Life In A Red State

‘Evicted’ Describes What It’s Like To Be Poor, Vulnerable

As I recently posted, years ago I realized I live in a very impoverished county. Despite this reality, some local organizations are in denial. In a December, 2017 article, the Preble County Economic Development Director detailed job openings and business investments being funneled into the county painting a rosy picture of Preble County.

She said,

“There is no better marketing strategy than the demonstration of a successful and thriving business climate.”

According to the article, the County will gain about 200 jobs, but the cost for 109 of the positions was more than $500,000 in state tax breaks and another $135,000 in incentives from the cash-strapped City of Eaton. So, it’s a mixed bag at best, but regardless it’s about selling who we are and the Director does not shy away from that.

Later in the article, she says.

Preble County is the fifth largest ag county in the state and we pride ourselves in our strong workforce and strong work ethic. These traits make it easy to market Preble County.

Make The Bums Work

Despite the marketing spin, a help wanted sign has been on display for more than 90 days at one of the companies — suggesting a labor pool problem. The manufacturing firm needs less than 20 new workers. Freedom Caucus Members Warren Davidson and Jim Jordan (see below) are convinced the able-bodied people on welfare are causing the labor shortage in the United States, but there may be another reason we can’t fill the openings. Legislators may have unnecessarily created felons in their rush to feed the private prison industry. And as these nonviolent offenders return home, they meet their first barrier to reentering society — employers who refuse to hire them due to their felony conviction.

Today (Monday, Jan. 7), in Eaton (pop. 8,200) 125 cases are on tbe Eaton Municipal Court docket. Preble County Common Pleas has 24 items and the County Jail has filled 66 of its 70 beds.

On Sunday, Jan. 7 Congressman Warren Davidson re-upped the link to an op-ed co-written last summer with fellow Freedom Caucus member Jim Jordan. The dynamic due is convinced if able-bodied persons on welfare were forced to work our labor shortage would be solved.

I tend to dismiss the validity of local public relation stories because if life is as good as they say it is, I would not see empty buildings or infrastructure in need of repair. I would not see a slow crawl to expand the local jail. Nor would I see the ‘are you addicted’ signs as outside groups swoop in to financially benefit from our drug problem. In a great place to live we would not accept the exploitation.

Hard Times In The ‘Greatest Country On Earth’

When I read Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, which deals with poverty in Milwaukee, I noticed some of the same denial in the comments of Milwaukee’s gatekeepers and leaders. In Evicted, Desmond follows the lives of eight families as they ‘struggle to keep a roof over their heads.’ This engaging book received the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2017.

From my perspective the work accomplishes three things.

An Inside View Of Impoverished Life

Although there are eight families, Desmond does an excellent job balancing their stories. As their stories unfold, you can ‘see’ inside their homes and apartments, some quite filthy, and some filled with the aroma of marijuana. But, you can also see their attempts to pull out of their situation, only to be struck down by an unexpected bill, poor decision, or a landlord who arbitrarily decides to evict them for a late payment while letting a neighbor, who was also late, stay. You feel the loss of hope and insecurity as Desmond describes the ‘good, bad and ugly’ of their lives and communities.

Legal System All Messed Up

What I also enjoyed about the book was its balance. This is not a ‘poor renter’ book painting the landlord as an evil villain. Desmond creates a realistic image of the landlords’ plight as well. Although he does report a landlord’s willingness to kick out tenants, he also details the expense landlords incur in the process — destroyed or damaged property, court fees and inspections that can cost thousands. The reader quickly learns, though, that some landlords are better humans than their peers. Desmond helps uninformed readers, like myself, get a feel for how clunky, intrusive and ineffective the legal system is when dealing with the landlord-tenant relationship.

Lots of People ‘Just Doing My Job’

Those who have never faced evicted are probably unaware of the process. With just a few scenes Desmond brings it to life. The movers, including companies that specialize in evictions, invade a tenant’s home after they have been legally served by armed police officers. The movers, depending on legalities and landlord — and sometimes tenant wishes — sort through the belongings. Some of the stuff is sold, some stored, and a lot is ‘set on the curb.’ In one family’s story, the tenant hauls all her stuff to a neighboring house trailer because she knows the tenant is in the hospital. As the evictions occur, Desmond sprinkles in enough of the various comments from tenants, movers, and officers to show just how jaded they’ve become.

Don’t Skip The Ending

In some books, I skip epilogue-type content telling myself it’s nonessential. With this book the ‘after story’ is just as interesting as the book. Desmond goes into detail about the field work and his effort to not interfere with the subjects. He tried to keep the events naturally unfolding by staying in the background. I would also advise reading Amazon reviews — some of them come from people very close to the story — including Milwaukee Joe — who is critical of at least one of Desmond’s landlord depictions. However, Milwaukee Joe still gives the book a 4 out of 5 rating which, in my opinion, speaks to the book’s strength.

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars. This subject could easily be a boring ‘just the facts’ story. It’s not. As a reader you become vested in the outcome. The book is also a strong indictment against how the United States treats its poor. For those interested in policies, Desmond also details techniques for improving tenant-landlord laws in the U.S.

