Monday, September 6, 2021

People, Government, and a Good Life

I realize now that the reason public television was running the documentary on Frances Perkins last night was because of Labor Day and not, as I had supposed, because she is a fascinating person and more people ought to know about her. Ms. Perkins was a graduate of Mount Holyoke, a women’s college where I studied and graduated in the last century. While I’m not a fan of every notable alumna, Frances Perkins is one of the greats. 

Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and the first woman to serve as a cabinet secretary, was the driving force behind the New Deal, credited with formulating policies to shore up the national economy following the nation’s most serious economic crisis and helping to create the modern middle class. She was in every respect a self-made woman who rose from humble New England origins to become America’s leading advocate for industrial safety and workers’ rights. - - from

I’m thinking a lot about Frances Perkins these days as the pandemic has brought out quite a bit of anti-labor sentiment. It’s almost everywhere you look, spouted by politicians, business owners in newspaper articles, everyday rants on social media. You can spot almost immediately by the use of the word “they”. 

I refer you to two earlier posts, “The Truth About Choice” and “Still Need More Voice for Choice”.

I continue to be enraged by the attitude that “affluent people like us” are naturally responsible and trustworthy, while low-wage workers are treated like bad children. 

Whenever you see politicians and business owners holding forth on what “those people” need to do, you will know instantly that this kind of paternalism is at work. 

The pastor of my church preached yesterday about how we look at the poor and homeless. Something she said struck me enough that I got out a pen and wrote it down. I’m paraphrasing here:

We tend to look at the homeless and think their circumstances are because of bad choices. We don’t see the jobs whose wages are too low to pay the rent that is too high, the inadequate or nonexistent health care, the lack of transportation access, the food deserts which prevent healthy eating. We just look and think, “bad choices.”

But everybody makes bad choices. Even I make bad choices sometimes. But our bad choices are generally hidden away by the privacy afforded us by having homes. - - The Rev’d Lura Groen

“The privacy afforded us by having homes.” Wow. Think of all the ways you get the benefit of the doubt in life because you have that very basic privacy. 

The same is true when it comes to jobs and who is afforded the luxury of having a choice. Low-wage earners are often looked at as occupying that place in the work force due to some shortcomings on their part. The fact that these judgements are made by people who have choices every day - - that make their continued well-being possible - - is is an irony which is not lost on me.

Today is Labor Day. People like Frances Perkins made it their life’s work to give Americans more choices: opportunities for fair wages, reasonable work hours, safer working conditions, the possibility of redress. Yet in Maryland we have a Republican Governor who is far more interested in forcing “those people” back to work by prematurely cutting off their benefits than he is in taking personal responsibility for making sure that the Maryland workers who have filed for unemployment due to the pandemic get the assistance that is owed them by law. 

This Labor Day I am, more than ever, interested in electing public servants who talk the talk and walk the walk of Frances Perkins. 

The people are what matter to government, and a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.

It is clear from the legacy she left for American workers that Frances Perkins’ goal was to extend to lower economic groups what the affluent thought was their by right: the ability to make choices about their own lives. 

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