Poverty, consumerism: Society suffering from identity crisis

MARQUETTE – In a world where everything is a sales pitch, who do you trust?

Truth has become a matter for debate, and any claim is given merit whether it’s factual or not.

The constant barrage of advertising wears down our resistance and increases our tolerance for lies and selfish motives.

We accept that companies distort the truth in order to sell their product, that politicians can’t be trusted, that insurance companies will screw us to make a buck, that women should look like Barbie dolls and men shouldn’t have emotions, and that it’s fine to hide from all that behind television, shopping, food and chemicals, because there’s nothing you can do to change it.

I beg to differ.

Months ago, I watched the movie “Joy” with Jennifer Lawrence, which tells the story of a brilliant woman, a young mother who sacrifices her ambitions for her family, but who nonetheless succeeds in building an empire around her unique inventions. She fights off numerous attempts to steal, destroy and sabotage her work and shows an audacity and courage that outstrips her lower-middle class status to catapult her to a place of wealth and esteem.

The American dream, in other words.

It’s a feel-good movie, but I got depressed afterward. This woman came so perilously close to utter failure – and not just failure, but victim to a thousand legal and commercial predatory forces – that I couldn’t help but wonder, what about the rest of us?

The problem with these stories of exceptional individuals overcoming incredible odds is that, while the entertainment value is high, this is not the story of most people’s lives. Most people are not the exception.

Joy was a single mom with two kids. She had a mother with mental illness, a disloyal and selfish father, an ex-husband who couldn’t hold down a job, and she was at the center, providing for all of them.

The tragic thing about this story is how normal it is. Millions of women find themselves in similar situations, and most will not be able to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” because they and their boots are buried under a rigged economy.

Yet, if you’re poor, you’re not working hard enough. If your wages don’t lend themselves to a lifestyle of food, housing and healthcare, and you qualify for government help – then be ready to face ridicule, insecurity and losing that lifeline at the whim of a politician or the missing of a form or deadline.

And if you get paid above the poverty rate, be prepared not to get any help and still face a predatory system that will kick you when you’re down. Then you’ll be told the reason you’re struggling is because of those poor people on welfare, who are lazy and wasteful and stealing from you.

That’s a lie. There’s at least $20 trillion hiding in offshore accounts in the world that is legally and illegally being withheld from world economies and fair taxation by a tiny group of elites peddling desperate lies to distract you while they grab more.

Sure, the system can’t be perfect. Sure, there will always be people with more and people with less. But what about striving to create a “more perfect union?”

Walmart is the largest employer in the U.S. The average sales associate wage there is under $9 per hour. Employees often receive Medicaid and subsidized housing, because they live in – or more accurately, they survive from day to day and paycheck to paycheck the myriad pitfalls and dead ends of – poverty.

I’m not one for romanticizing the past because women were subjugated and bigotry was the norm, but compare the landscape I just described to 50 years ago. The largest employer in the U.S. was General Motors and the average pay – adjusted for inflation – was $37 per hour.

Our parents and grandparents didn’t necessarily work harder than us, weren’t inherently better or more successful. The reason they were able to offer their kids a better life was because the landscape of opportunities was vastly different. You could pay for college by working through it. You could build a reasonable life, even a lavish life of convenience, with just a high school diploma.

And don’t forget, those decent wages and working conditions were hard-won with blood, sweat and ferocious courage. People died for the eight-hour work day, for the right to form unions.

Now, the top .1 percent of earners own almost as much as the bottom 90 percent.

If wealth was equally distributed in America, every family would own $528,420 in assets.

Now, I believe in meritocratic capitalism. If a guy is doing great work, it’s OK for him to earn 10 times more, or even 20 times more than others – but not hundreds or thousands of times more.

The banks and corporations are becoming fewer and fewer and more powerful, more top-heavy, and we’re all expected to think that’s fine. We’re expected to meekly accept lies and disingenuous pandering. It’s a monumental insult.

We are not consumers, not automatons, not sheep. We are dynamic components of this living world with inherent worth and potential, and we deserve the chance to live a decent life with the people we love. We deserve to know the truth, we deserve to make informed decisions and shape a future that works for all of us.

I know humans are all just as messed up as they are beautiful, but that’s why a culture that promotes honesty, respect, dignity, authenticity, foresight, education and wisdom should be a commonly-held aim, for all our sakes. People will do what’s expected of them. Children will follow the models they see in their parents, teachers and on television, movies, news, advertising and video games – for better or worse.

We need a revolution alright – one of moral, economic, cultural, spiritual and political proportions. A revolution of love, reason and tolerance, that embraces our inherent interdependence and takes a stand against those policies and powers that hold us back from a future with the potential to be truly great.

Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248.