The gas station I used as a teenager has been abandoned for years. The empty building greets visitors as they enter the City of Eaton from the east.

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Categories: 8th congressional district, Books I have read, Life In A Red State, My America, Preble County, Understanding Trump Counties

What I Believe: Children Are Ruling The Playground And The Religious Right Is Wrong

Hiking at Ceasar Creek State Park during first snow of the season.

I believe it was Ben Franklin who said that most people die at 25 but aren’t buried until 75. I strive to make each year a time of growth, and I challenge my beliefs because truth can stand the scrutiny. Part of this process means that, for the past few years, I’ve reflected on what I know for sure. (Here are my thoughts on 2015 and 2016.)

As 2017 ends, here is what I believe:

1.) Children Are Running The Playground. I’ve seen this on the national level as the Orange Menace and Congress push a trickle-down economic plan. It didn’t work the first time around for Preble County — we enjoyed a 12 percent unemployment rate in its first year (1982). But I’ve grown tired of national politics and am more interested in the local children. The policies championed by local gatekeepers are failing — entrenching our poverty. In this crimson-red county, those who hold the purse strings, especially at the county level, have become less transparent and less willing to compromise for the good of our community. Emboldened, perhaps by 45*, these ineffective leaders need to face the scrutiny of a strong media presence and/or citizens so their behind-the-scenes actions can enjoy a little sunshine.

2.) The Drug Epidemic Is A Symptom Of Our Hopelessness. The drug epidemic claimed a family member’s life in November. He was my cousin, 32, a hard-working man employed in Montgomery County. He died of an apparent overdose, coincidentally, on the anniversary of my father’s death. His death is difficult to accept. It’s a painful reminder of our abysmal approach to drug use and abuse in southwest Ohio.

In Preble County those with addiction issues are often treated as sub-human. Our abandoned dogs receive more compassion than the chemically addicted. It is a top-down problem as the hypocrisy of our political leaders, especially those who have melded their fundamentalism with their political agenda, perpetuate long debunked myths about addiction. I have met my share of chemically-addicted individuals in the past five years and the most common thread, in the lives I see, is a disconnect with the community.

Many here believe it is the church’s place to ‘help these people find a cure.’ If churches believe that, the first thing they should do is befriend a chemically-addicted individual. The second thing they should do is be quiet. When they are silent they can hear, and in listening, they may learn where we failed our community members — as too many of the chemically addicted are victims of horrific events. Save their soul, if that’s important to you, but begin by saving their life. And, as compassionate people keep our neighbors alive, gatekeepers can work to bring livable wage jobs here to help us pull out of the epidemic. It would be infinitely more valuable to our community than planning the construction of (yet another) building at the fairgrounds.

3.) Justice Is Not Blind. If court records, police reports and the local jail roster have taught me anything in 2017, it’s that justice is not blind. It despises the poor and hates the chemically-addicted, but less so in December when the jail population falls by about 25-30 percent. Although it looks like a Christmas miracle, the reduction in inmates may be more closely linked to limited court openings during the holidays. (I wonder if that’s why reformers believe all defendants should request a trial.)

Versa reflects on the condition of her soul.

4.) The Religious Right Is Wrong. I was raised in a white, evangelical church so I have a thorough understanding of their interpretation of the Bible. I’m also aware of their obsession with the afterlife as they postpone a quality life here to ensure a spot in the Treehouse in the Sky — and just as importantly — avoid an apartment in the Eternal Lake of Fire. At my age, a warm fire doesn’t sound so bad, but if there is a Hell my biggest fear is my roommate. If Hell is meant to torture, I’m stuck with Franklin Graham or Jerry Falwell Jr. — men who scream out in fear on a daily basis as they use their pulpits to decry gays, Democrats and Muslims (not necessarily in that order). If I had to listen to their impish drivel for an eternity — well, I think you get my point.

The Religious Right should sell bumper stickers that say: Believe like us — or go to Hell. But if they want a heavenly afterlife, they need to read — then live — Matthew 25. It’s not complicated.

5.) David Thoreau Was Correct. In many ways, it seems to me, Thoreau lived in a time similar to ours. There was a significant portion of the country entrenched in anti-intellectualism with a religious force ‘proving’ that the immoral institution of slavery was, somehow, ‘God’s will.’ As the political dysfunction of Thoreau’s era eventually led to the Civil War, Thoreau found peace in the woods doing his work. When 2017 began I attended a Unitarian church in Eldorado — one that, unlike the fundamentalist/evangelicals, exemplifies the inclusivity of Jesus.

In January, the minister spoke about ‘Now what’ and, referencing a scripture, she said we needed to plant our gardens, tend to our fields — or, in other words, do our work. Her message, and Thoreau’s approach of being in nature, became a practice for me. Although I was not able to attend the Unitarian church as much as planned, I hiked a lot of Ohio’s forests — finding peace and contentment despite the political mayhem created by a deplorable dotard.

Looking forward to 2018….

