Here's a hope for 2004: That this is the year we remember the forgotten. The forgotten are not rich, powerful or famous. They are not the people who show up at President Bush's fundraisers or get big tax breaks. They are not Michael Jackson or his lawyers. They are forgotten by definition: Nobody pays any attention to them.
We pay lip service to the forgotten. We praise our men and women in uniform; but how much do we think about the reservists whose lives have been so disrupted by tours of duty extended far beyond anything they signed up for? How much attention do we pay to those who have lost limbs in Iraq or Afghanistan? Politicians who have never served in battle give lovely speeches about patriotism. How often do they think about the sacrifices being asked of those who carry out their policies?
We praise hard work all the time; but as a society we do very little for those who work hard every day and receive little reward for what they do. Beth Shulman, former vice-president of the United Food & Commercial Workers union, has written a powerful book on this subject, The Betrayal of Work: How Low-wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans. Attention should be paid to her indictment.
She points out that one in four US workers earns $8.70 an hour or less. At the high end, that works out to $18,100 per year : roughly the current official poverty level in the United States for a family of four. Contrary to a lot of propaganda, Shulman notes that "low-wage job mobility is minimal" and that "low-wage workers have few career ladders."
We pay no attention to the people on whom we depend every day. As Shulman has written, "They are nursing home and home health care workers who care for our parents; they are poultry processors who bone and package our chicken; they are retail clerks in department stores, grocery stores and convenience stores; they are housekeepers and janitors who keep our hotel rooms and offices clean; they are billing and telephone call center workers who take our complaints and answer our questions; and they are teaching assistants in our schools and child care workers who free us so that we can work ourselves."
Where public policy is concerned, they are nothing. We don't worry that they lack health insurance coverage. We're not concerned that their children lack child-care or that they get little or no vacation time. You have to admire the gall of free market economists who, in articles so often written during summer breaks in places like Martha's Vineyard or the Rockies, tell those who earn so little to work harder.
We don't raise the minimum wage, which has been stuck at $5.15 an hour since 1997. The aforementioned economists claim that the minimum wage is counterproductive. They clearly didn't grow up with anyone whose only pay increases came when Congress kindly raised the minimum wage.
The forgotten come in many colors. They are whites of modest income who work hard, are devoted to their kids and spouses, and whose votes conservative politicians assume they will get without delivering any tangible benefits to their families. They are African-Americans who are among the most religious people in our country but have to listen to racists who question their "values." They are Latino immigrants who find themselves trashed even though our society depends upon their labor.
The forgotten are forgotten because the media pays little attention to them. Much notice is given to the wealthy and the well educated, to the CEOs, to those who are seen as fashionable, beautiful and articulate. The rest are sent away empty.
The devoutly religious in white evangelical or African American churches don't get much press. Union activists rarely get good press. Business pages and business broadcasts talk far more about stock process and takeovers than wages and benefits. The cops who patrol dangerous neighborhoods get into the paper only when something goes terribly wrong. Good teachers get the occasional friendly feature story but usually see their profession discussed in relation to failure.
This is an election year. It's the moment to challenge politicians as to whether what they say bears any relationship to what they do for those whose votes they so devoutly seek. In an election year, the forgotten have the majority of the votes. They should use them to demand that they not be forgotten.