Oklahoma Teachers On Food-stamps and Raw Sewage in Alabama: the “Forgotten Men and Women” in America Today

Donald Trump became President on January 20th 2017 and, appropriately, marked the occasion with a tweet. It read:

A little over a year later, reports from the nation’s heartlands suggest a radically different narrative, where “forgotten men and women” have not only yet to be remembered, but have fallen foul to a collective bout of governmental amnesia. Shocking stories are not new to de-prioritised US states; the lack of clean water in Flint, Michigan reverberating the world over, such was the shock of such a situation within the world’s great superpower. So supportive was the story of the doom-leaden image of American painted by Donald Trump; Hilary Clinton’s neglect to visit Flint stands as one of her most deplorable campaign failures.

The surprises didn’t end there however. In December of 2017 a remarkable story emerged in the wake of a UN official Phillip Alston’s visit to rural Alabama, where his team discovered raw sewage running through streets because families there couldn’t afford to fix simple wear and tear: a remarkable insight into the level of deprivation which exists in the world’s richest nation. Of particular concern was the large outbreak of hookworm discovered there, a disease normally found in third world regions of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In the Lownes County region of Alabama where the disease was most rife the average income is just over £13,000 a year and a third of the population lives below the poverty line. Alston remarked that “I think it’s very uncommon in the First World. This is not a sight that one normally sees”.

Aside from disease, poverty remains an existential threat to many in the United States. Forty-one million American’s live below the poverty line, second only among developed nations to Israel. The realities of such a life were cast under a harsh light by a story emerging from Oklahoma this week which reported that teachers in ninety of the state’s districts have negotiated new four-day school weeks so that they can spend the fifth day working part-time retail jobs in places like Walmart in order to make their rent and feed their families. Already deeply underpaid, teachers were particularly hard hit by a move to private health insurance in the school system, which led to average costs of $1000 per month for an family of three. This was such a blow that, in one example, a teaching aid was effectively paying to work her job, with her salary failing to meet medical costs by $200 per month.

The role of the teacher is indescribably invaluable to our society, particularly in such disaffected parts of the world such as the ninety districts who had to take such radical measures, where federal aid is so minuscule wit and intellect may genuinely be the sole hope of those aspiring to the modest of goal of living free of poverty. However in American public sector workers are forgotten by their pay packets, and in Oklahoma it isn’t just teachers; highway patrol workers have been told not to fill their fuel tanks to capacity and drunk drivers go free when their is nobody to process their tickets.

Such first world travesties are the result, in the particular case of Oklahoma, of a 1992 ballot initiative which proposed that the state could only raise taxes with a 3/4 majority in the state assembly, creating a one-way system whereby every tax cut is effectively permanent whereas any tax amendment is practically non-negotiable. These include sweetheart deals for fracking companies and deep tax cuts to the state’s wealthiest residents. The four-day school weeks will be nothing but a public embarrassment however, and US businesses based in other states will not be keen to invest in Oklahoma, which is effectively broke, meaning that the free market suppositions which incentivised the permanent cuts will not save it’s public sector workers, aside from providing them minimum wage jobs stacking shelves between making lesson plans.

The 1992 ballot initiative in Oklahoma will sound familiar to those following the Republican congressional tax-reform bill passed at the end of last year. In it taxes were cut across the board, but while tax cuts to the top 1% of America’s income bracket remain permanent, tax cuts to 83 million American middle-class families will be so degraded that by 2028 their taxes will have seen a relative rise. Like the Oklahoma microcosm, tax cuts are locked in, while reform will remain off the table and like Oklahoma, America might just go broke for it. These are not the whims of the market playing out on on a national scale; these are policy decisions made by politicians, in a bill which had 6000 lobbyists working on it’s creation behind closed doors but not one public hearing. In Trump’s America, the “forgotten men and women” are not only forgotten still, but wilfully ignored.

Words by Liam Inscoe – Jones

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