Categories: 8th congressional district, Age of Discontent, Life In A Red State, maga, My America, Ohio

‘Get A Job’ A Familiar Phrase Of The Politically Lazy

Shuttered K-Mart store in Eaton, Ohio.

Everyone should read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl twice in their life: once in their 20s and once in their 50s. I say this, not just because I happened to do it this way, but because the book changes over the course of one’s life.

When I read the book decades ago, I was enthralled by the first-person account of the cruelty inside Germany’s concentration camps. I was taken back by the reality that Frankl lived through it, lost his family, yet managed to write about the experience with searing details.

Today, although I still notice the details, my mind zeroes in on the minor moments to learn how calloused a person, any person, can become given the ‘right’ set of circumstances. But, others, as Frankl points out, survive the worst possible scenario and still find a way to be humane.

Victim Blaming

Shortly after finishing the book, I watched a documentary on Reading, Pa. It has the distinction of being the city with the highest poverty rate in the U.S. Although there is no comparison to a concentration camp and unemployment or poverty, what struck me was the similarity in the way the ‘enemy’ (in this case the poor) were treated. Once they were labeled — poor, lazy, unmotivated, etc. — it was easier to treat them as inferior. It was easier to blame them for their situation — and not the corporate citizens who bailed — and with their exodus dismantling the local economy.

Former high school in Preble County.

We’ve done the same thing here. We label the poor. We blame them for their situation — as we ignore the lack of economic opportunity. I first realized I lived in a poor community two or three years ago as I stood on the sidewalk watching my daughter march with the high school band in a Memorial Day parade. Despite our green porch lights, flags (U.S. and Confederate) and patriotic rhetoric, the sidewalks were sparsely filled. As I stood I watched a man, probably in his early-to-mid 60s, shuffle along the sidewalk across the street in front of one of our bars. The somewhat feeble-looking man was peering along the ground, stooping and picking up cigarette butts. It seemed oddly out of place at a parade celebrating the country’s greatness.

Systemic Poverty

After that, I started observing and listening more. Although I do not know that particular man’s story, I do know poverty is a multi-leveled narrative. It is not as simple as ‘they are lazy’. And, telling a homeless or poor man that they need  “to work 12 hours a day if they want a ‘handout'” may feel moral to a political tool, but the statement is indicative of ignorance. The barriers for those ‘at the bottom’ cannot be solved with a one-liner or a regurgitated (and debunked) belief system.

In places like Preble, which has become a region like too many in America, there is a need for a cooperative effort by the social safety networks, employers, law enforcement and political leaders to address the issue. In my hometown, a wide range of issues is causing our poverty — including: low educational levels, lack of affordable housing, loss of livable-wage jobs and a failed approach to our drug problem. The last is especially taxing. We can blame the end user “til the cows come home” while we arrest low-end users instead of suppliers, but if employers can’t find drug-free workers, they will go somewhere else — taking jobs and tax revenue with them — leaving us with the empty buildings.

Some say it’s the church’s responsibility to help the poor. After all Jesus commanded it. But the poor cannot help the poor — at least not enough to exit the poverty. In Preble County, our well-meaning churches have been stretched too thin.

Not My Problem

But, the real problem with poverty is a lack of political power which keeps institutionalized poverty intact. We have been taught from our youth that ‘if one works hard, it will work out.’ The wise eventually learn that is not true, at least it’s not true for everyone, and in Preble it’s not true for an expanding population.

The roots of our apathy run deep. In a 1915 history of Preble County, one resident feared he would be coerced, through taxation, to support someone else’s child.

The 19th century man, described  as an ‘upright, honest and respectable man and a good and generous neighbor,’ said,

“…Eaton was likely to grow to be a big city and that it would contain many people who would be great sinners and law breakers; that very probably there would be many bastard children, and that, as the townships had to bear the expenses of punishing the lawless, and to furnish support for the bastard children, it was unjust to tax them down in the country to pay for such things.”

The plea to not be his brother’s keeper ‘caught the fancy of the county commissioner’ and a township was named in his honor — a township not taxed for Eaton’s abandoned children.

This unwillingness to help is also connected to our deep-seated belief that the poor cause their own misery and that our systems are sacred. We know the poor are responsible for their plight. We have to believe that or repair the institutions.

While reading American Character by Colin Woodard, which is a ‘history of the epic struggle between individual liberty and the common good,’ I came across an 18th century quote that could easily be spewed in my county today. Woodard quotes social commentator Arthur Young, who said.

Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor or they will never be industrious.

This ‘make them work’ mantra is an act of deflection. Of course able-bodied individuals need to work, but pushing residents into low-paying jobs will not lift them, or the community, up. The situation is more complicated than a ’12-hour a day job.’ In Preble County, we’ve done an excellent job creating poverty. We’ve paired our belief that the poor are lazy with a century-old belief that government intervention is always problematic.

It’s a very ineffectual belief — we have the empty buildings to prove it.

Categories: 8th congressional district, Broken Promises, Life In A Red State, maga, My America, Ohio, Preble County, Understanding Trump Counties