By Jim Miller
Last week, I pondered the obscene spectacle of holding a mega-concert catering to the wealthy in the Southern California desert town of Indio where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. The truth is that events like this that underline the contrast between the heedless luxury of the affluent with the deprivation of the poor are not the exception to the rule, but rather, a basic fact of everyday life in our era of historic economic inequality. It’s just the way we live now.
And in sunny California, San Diego in particular, the poor are accustomed to watching the party from the outside. As a community college professor at City College, I am particularly attuned to the painful realities of economic and racial inequality because I see the costs of poverty on a daily basis in the classroom and in the lives of my students who frequently struggle to balance the hard economics of survival and academic success. Sometimes the choice is between books and groceries or rent; in other instances, it’s between childcare and study time. The list goes on and on.
As yet another semester of my career comes to a close, I continue to be troubled and moved by the hard roads so many of my students have had to travel to succeed or even just to put themselves in a position to try. Whether it is the daughter of immigrant parents helping to run the family business while taking a full load of classes or the veteran with PTSD fighting to put his life back together and stay off the street, the small, unsung but heroic battles against the odds are too numerous to recount.
It was this experience that led me, back in 2010, to go on the March for California’s Future, a seven-week, 365-mile trek from Bakersfield to Sacramento sponsored in part by my statewide union, the California Federation of Teachers, that was intended to shine a light on the dire effects of budget cuts on education, social services, and the lives of millions of my fellow citizens. This crazy march was part of a labor-community movement that pushed first for the Majority Budget Act that made it easier to pass a budget in our state and later the Millionaire’s Tax which was eventually fused with Governor Brown’s measure to become Proposition 30, which taxes the affluent to help fund education and other vital public services.
Recently, quite by accident, it was brought to my attention by the Chancellor of my district, Dr. Constance Carroll, that the story of that march had been recorded in a fine book by Sasha Abramsky, The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives. Chancellor Carroll had been at a Community College Trustees conference and heard a talk by Abramsky who mentioned the March for California’s Future and myself by name, so she kindly sent me a message alerting me to the news. I had not been aware of the book but, after some thought, I recalled that Abramsky had followed us for a day on the march and later contacted me for a project he was working on with regard to the new face of poverty.
Thus, when I received the book in the mail and sat down with my son to look it over, it was with a strange sense of surprise and recognition that I read my own six-year-old story from that odd and moving journey. As Abramsky records it:
In April of 2010, a group of educators and organizers from around California walked hundreds of miles up the Central Valley, from Bakersfield to the state capitol of Sacramento, protesting education cuts and holding rallies and meetings with residents along the way. One of them was a middle-aged English teacher named Jim Miller, a tall man with a pony tail, who taught at a community college in downtown San Diego.
The marchers walked along dusty back roads, through communities that had been hammered economically over the previous several years. New poverty layered upon old. Broadly, they followed the route taken by farm workers’ organizer Cesar Chavez in his fabled march for economic justice decades earlier, passing shanty towns, tent cities, campgrounds now lived in by foreclosed on ex-homeowners. Sometimes trade unions gathered their members to join them for stretches of the walk, other times students came out to walk with them. Evenings they slept in campgrounds, in union halls, in churches.
“It wasn’t just educators on the march. There were also people who were working in homecare services, people working as nurses, in other kinds of public safety areas. We wanted the march to say it’s not just about our interests as teachers, but everybody—about California’s future as a whole,” Jim explained. “You can read in the paper that a quarter of the people who live in the Central Valley live in poverty and one-third are on some form of public aid. But when you’re walking through communities you really see this in a visceral way. So we would be camping somewhere near Delano with farm workers, and you’d have a man whose daughter was just laid off from working in a cafeteria in a public school, drive out and knock on the door of one of the motor homes where we were staying and say ‘thank you.’ Simple things.
After a while, it became quite overwhelming, day after day after day of taking in the stories people told you along the way. When you think about the landscape you’re going through, you viscerally saw the foreclosure crisis; you’d walk through streets in small towns on the edge, where you’d have blocks of boarded up houses. We’d stay in trailer parks. Some of them were kind of small towns constructed by people who’d lost their houses and didn’t have anywhere to stay but their trailer. All the way up the Valley we found this. You’re in the bathroom in the morning shaving, getting ready to march, and you see someone putting on their clothes, getting ready to go to work, because that’s where they live now. You’re near Fresno and you see something exactly like a Hooverville from the 1930s. It was quite moving, and something you can only get your head around if you’re not whizzing past those communities at eighty miles an hour on the I-5.”
Over the course of The American Way of Poverty, Abramsky outlines “Poverty in the Land of the Plutocrats” by following in the footsteps of Michael Harrington and detailing the brutal underside of American life with our failed safety net and dog-eat-dog economics while suggesting we return to a fairer system that does not leave so many behind.
Later on, as Abramsky closes the book, he writes:
Let’s return, briefly, to college lecturer Jim Miller and his walk through California’s Central Valley to highlight the hardships faced by so many of the state’s residents and the cost to the social fabric of letting basic public services crumble.
“The march forced you to slow down: the act of walking itself forced you to come face to face with people,” he recalled, months after he had returned home to his wife and son in San Diego. “We were in a small town called Planada, and we pulled into town, a tiny town of mostly farm workers. The school was so devastated; the principal came out and told us that 80 percent of the kids who were in his school were on some form of state aid. They said, ‘Come onto campus,’ and so we drove the truck on. The entire elementary school emptied out and joined us, came out cheering. This one guy came out with tears in his eyes. He’d marched with Chavez. They impromptu scheduled a community dinner. The parents came. They did a dance, fed us, and we told our stories and listened to their stories about what was happening in their communities. Dozens of small stories like that, day after day. They weave together into a mosaic. How is it that the lives of people who frequently don’t even think of each other are connected in some way? How are most people’s interests interconnected?”
I asked my son, now twelve, if he remembered the March. “A little,” he said sheepishly. So I reminded him that he had come up and joined me over his spring break, but the story for him was still the stuff of distant family legend.
And then, just as we were discussing why I went on the March, my son looked with alarm past my shoulder out the window as he spotted a man climbing over the front fence into our yard in Golden Hill. I turned around and saw a very disheveled fellow, filthy from a long, hard stay on the street. As he lumbered toward the side of our house, I went to the door and asked if I could help him with something.
“Water,” he said. “Please, I need water.” I pointed him to the hose where he filled up a few small bottles that he kept in a plastic bag and left him alone as he turned to washing his face and rubbing the grimy dirt from his arms.
Back inside, my son, still startled by the unexpected visit, asked why the man had to climb into our yard and why there wasn’t a place for everybody to stay and have enough to eat and drink and wash.
“There is no good reason,” I told him. “But the least we can do is let him drink and wash up.”
As our visitor finished, waved to us, and climbed back over the fence to wander down the street, I glanced down at the book lying on the coach and said rather feebly, “We need to take care of one another.”
So much more work remains to be done.