School/work

The pandemic has heightened awareness of a number of social problems in the United States.

One revolves around the care and education of children. Political and business leadership often spout platitudes about how important children are and how much they care about them, but they seldom back up their words with meaningful policies that help children and the people who love, care for, and educate them.

Before the pandemic, American families often cobbled together child care with parent(s), school, relatives, neighbors, and paid caregivers, who often had to charge more than the family could afford to pay even though their own salaries were so low it was hard for them to get by. When schools and most day-care centers closed due to the pandemic, parents were suddenly trying to do paid work themselves from home while simultaneously trying to care for and educate their children or were forced to quit a job outside the home to be at home for their children.

It’s not a sustainable situation for many families.

There is a big push by the president and some state and national leaders to re-open schools full-time and full-capacity in the fall, even though that is against the recommendations of public health experts, in order for adults to return to jobs outside the home or so they can work from home without interruptions, but, besides being a huge health risk for children and adults, it fails to address the root of the issue.

Somehow, caring for children in exchange for a salary is considered “work” but caring for children without a salary is not considered work. Hazel Henderson calls this non-monetized part of our system the “love economy.”

The United States lags far behind other countries with advanced economies in acknowledging the love economy. We don’t offer mandatory paid sick leave, parental leave, or caregiving leave. People who do get paid as caregivers, whether for children, elders, or other vulnerable people, often earn shockingly low wages. For that matter, many people working in other kinds of jobs also don’t make a living wage, making it impossible to fully care for their family. Other countries also have a must more robust system of social services, so that people have access to adequate clothes, shelter, food, medical care, and education regardless of their income level.

As part of our efforts to #BuildBackBetter, the United States should reform our economic, health, educational, and social systems so that every person has adequate resources to lead a life of dignity. Some components of such a system that have proven successful in other countries have been single-payer universal health care, required living wages for workers, a graduated tax system that raises enough revenue from the top of the income spectrum that those in the lower end can afford their tax bill without compromising the needs of their household, free public education, paid leave for sickness, caregiving, and vacation, and a robust social safety net so that no one goes without food, housing, and other basic necessities. I would also like to see more social recognition and financial support for caretaking that is currently part of the “love economy.” A possible way to address this would be through a program of universal basic income or a stipend for those caring for a child, elder, or person with a long-term illness or disabling condition.

Obviously, crafting systemic change will take time and new national leadership. For the moment, I think it is foolish to implement a national school opening policy. Historically, education has been the province of local districts within the framework of state policy, allowing the system to adapt to local conditions. The wisdom of that flexibility is even more evident during the pandemic. Areas with low rates of illness may plan to implement hybrid systems where students attend in person part-time and online part-time so that physical distancing can be used to keep the virus in check. Areas with very high infection rates may need to keep students at home learning virtually until their infection rate is under control, when they could begin to phase in in-person attendance. All schools will need plans for dealing with changing circumstances; as there have been school closing plans to deal with severe flu outbreaks or natural disasters, there will need to be COVID plans to try to keep the school community and the general public as protected as possible.

Everyone wants students to be back to in-person classrooms, but only if it is safe for them, the school staff, their families, and the community. Pretending we can go back to the pre-pandemic system without grave public health consequences is foolhardy. Instead of wishful thinking, we need to use data, science, expertise, care, and intelligence to adapt to our changed and changing circumstances.

It’s what our children and youth need and deserve.

June birthdays

Already this month, my younger daughter T turned 30 and my granddaughter ABC turned 3.

This is simultaneously wonderful and terrifying.

I am very concerned for their future, the future of all young people, and the planet.

When I was thirty, I was at a home that we owned with two young daughters and a spouse whose job supported us all comfortably and enabled us to save for the future. T and her Millennial friends do not have anything approaching that kind of economic security. Even if they are well-educated and skilled workers, most available jobs don’t pay enough to live on, even as a single person, much less a family. The pandemic and ensuing economic collapse have made matters worse and it is unlikely that recovery will be rapid. The best case I can hope for is that this economic and health catastrophe will re-set priorities and policies so that economies and governments serve the common good and recognize human dignity.

The pandemic taught us an important lesson. Those who were hit hardest – people of color, low-income communities, the elderly, and those with complicating medical issues – were also those who were already being ignored or discriminated against. The death of George Floyd, the killing of yet another unarmed black man by police, underscored the racism still in evidence in the United States, a message that has resonated around the world, as white people have been examining their behavior toward people of other races in their countries, too.

Women who are my age (almost 60) shake our heads in disbelief that so much discrimination and harassment and belittling of women and girls still exists. I am sad that our fight for equal rights is not yet won and now falls onto the younger generations as well.

Over all of this, lies an atmosphere so polluted with excess carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases that the levels are higher than they have been at any time in human history. The consequences of that are far reaching and serious, the efforts thus far to address it wholly inadequate.

