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On a tightrope without a net

The sum total of today’s news adds up to “the continuing story of the destruction of our protective safety nets.” GM’s bankruptcy is the lead, of course, one that constitutes an utter disaster for millions of people - unemployed workers who are unlikely to find new manufacturing jobs before their benefits run out, states swamped with benefits claims, elderly pensioners facing disaster, and the oridinary fall-out for towns, cities and states that will lead, later to deeper cuts of the nets that were designed to catch people when they fall.

Then there’s California - among its major cuts, California stands to cut the poison control hotline, benefits for the disabled, school funding, health care for working class people and children, access to state parks, and almost everything else you can imagine. The cuts will fall heavily on the backs of the elderly, the already poor, the disabled and children, as always - people with minimal political constituencies will bear the brunt of this.

And again, there’s more to come - California is already threatening to take money out of towns and cities - areas already hurting, already failing to sell municipal bonds. For the 47 states facing budget shortfalls, the trajectory is pretty clear - the federal government screws the states (by pouring its money into Wall Street, not helping people meet basic needs), the states sue the towns, and you get screwed all three ways - with fewer services, higher tax burdens and life on a tightrope without a net to catch you when you fall. California is the beginning, but not, unfortunately, the end.

So far, most of us have no idea what life without a net is like - what happens when the federal government can no longer subsidize the stripped unemployment funds? What happens in the cold parts of the country when low income heating programs are stripped? What happens to the elderly, the disabled and the sick? What happens as public resources are stripped, damaged and destroyed?

One thing I think it is important to observe is that we have chosen our present situation in large measure. As of this point, the US has actually spent 4 trillion on bailouts, almost all of it to large corporations, and committed another 10 billion. That money could have supported the people directly - now we are asking “how will we fund national health care?” Well, we spent the money, folks - and not on you. If the concern was lending, the government could have loaned. If the concern was keeping auto workers working, the government could have provided work and enough income to get along, or incentives for them to make new businesses. No matter what your feelings about big government, we’ve got it - and at every level we could have spent less and done more without pouring money into the coffers of people who were skimming most of it for themselves - legalized skimming, but skimming nonetheless. It is the culmination of the insane “rising tide lifts all boats” notion under which globalization was born - if we just make the rich richer, maybe a tiny bit will leak down to those who aren’t rich. And as we keep finding, not much leaks down.

What’s facing us is a tidal wave of suffering - and the anger, and political conflict that accompanies it. The UN is warning that unrest is brewing all over the world - the BBC reports that we’re facing massive repression, as human rights at all levels hit the backburners, and the anger that repressive and destructive governments agenda. The unrest that accompanies this worldwide may well change things beyond recognition.

The project for all of us is to maintain what we can, to meet needs that we can, and to triage our safety nets and provide what resources we can. That’s why I was so pleased to read about Rob Hopkins’ and Richard Heinberg’s nascent discussion of using Transition to provide some kind of resources for people dealing with the present crisis. I think that as a basic principle, we can’t talk about “addressing peak oil and climate change” unless we actually have something to offer the victims of peak oil and climate change - placing these events always-already in the future, as though we had time and leisure is, I think, alienating, and being unable to respond immediately to realities risks tarring adaptive movements as irrelevant. I keep saying it, and will keep saying it - the things that we need to prioritize in responding to our collective crisis are precisely the things that people already care about most - any movement that does not focus on the human priorities of meeting basic needs will not succeed.

At the neighborhood and community level, we need each other more than we ever have. The safety nets that are gone are going to have to be replaced with…us. In an essay I wrote a while back, I observed that the public safety nets were still holding, but that eventually they would crumble - and in many states, they are doing so now. What I wrote then now has to be put into practice,

“Think of poverty as a fall out a window. Right now, there is a layer of safety net that catches a majority of people, although by no means all. But what’s under those? What happens if the traditional nets break? We need those nets not only because protecting others from hunger, cold and suffering is the ethical thing to do, and not only because, as they say, the life you save may soon be your own, but because all of our personal security depends on our community security. In hard times, crime rates go up, and people get angry. Brooks is right to anticipate a movement of angry and frightened people, and when people are angry and frightened, we’re all vulnerable.

In a rational society, there are more layers to break your fall, and we’re going to need them. First, there are formal structures at the community level - if your town never needed a food pantry because people could drive to the neighboring city, now is the time to propose it at your church, school or other possible site. Think about ways you could adapt existing infrastructure - could the schools start distributing extra school lunches to the needy after the day is over? Could your school establish a backpack program, sending food home for the weekend with the neediest kids? Could you start a local gleaning program, or a senior lunch program? If you have these structures, but they are struggling, what can you do to reinforce them? Can you make another donation? Start a fund drive? What about setting up a bulletin-board system to bring families struggling to keep their homes together with people who need housing. There are a thousand good ideas - yours is probably one of them.

The next layer is the neighbor and community layer. I know we all worry about looking like busybodies, but now is the time to start looking in on your neighbors, and offering to help. The way to do this is to talk to people, even before it looks like they need anything. That way you’ll know if your elderly neighbor can no longer afford to drive to get her medication and you can offer to pick it up, or if a neighbor is out of work and might be glad to get a day’s pay helping a friend of yours winterize her house. Being neighborly, and also gentle and unjudgemental is how you are going to know if someone in your neighborhood has no food in the pantry. For every person who signs up for aid and accepts help, there are several who will rather go hungry than take institutional charity - but who will gladly come over and share a meal with their neighbor, or do you a favor and take that loaf of bread that you’ve got no where to store.

One of the most important things we can do is when we do spend money these days, spend it in our communities if at all possible. I know most of us aren’t going to be buying a lot of holiday gifts, but every dollar you can pass on to a neighbor, a local farmer or a local business that enriches your community is one that makes everyone more secure. So maybe hire the out of work neighbor to plant and tend a garden for your sister, or give your best friend a farmstand gift certificate.

Finally, there’s family, or the people who function like one. Those are the people who are standing there with their arms out at the base of your fall, and are prepared to risk something to catch you. These are the people you can depend on when you have no place to go or no food in the pantry. And as long as you have food and a place to sleep, try hard to be that person for close friends and extended family. In fact, try hard to extend out the circle if you can a bit - there are a lot of vulnerable people out there who could use a hand up. You don’t have to take in everyone, or treat everyone like family, but if each of us expands the category of people we will not allow to fall to the ground by one or two, well, there’s hope for us yet.”

Today, June 1, 2009, is the day the nets broke. Let’s get to securing the lower levels, because they will be desperately needed, and we each of us depend upon them.

Sharon

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