes applied to their group, and rightly so…How long it takes the urban Appalachian poor to overcome the handicaps of poverty will depend in part on how the country responds to unemployment, underemployment, poor schooling and other urban ills. The rest depends on urban Appalachians’ ability to use the strengths of their heritage and adapt once again to economic shifts such as production jobs going overseas…

For the most part urban Appalachians are not rich and famous. They placed the welfare of their families and neighbors above their own advancement, moving up pretty much together or not at all. They are the men and women who made the refrigerators, assembled the automobiles, made paper boxes, and a thousand other products, and hauled them over the road in tractor trailers. They built bridges and highways. They made airplane engines and rocket components. They built churches and sometimes neighborhoods. Some longed for home as they saw their children and grandchildren grow up in the city or in suburban towns or in trailer parks. Some were glad to escape the hills in favor of greater opportunities in the city. All helped shape the life and culture of American cities in the last half of this century.

And I will add, again: that last bit also means that we are likely to move “downward” together or not at all. And being particularly adaptable does not mean that you should get repeatedly stomped on as a group, nor your children’s faces repeatedly ground into the dirt.# There is only so much a person or group of people can take.

Incidentally, that would be why I went ballistic over IKEA’s fuckery in Virginia. Southside, where Danville is located, is not in much if any better shape than the neighboring region I come from, and they really do not need further exploitation of either natural resources nor increasingly desperate workers. From IKEA Joins the Race To the Bottom With Its Treatment of U.S. Workers (“A new report exposes racial discrimination, workplace mistreatment and union-busting by IKEA.”):

Though company factories in Sweden produce the same bookcases as the plant in Virginia, the Times notes that “the big difference is that the Europeans enjoy a minimum wage of about $19 an hour and a government-mandated five weeks of paid vacation (while) full-time employees in Danville start at $8 an hour with 12 vacation days” — and that doesn’t count the one-third of Danville workers who are paid even less because they are subcontracted through temp agencies…

Sure, Danville has seen new jobs in this particular situation — but those jobs replaced the city’s higher-paying manufacturing jobs that were previously eliminated by the same dynamic. That means workers in Danville have lost ground in the overall transaction — just as workers in the rest of America and around the world are losing ground in what has become a destructive wage-cutting race to the bottom.

When even the seemingly benevolent holdouts like Ikea join that competition, it’s a sign that workers in all countries need something different than simply more “free” trade.

And, yes, their trying to put that economic exploitation off on differences in living standards between Sweden and the US (or at least the economically distressed area where they purposely chose to set up shop!) made me never want to buy another penny’s worth of IKEA merchandise again. That’s business as usual for both Virginia and large multinational corporations, but I felt the kick in the face from that one, all the way across the Atlantic. (And got a not-so-nice urge to head for Sweden and burn their corporate HQ down, I tell you what. Difference is, I know that would be an unreasonable vengeance response that would only make things worse.) And–in what actually struck me as the worst threat/promise ever from my mom when I was younger–I won’t forget that.

A truly obnoxious political cartoon, depicting exploited Southern workers as stupid hicks. Text: “How many non-union South Carolinian workers does it take to attach a wing to a Boeing airplane? Five…and a dog.” From one caricatured worker in a human chain propping up an airplane wing, to the hound dog lying nearby: “Fetch! Fetch the duct tape, you lazy dang mutt! We cain’t hold this thing all day long!” Of course, a Confederate flag hangs in the background, because poor Southerners are the only xenophobes…

From my initial Tumblr post on the IKEA fuckery; credit is there.

I have to throw in a link again to A Basic Call to Consciousness: The Hau de no sau nee Address to the Western World Geneva, Switzerland, Autumn 1977. When you start imagining that you are somehow separate from the rest of the natural world and the people (by which I refer to all beings) in it, all kinds of ugliness can ensue. As we’re seeing more all the time. Catch up everyone and everything else in your own pet zero-sum Utopian dream, and all you can ever expect is “uniformly dystopian results, particularly from the point of view of those on the receiving end.”

I’ll just close with a quote from Barbara A. Mann’s All My Relatives: The Binary Fractals of the Gift Economy, from which I grabbed a couple of short quotes earlier:

One of the most successful cons in modern history has people — intelligent people, educated people — believing that capitalism is the only “realistic” economic system to support complex, sophisticated cultures. There are intrepid iconoclasts out there, refusing to reify capitalism, but they are typically waved off as fantasy-prone, Marxist, or unemployed. Most westerners sadly accept that the only alternative to capitalism ever attempted was the “failed” Soviet experiment. Thus has future economic discussion been ceded to the realm of western imagination, where one idiosyncratic dys/u/topia after another is proposed only to be dashed. Before we all jump off the utopian pier into rippling delusion, however, let us try quizzing the original premise…

I do not know how to reinstate gift economics worldwide; that will take a total do-over of culture, I fear — but then again, a do-over is what the prophecies are promising. For the record, it is only the Mayas who quote the 2012 date, and it is only Europeans who turn turn the prospect of 2012 into their own doomsday. Among the Iroquois, prophecy gives the date as 2010, and it indicates a process, not a solitary event.[10] This prophecy connects with the original Peacemaker’s prophecy from the twelfth century, in which he predicted the coming of The White Panther of Discord, when the children’s faces would be ground into the dirt and heads would roll west.[11] Once the invader had taken all the land from the Indians, even ripping off the scalp of Mother Earth for the scalp bounty, then Great Grandmother Turtle, who carries us all on her back, would begin to rock the edges of her carapace, brushing off the annoyances. Finally, she would pitch, rolling over completely in the waves. When she righted herself again as Turtle Island, only the Shining People (indigenous people) would be left, to start again.[12]


* Climate change deniers should be ashamed of themselves. That’s unlikely to happen, but they should.

** Yes, I really dislike religious movements that help keep their followers down in life, while promising great rewards later. And which disproportionately appeal to people who are already having enough problems in life. I don’t have a lot of use for the Holiness movement, which only got a hold in the ’50s. But just because you were born into that and haven’t wanted/been able to do something different, that doesn’t mean you deserve to be flat-out exploited and then blamed for it. No way.

*** My grandfather was only slightly exaggerating to make a point when he suggested that my mom would be better off robbing 7-Eleven than trying to get food stamps and what miniscule winter fuel assistance was available even then.

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