While I have been in stay-at-home mode because of the pandemic, I have been deluged with opportunities for webinars, a number of which are looking at a path forward from the current massive disruption of “business as usual.” It is heartening that so many are looking to #BuildBackBetter, looking at structural change that addresses climate change, pollution, racism, income inequality, sexism, all manner of discrimination, and the call to honor human dignity. I have become accustomed to linking human welfare with planetary welfare, articulated so well five years ago in Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. This follows the tenets of Catholic social justice doctrine and has been my basis for activism, looking for systemic ways to address problems and injustice holistically, rather than trying to rectify a problem narrowly, which could inadvertently cause adverse effects. (There are specific instances that can be addressed with a narrow solution, but systemic change can solve many smaller problems more completely and rapidly.)

If this truly is a pivot point in human history, perhaps we can work together and construct a new way of living which respects all life and the planet, as well. That would give me hope for T’s generation, for ABC’s generation, and for the generations to come. The work will be difficult, but it is what is called for at this critical moment in history.

#BuildBackBetter

I know that I am privileged. I’m white and well-educated. I grew up in rural New England with great parents and was sheltered from a lot of the temptations that get young people into trouble. My spouse B and I have been happily married for almost 38 years. We live in an area in the northeastern US that is affordable enough to live comfortably on one salary, so I could raise our family, help care for elders, volunteer, and pursue artistic work without the added pressure of needing to earn income. I have never lived in a big city with a high crime rate, so I can move about without worry, other than the usual caution that all women employ. I can speak freely and follow my religion, although that comes with some built-in sex discrimination. I am relatively healthy and have access to good-quality, affordable health care. When B retires, we have retirement savings and our house to live in. While not rich by US standards, I am aware that I have more wealth than the vast majority of people in the world.

Yes, I am privileged in so many ways.

Because I grew up in a tiny town, only about 200 people when I lived there and even smaller now, there was not a lot of racial diversity. My parents, though, were diligent about exposing us to the wider world and modeled the dignity and equality of all people, as did Catholic social justice doctrine. As a young child in the 1960’s, I watched as the civil rights movement was translated into law and hoped and, perhaps took for granted, that progress was being made toward the equality that the United States had so long touted.

While acknowledging that some progress has been made, there is still so, so much wrong, which is why the death of George Floyd at the hands of police – on top of so many other deaths of black and brown people in police custody; decades of inequality in education, housing, employment opportunities, and pay scale; violence; the higher rate of illness and death from COVID-19 among people of color and those living in poverty; unequal laws and enforcement resulting in large numbers of black men in prison; obstacles to voting; the recognition that many of our essential workers are poorly paid people of color; discrimination; and personal attacks of all kinds – has caused such anguish, outrage, and action across the country, not just among the black community, but among people of all races. People in other countries are demonstrating not only in support of the US civil rights and Black Lives Matter movement but also to highlight discrimination in their own countries against indigenous and black and brown people.

The vast majority of these protests have been peaceful, which made the recent clearing of the park near the White House all the more appalling. There have been other instances of violence against peaceful protesters and the press, which are totally unacceptable and against the US Constitution and laws. I also oppose any violence against the police or other protesters, arson, theft, and the destruction of property.

Because of my age and the need to protect myself and my family against COVID-19, I have not been to any protests in person. There have been several peaceful protests locally, including some directed against our county jail, which has a percentage of inmates who are people of color much higher than our population and a distressingly high number of inmates who have not been treated sufficiently for medical conditions and/or who have died. We have not had the kind of looting here that has happened in larger cities. There has been a very sad case of arson, the destruction of the premier accessible playground in our area, although no one knows whether or not the person/s involved were motivated by the murder of George Floyd. There has been an outpouring of donations to re-build this special place as soon as possible.

As a white person, I can’t know what it is like to be a person of color, but I do have a window into it from members of my family. Two of my brothers-in-law and my son-in-law, as well as their children, are people of color with personal or family roots in Asia and Africa. They have shared stories with me about fear when being stopped by police, about being followed and asked to leave a store while shopping, and about loss of educational opportunities. They hear derogatory language based on their race. Sometimes, their status as a family is questioned because they are bi- or multi-racial.

Our Declaration of Independence says that all “are created equal” and entitled to the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We need to carry this out, however belatedly, and maintain it for generations to come. As the late Rep. Barbara Jordan said, “What the people want is very simple – they want an America as good as its promise.”

