Ed note: This piece is excerpted from Living on the Edge: When Hard Times Become A Way Of Life by Celine-Marie Pascale and published by Polity Press, and is reposted here with permission of the publisher.

Economic inequality has forced millions of people into lives that are unsustainable. Low-wage workers from across the country share their thoughts on a better life.

As of this writing in early 2021, the richest 0.1% of American households now own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90% of households combined. The entire bottom half of America now owns just 1.3% of the wealth. Advances in technology and productivity have failed to translate into benefits for working people or for the country as a whole. Instead, generations of people across the country have been relegated to lives of economic struggle – they are the collateral damage of corporations seeking to maximize profit.

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As we have seen throughout this book, a lack of jobs that pay a self-sufficiency wage, high rents, a lack of affordable health care, underfunded school systems, and an absence of social and economic safety nets relegate communities to poverty. This is bad enough, but it isn’t even the full picture. It is not just that the country has high levels of poverty, but that small numbers of powerful people in business and government have gotten incredibly rich by creating systemic poverty. This is precisely why it is critical to focus on inequality rather than poverty. We need only think about Walmart to appreciate just how rich people can become while driving their workers so far into poverty that they need public assistance to keep food on the table. We’ve also seen the predatory business practices that keep families in debt by charging them more for less – whether a bottle of milk at a dollar store, or a high-interest loan. In communities with limited access to quality health care, people continue to watch friends and family members struggle with addiction because pharmaceutical companies flood their communities with highly addictive painkillers. A relatively small group of people – with the help of government – are making enormous amounts of money off of the suffering of others. Hard times have become a way of life for millions because government prioritizes the interests of business.

Across the country, environmental degradation deprives communities of safe drinking water and has produced life-threatening health problems for residents that will last generations – even if they could afford the health care needed to address those problems. The pandemic is not the beginning of a health crisis in struggling communities – it is an extension of one. Struggling communities face severe, sustained, and interconnected sets of crises. All of which are an expression of a single and profound failure of the nation to adequately care for the health and well-being of its citizens. Ruthless economic competition that places profit over people has left the United States with truly extreme levels of inequality.

The problem is not just capitalism – it is what the corporate takeover of government has done to the ability of a democracy to function; it is also what colonialism, racism, sexism, and greed have done to the ideals of democracy. We have a nation founded not only on high principles but also on deceitful wars, broken treaties, land theft, slavery, racism, misogyny, and the economic exploitation of workers. We learn as children to repeat a daily pledge to “freedom and justice for all,” yet we are also taught to ignore the systemic injustices. In this time of extraordinary inequality exacerbated by police violence, a global pandemic, and a climate crisis, we have a chance to learn from experience and step forward into the storm to build the kind of society that we want for our children. This requires learning to think and to behave as a nation that cares for all of its people – even in the midst of deep cultural divides.

The route to renewal runs through reckoning and repair: reckoning with our past and repairing relationships with the communities who have paid the steepest price. We need to value the future in ways that we have been taught to dismiss. Most especially, as a nation, we must be guided by an ethics of care that prioritizes the health and well-being of all people – including the generations that we hope will come after us. While this view is foundational to most indigenous cultures, to non-Native people it can seem incredibly idealistic. In the twenty-first century, this kind of idealism is also a pragmatic path. We need solutions as big and bold as the problems we face. History shows us that crises of this magnitude have the potential to change dominant views about economies, society, and inequality.

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Imagining the Future We Want

When Jack Rockwell in Southeast Ohio stops to think about the things the nation needs, he begins with better access to quality grocery stores and free access to mental health care. So, I am especially surprised by where he goes next. “

Honestly, a universal basic income [UBI] for everybody making under $100K, just like $10,000 a year, I think would be amazing. I really think something that radically socialist could really be a huge force for good, especially in a lower-income community like this one. I’m not sure you could make NYC much better by giving everybody a little bit of financial breathing room, but around here I think it would lead to huge reinvestment in the community. I would love to see that. When people have more economic freedom, they have more freedom in every other aspect of their lives.”

Having disposable income goes a long way toward increasing the mental health of individuals and the economic success of communities. One of the most intransigent and least considered problems of poverty is the mind-numbing boredom and depression it creates. Take away all disposable income and you weaken people’s sense of community, their ability to be creative, and their desire to be engaged. A UBI could be exactly what is needed to motivate grocery stores – perhaps even a clothing store – to open in low-income communities.

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“I’m all about having people become more educated,” says Angel [in Oakland, California]. He tells me that everyone should have more opportunities for education, employment, and housing. Angel continues, “I started following Bernie because I would have loved it if that [plan] would have become a reality. I feel like he’s really for the people, like he says. Other people say that they’re for the people but are really for corporations. I feel like he really knows what everybody needs, at least those of us who work day-to-day or paycheck-after-paycheck.”

Angel pauses. He looks both sad and introspective as we talk. “If we’re going to talk about the nation, [then we have to talk about] police brutality and targeting people of color, specifically immigrants, and the whole thing where ICE was putting Central American kids in cages. Now with this whole pandemic, a lot of people inside of detention centers are fearing for their lives. They’ve been dying, because of the virus. The media never talks about the inhumane treatment, especially females and kids, are receiving from ICE agents. There’s always sexual abuse and rape and all those things going on that we don’t really hear in the actual news. We end up finding out when we do our own investigation or [from] articles that we read here and there.” In the best of times, the US is dependent on immigrant labor – in particular undocumented immigrant labor.

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As Vanessa [Torres also lives in Oakland. When she] thinks about a vision for the future, she talks with a strong sense of purpose and quickly moves through a list that is similar to Angel’s.

