These are hard times. For over two years now, our country has suffered a crisis caused by financial institutions whose speculation created a house of cards. After Wall Street’s crash spilled onto Main Street, we have experienced levels of unemployment and foreclosures not seen since the 1930s. These losses have created widespread ripples of economic pain throughout our country and our state.
Yet even as many still struggle, we listen with concern as blame for our continuing problems is misdirected at those who are not too big to fail, starting with the most vulnerable. Most commonly, we see anger focused on undocumented immigrants as an alien threat, although their low-wage labor actually subsidizes our economy. What we see less easily is who these people are: subsistence farmers from other countries impelled by global market forces to become economic refugees in our own.
It is not just immigrants who are now being disparaged. Extending benefits for the unemployed is opposed as promoting complacency among the jobless, impairing their motivation to seek work.
Those needing help to stave off foreclosure are cast as irresponsible borrowers, cheating the rest of us who pay our mortgage. Temporary assistance for needy Maine families and other safety-net programs are profiled as budgetary culprits, as though those in need are leeching our tax dollars.
Today’s targets for economic blame start, but don’t end, with the most vulnerable. Public workers in many states are now being depicted as pampered at taxpayer expense because they have pensions and benefits that private employers have managed to eliminate from the contracts of their work forces.
But our country is not in trouble because undocumented immigrants, single women with children, the unemployed, the foreclosed, the displaced, the disabled, the homeless, or those who patrol our streets, fight our fires, teach our children or staff our government offices are sucking our resources dry.
None of these groups have anything to do with the crux of our economic troubles, which is this: Middle America is broke and just doesn’t have the money to buy what’s needed to put our unemployed back to work. Until that consumer power recovers we can deprive the most vulnerable among us of critical resources they need until they starve, freeze or fall ill, but America — and Maine — still won’t be going back to work.
Despite that reality, our attention to addressing serious remedies for our suffering economy is being deflected to easier targets. Portraying some of us as less deserving of life’s most basic resources is untrue, unfair and unkind. Denying the dignity of some corrodes the social fabric that binds us all and diminishes the community we share together.
Examples of indignity suffered by others in our community of course takes other forms besides being blamed for economic problems not of their making. One group’s accusations about another’s, inflamed by our insecurities or fears or misconceptions, can easily demean people’s dignity and tear a hole in our community
So how can we begin to address the scapegoating — and all the other forms of indignity — which also robs us of the community we envision for ourselves?
For starters, we can affirm that all of us count, no matter where we come from, how much or how little we own, how young or old we are, what language we speak, what color we are, whom we love or what god we pray to, what kind of house we live in, or whether we have a house to live in. All of us who share the same community deserve access to the most basic resources for our health and safety, deserve fair treatment and deserve to have their dignity respected.
We can start with a single sentence: “We believe that all people in our community should have the same rights: civil rights and rights on the job, equal treatment by police and the courts, access to essential medical, educational and social services, and the right to be treated with dignity.”
Those words are at the core of a Dignity for All statement currently circulating in Bangor for individual signatures and group endorsements. Once affirmed by many in our community, we can ask our elected officials to ensure this principle, as they are able, in the way our city conducts itself. A Dignity for All Resolution can set a positive tone for the kind of community we are and aim to be.
Our ability to control the vitriol in our country, or in the whole of our state, may be limited. But we can say that where we live, in our own community, we will treat each other with dignity. Of course, there is only so much that city resolutions or policies and procedures can accomplish. It’s a very worthwhile start; the rest is up to all of us.
Dennis Chinoy is a volunteer with Power in Community Alliances (PICA) which is coordinating the Dignity for All Campaign, www.pica.ws.