What Could a Caring Society Look Like
This piece is framed around an article, from The Washington Post: “A cook at a frat house was like a mother to the members. Years later, they paid off her mortgage.” This is not the kind of story Retake routinely features. If you get your news on the internet, you see stories like this all the time. Person X is challenged by A, B, or C and Good Samaritan Y comes along and saves the day. I usually read the headlines on stories like this, and move on. But this story drew me in, and as I worked through it the relevance of this piece became clear, both in relation to our emerging Rethink work and to the challenges our nation now faces.
The Context. Jessie Hamilton is the daughter of a sharecropper and she worked at least two jobs every day of her life from age 14 to 74. Fourteen of those years, she worked for minimum wage as the cook at Phi Gamma Delta fraternity at Louisiana State University. But she was much more than a cook. Routinely, frat brothers would come to the kitchen, sit on the counter, and tell her their problems, whether about a looming test, a souring relationship or an uncertain future. And she always listened. The frat brothers all viewed her as their “Mom,” and as the story makes clear, even years later the fraternity brothers loved her, as she loved them.
About a year ago, Andrew Fusaiotti, one of the frat brothers who’d kept in touch with Jessie, called her to check in. In the course of the conversation he found out that she was still working two jobs so she could pay her mortgage. Fusaiotti immediately reached out to Jessie’s kids to find out what was needed to pay off the mortgage and then launched a fundraising campaign among the frat brothers to raise the necessary funds. They raised over $45,000, enough to pay off the mortgage entirely, and an additional $6,700 to spend on herself. She could finally take a day off, retire, and even go on a vacation.
At the ceremony, Fusaiotti commented:
“You’re the only one that I know in this world that could walk into that hot kitchen, working for minimum wage, with a smile on your face every single day for 14 years,” he said. “We’re here to thank you for that, because we love you, respect you, and we know what you’ve been through to get this house and put food on your table.”
“You’ve done everything in your life the right way,” Fusaiotti added.
You are probably wondering, how does this story connect with Rethink and the new path we hope to forge?
In Tuesday’s post we wrote about the role of government. During the 1930s, in the throws of a depression, America came together, a visionary leader felt the pain and suffering in the Hoovervilles scattered across the nation and he organized the government around helping. To fund it he asked everyone to chip in, with some Americans paying upwards of 90% of their income in taxes. For two decades, few complained. Even during Eisenhower’s two-terms, Republicans supported this policy framework.
The creation of unemployment insurance and Social Security created a meaningful safety net for many Americans. Millions of out-of-work Americans were put to work building dams, highways, airports, libraries, bridges, and a robust rail system. Government investment in our public education system offered high-quality, free education, and with the National Housing Act of 1934, the government made huge investments in housing and created affordable mortgage options, making it possible for most working Americans to buy homes.
Yes, we were far from perfect back then (or now), as we were still in the grip of Jim Crow, and to secure needed support from Southern Democrats FDR agreed to redlining provisions in The National Housing Act that excluded people of color from benefiting and, in doing so, strengthened segregation. The vestiges of that policy live on today, as expressed in the massive difference wealth in communities of color when compared with white America.
The contributions of women were taken for granted and uncompensated or poorly compensated, something that continues today. Indigenous peoples still suffer under the yoke of colonialism with their lands extracted and despoiled and their communities horribly under-resourced. So, it was not Utopia then nor now. But with FDR there emerged government’s commitment to a social contract, a sense that offering help to those in need was fundamentally a good thing.
While we have made some gains in recognizing our debt to communities of color, to women, and to indigenous communities, we have also succumbed to a perspective of government where efforts to raise taxes are viewed as “taking from the rich and giving to the poor.” This was actually stated by a GOP legislator in DC during debate on the COVID relief bill. I recall thinking to myself: Wow, how far have we strayed from a caring society when “taking from the rich to help the poor,” could be stated as a criticism. Helping has become a bad thing because the more fortunate must pay for it.
Andrew Fusaiotti found that, aside from the direct benefit Jessie received from the fundraising effort, a secondary benefit was derived from those making the contributions:
““For us to show our kids what the true meaning of success is — that it’s not about fancy cars and boats and vacation homes — was incredibly special,” said Fusaiotti, who has two children. “Success is about setting a good example, doing things for others and bringing people closer together. Jessie does all of those things for her family, friends, community and co-workers.”
By viewing this feel-good tale as a metaphor for how a community or government responds to opportunities to address the needs of fellow Americans, the relevance to Rethink becomes clearer. There are those that need help and those than can help, and there is great benefit from the act of caring derived both by those in need and those who share resources to address those needs. In sharing resources and distributing opportunity equitably we regain a connection to that loving feeling. The video below captures the moment when the fraternity brothers presented Jessie with a catered lunch, a check for $6,700 and a second check for $45,000. It is not a finely produced segment, but it has so much feeling and good intentions, it is worth viewing.
Once you’ve watched the video, try to connect the dots. What if our government worked like those fraternity brothers. What if it gathered resources from those with the capacity to share and created opportunities, supports, and services for those in need? What if a Universal Basic Income were available to people like Jessie, so that at 74 they didn’t have to work two jobs? Hell, maybe she would only have worked one job to make ends meet throughout her sixty year working life, instead of three.
Below the clip of Jessie Hamilton Day, I’ve posted an old U2-Green Day video, “The Saints Are Coming.” They produced the video after Hurricane Katrina. You will recall that our government first failed to invest in shoring up a system of levees that, as a result, were doomed to fail when the next hurricane hit. This racist, uncaring policy failure exposed the largely poor black residents living near the levees to devastating floods when Katrina hit. And then our government largely abandoned tens of thousands of the poor of New Orleans, forcing them to fend for themselves when there was no fending to be had.
The U2-Green Day video provides a view of what could and should have happened on August 31, 2005. The music video shows actual footage of people abandoned on bridges, at the Superdome, and in the streets of New Orleans, but with Computer Generated software the video inserts images of US troops redeployed from Iraq showering the city with the relief that in 2005 somehow never came. It, too, is a metaphor. The U2-Green Day video shows how a caring nation would act. But instead, we turned our backs.
We have a fork in the road ahead. Along one path we can travel together toward a more caring society, a government that acts on our behalf of those less fortunate, and on behalf of our planet. Or we can choose the path we’ve been on for most of the last 50 years, a place that has forsaken a caring society in pursuit of short-term profit.
The choice is ours and Rethink plans to develop a manual of policies that illustrate that caring is both possible and in the best interest of our state and nation, its people, and the land, water, and air upon which we depend.
I watch the U2-Green Day video every few years and it still causes a chill down my spine, a longing for a society that actually would do what is depicted in the video without hesitation or debate. We are seeing signs that President Biden sees the same fork in the road that we have described. Perhaps this is our time.
In solidarity, hope and gratitude,
Paul & Roxanne
Categories: Social & Racial Justice & Immigration Reform