“I think that we should defund ICE. We should release people from cages. Immigration is not a bad thing. People come here to change their lives. They have to flee different things in their home countries – poverty, violence – we can’t just shunt them away.” Without pausing Vanessa moves on to health care and education. “We should be providing health care to all people, not just people who don’t have preexisting conditions. That’s bullshit. They’re the ones that need it the most. There is no equity. There is no equity at all. Also making sure that education is free. When you talk about education, it’s not just college. People need to have access to pre-K or kindergarten. There’s research about how that’s the most important part of a child’s learning and really sets them up in the future. When we talk about free education, again, we talk about getting people out of poverty. For the folks that are thousands and thousands in debt in student loans, they’re still not able to climb up the social ladder. They’re still being tied down again, and if we erase all of that, people are able when they actually work to save up that money, and, hey, build a home, buy a car, and better themselves in their lives and their current situation. Education should be free for all. This shouldn’t just be for the folks who can afford it.”

What else is on her vision board for the country?

“Wages. Paying people what they deserve! Because, like I mentioned, there’s wage inequality on race, gender, age as well.”

In Southeast Ohio, Michael Chase is also a strong advocate for free education and socialized health care.

“If you look at other countries, like Sweden or whatever, all these other countries in Europe, they’re fine. Even countries with higher rates of happiness and lower rates of depression overall and stuff like that, and they have low rates of crime. When everyone has the same opportunities for education and jobs, no one’s going to be out here committing crimes, and if they are, it’s going to be like bank fraud or something, not robbery or murder, things like that.”

When Rose Taylor [in Southeast Ohio] thinks about the future, she thinks about luck. She tells me,

“If I was just born just like a few counties away, being gay, my whole experience would be totally different. You know what I mean?” Rose also credits her mother’s ability to leave her father with creating more stability for her. She wonders what would have happened if her mother hadn’t been able to get away from an abusive relationship. “I just think that there are a lot of things in my life that I have by luck or chance, that like without a few of those things I would be like so struggling – you know what I mean?”

I do know what she means. I’ve encountered a lot of domestic abuse as well as a lot of heterosexism/homophobia in my travels. Luck and chance play a part in everyone’s life, but in the lives of struggling folks they too often play a part in survival.

Rose was and remains a Sanders supporter. When we talk about the world Rose would like to live in, it’s clear to me from the speed of the list she reels off that she’s thought a great deal about this.

“My vision of the future would be socialized medicine, definitely more environmentally friendly companies, and heavier taxes on larger companies to make sure that they’re more environmentally friendly. We as Americans create so much waste and so much pollution compared to other countries and other people. I think that really needs to change drastically for us to be able to survive as a planet.”

Rose is learning as well from her girlfriend, who once taught in a wealthy west coast neighborhood whose schools had a lot of resources, and now works in a very low-income neighborhood where students don’t have access to lunches or computers. Rose sighs.

“We’re in the same country, but it’s so vastly different. If you were born into this poor neighborhood, then your education opportunities are so vastly different from if you’re born in just another zip code.”

[…] [Among the people I interviewed a] deep sense of connection to spouses, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, siblings, and parents – and, for some, to future generations – threaded through everyone’s hopes for the future. Parents found joy in seeing their children learn new skills, and many laughed about the long hours on little league benches and time spent at school recitals. Everyone drew hope from seeing kindness extended to the poorest members of their communities through sponsored holiday meals, from the support given to developmentally disabled adults, and from the courage of those who fought to overcome addiction. Everyone wants a world in which education, housing, and health care are easily accessible and affordable for all. Everyone wants a world free from hate in which children thrive, a world in which caring for the earth and all of its inhabitants is a priority. Those with power might call this vision naïve. Those without it might call it delusional. But when millions of families struggle to keep food on the table, there is nothing naïve or delusional about the need for broad-based, systemic change. There is nothing un-American about people who want to change a system they know is untenable. Rather it is what many hail as the American spirit.

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The need for change is clear both from the experiences of everyday families and from their own analyses of the kind of help they need in their communities: a fair wage, accessible and affordable housing, free health care, free education, and potentially a universal basic income. The important work of Jenny Gaines, Tom Sam, Two Lance Woman, and others who are striving to care for their communities may well mean the difference between hunger and a full belly for some, it may mean access to a winter coat or a much-needed pair of shoes, or it may mean the ability to wear a mask in a pandemic. It’s essential and compassionate work that can have a big impact in their communities. And it is also carrying water in a bucket with a hole in it.

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A narrow elite has overtaken government and limited democracy – and not just within the last four years, although the consequences may be arriving on the doorsteps of some for the first time. The problem is the system itself that prioritizes profits over people. Businesses profit from systemic poverty just as they profit from undocumented migrants, immigrant detentions, and prison labor. Company towns – in which one dominant industry owned the housing and the stores that workers were forced to use – may be a thing of the past, but the logic that created that system is not. As low-wage, unreliable work drives people into poverty, corporations profit not only from their own labor practices but also from the businesses that spring up in struggling communities, including dollar stores, medical lenders, payday lenders, and other forms of high-risk (and high-profit) lending.

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Moments of crisis are ripe for progressive transformation because they lay bare existing inequalities. It is possible to create a coherent movement that brings together the struggling members of society – if we actually pay attention to their lives and act on what we learn. We know the federal government has been willing to support corporations with trillions of dollars in subsidies. What corporations and politicians have opposed is spending money on people: on health care, public education, housing, labor and environmental protections, and social safety nets.

Regaining a democracy will mean ending the exploitation of the many by the few. With vision, effort, and some luck, it will be a win for the people of the country. It is past time that “liberty and justice for all” actually meant something.