How do we accomplish this? When I wrote this post a week ago, I did not have concrete ideas, but I have since heard a number of proposals, some around policing and legal practices and some that attempt to rectify consequences of racism in the areas of health care, housing, education, and employment. This gives us an opportunity to advocate with our local, state, and national representatives to enact new laws and policies to move us toward equality. It also means that we can use their positions on these proposals to evaluate candidates in upcoming elections.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to attend several webinars about the path toward greater environmental and social justice. Hearing leaders articulate needed actions and policies gives me hope. Another very hopeful thing for me is seeing the two youngest generations, often called Millennials and Generation Z, stepping forward with ideas and action to shape our future. These young people are more diverse and generally more accepting of personal differences than their elders. Much of the recent energy behind environmental justice, gun reform, and racial/ethnic/gender equality has come from these younger people. I know that I am a better advocate for these causes because of what I have learned from my daughters and their peers.

To me, all of this work is about respect for the dignity of each person and a moral obligation to care for others and for our global environment. There is so much work to do, but, together, we can #BuildBackBetter.

time slips by

I know some people who are under shelter in place or stay home orders are struggling with finding ways to fill time, but I am having the opposite problem. There always seems to be more to do than time/energy/brainpower permits.

Part of this is the continuation of dealing with grief. A year ago at this time, we were in the last few weeks of my mother’s life, so there is sadness with the coming of spring. My heart goes out to all those who are currently in nursing homes and hospitals who are not allowed to have visitors. While those last weeks with Nana were difficult, it would have been even more difficult not being there to bring her ice water and chat between naps.

This personal grief is enveloped by the global grief of dealing with the pandemic, its toll on people, and its laying bare all the inequities of society. The pandemic is bringing out the selfishness and greed of some, the suffering of most, and the generosity and community spirit of many. While some just want to “get back to normal” and are willing to risk public health to do it, more and more are talking about “building back better.”

The #BuildBackBetter movement is encouraging. It calls on us to examine the past and present so that we can build a better future. Here in the United States, the problem of lack of access to quality, affordable health care has been made even more apparent, especially for black and brown folks, immigrants, people living in poverty, those without homes, and elders. So many losing their jobs and their health insurance along with it also illustrates the inherent weakness in our current healthcare system.

Many of our essential workers, including caregivers and transit, food service, janitorial, grocery, and agricultural workers, are also our lowest-paid. These people are risking their lives to keep basic services going for less money than they would make if they were collecting enhanced unemployment and too many have contracted, or even succumbed to, COVID-19. My hope is that the new-found appreciation many feel for these essential workers will lead to living wages for all jobs, benefits for those who are without paid work that reflect human dignity and care, and a realization that wealth is created by the society, not just the business owners.

While grief and fear can be mind-numbing, it is a comfort to hear about all those who are serving others, dispensing accurate information, and planning for a responsible path forward. I admit that I watch or listen to a lot of coronavirus coverage. I want to stay up to date with the science and the demographics, which is especially important here in New York State, which has the largest number of cases in the country. I listen to our governor, Andrew Cuomo, give his daily briefings because he is very truthful, forthright, and compassionate. It is comforting to know where we are, even when the statistics are unnerving, because there are plans unfolding that are modified as the circumstances change. As our caseload in the state starts to come down, Governor Cuomo is talking more about how we will move into the next phase. He is a big proponent of building back better, socially, economically, justly, and in accord with the best science available for human, environmental, and climate health. This gives me hope that some good will come out of a horrifying situation. Most of the time, I see the Governor through Facebook Live, so there are comments coming in; it’s amazing how many in other states and countries tune in to his briefings for the facts and for a practical, compassionate response to our current challenges. Sadly, the same cannot be said for White House briefings, which I avoid.

I am fortunate that things in my household are on an even keel. I am sad, though, to have family and friends who are suffering because of the lockdown or the virus itself. It’s hard not to be able to go to them and help, though I try to do what I can by phone or online.

I am not struggling with staying at home, though. I am pretty high on the introversion scale, so I am content to be at home with my family. I don’t know how I would react, though, if I lived alone, which is something I have never done.

I do spend more time on shopping and meal planning/preparation than I used to. We are still having significant shortages in our area, so weekly shopping has turned into several hours in several stores to find basic items. There are more meals to plan for because we can’t go out to dinner and because everyone is here for all their meals every day. We do sometimes get takeout from a local restaurant, but there is definitely more cooking going on at home.

I’ve been trying to keep up with my social and environmental justice activities online and have taken the opportunity to attend some webinars. The Binghamton Poetry Project and my local poetry-workshop group have been meeting via Zoom. I’ve also finished revisions of my chapbook and have been slogging through the time-consuming and anxiety-producing process of finding contests to enter. Seven and counting…

I do write blog posts now and then…

I wish I could say that I was reading more. I admit that, most days, I don’t even get through my email. By evening, I find that my brain can only handle watching television while playing not-too-taxing computer games. As I’ve been saying for years now, it’s often not so much about time as brainpower.

How are you all doing wherever you find yourselves during this pandemic?