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Poverty

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The Middle, Sinking.

“Nostalgia is just about the only thing the middle class can still afford. That’s because median wealth is about 20 percent lower today, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it was in 1984. Yes, that’s three lost decades.”

Wonkblog’s Matt O’Brien briefly surveys the downward pressure on our sinking middle class. “[I]t’s still a heckuva lot better than households in the bottom 25 percent, whose wealth never grew during the good times, and then plunged 60 percent during the bad ones. That’s because, for both the middle and working classes, real wages have been stagnant the past 30 years, and housing equity has taken a nosedive.”

Ryan’s Slaughter.

“[Y]ou can’t help noticing the deep historic irony that finds a Tea Party favorite and descendant of famine Irish using the same language that English Tories used to justify indifference to an epic tragedy…Ryan boasts of the Gaelic half of his ancestry…But with a head still stuffed with college-boy mush from Ayn Rand, he apparently never did any reading about the times that prompted his ancestors to sail away from the suffering sod.

In the NYT, historian Timothy Egan notes Paul Ryan’s rhetorical debt to those who helped perpetrate the Great Hunger in Ireland. “You never hear Ryan make character judgments about generations of wealthy who live off their inheritance, or farmers who get paid not to grow anything…Dependency is all one-way. ‘The whole British argument in the famine was that the poor are poor because of a character defect,’ said Christine Kinealy, a professor of Irish studies and director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University. ‘It’s a dangerous, meanspirited and tired argument.'”

Ryan: Still Clownshoes.

“[S]everal economists and social scientists contacted on Monday had reactions ranging from bemusement to anger at Ryan’s report, claiming that he either misunderstood or misrepresented their research…The Columbia researchers found that, using their model of the SPM, the poverty rate fell from 26 percent in 1967 to 15 percent in 2012. Ryan only cites data from 1969 onward, ignoring a full 36 percent of the decline.”

Still Clownshoes: Republican Serious Person™ Paul Ryan’s attempt to get super-serial about policy research turns out disastrously, as multiple authors he cites in his new anti-War on Poverty screed say that he’s misrepresented their work. “In my experience, usually you use all of the available data. There’s no justification given. It’s unfortunate because it really understates the progress we’ve made in reducing poverty.”

The above pic of the learned statesman in question via Mansplaining Paul Ryan dot tumblr dot com. Also, I see Jonathan Chait has already gone there, but this is the obvious movie reference here:

Gone Daddy Gone.

Well, admittedly, I’m probably much more of a City Mouse these days than I was back during my Carolina youth, so take that for what it’s worth. And I will fess up to having grim flashbacks to the stultifying experience of Sweetgrass in the “realistically”-portrayed opening moments of this film, so that didn’t help either. Still, I have to say, I just did not cotton to Debra Granik’s gritty Ozark noir Winter’s Bone like it seems a majority of critics did. (Some have even called it the “best American film of the year.” I reckon I’d seen a better American film not 24 hours beforehand.)

This “dark as a dungeon” Missouri folk tale is well-made, to be sure, and it includes both impressive, nuanced performances — most notably from the Zellweger-esque lead, Jennifer Lawrence — and some very likable actors (John Hawkes and Garret Dillahunt of Deadwood; Sheryl Lee, nee Laura Palmer, of Twin Peaks) shading in the margins. But, for a couple of reasons, which I’ll get into a moment, I didn’t find the main through-line of the story particularly engaging. And, in its depiction of mountain folk living on the economic razor’s edge, I can’t help feeling that the movie veered dangerously close to stereotype, if not outright Precious or Slumdog Millionaire-style poverty pr0n at times.

First, the story. After a few minutes of soaking in the three R’s of life-as-it-really-happens in an economically marginal Missouri town — ROTC training, ramshackle cabins, and (jus’) regular folk — the young woman we’ve been following around, Ree Dolly (Lawrence), is approached by the local sheriff (Dillahunt) with some very problematic news. Apparently, her daddy — who, like all-too-many men in this poverty-stricken region, is a meth cook of some renown — has skipped bail. (Paging Heisenberg!) And if Pa Dolly doesn’t show up for his scheduled hearing a fortnight or so hence, the bond he posted will be taken by the county — in the form of Ree’s house. There isn’t enough money to go around on a good day, and since Ree is already neck-deep in raising her two little siblings and caring for her ailing mother, who’s not quite right in the head, getting turned out of the only home the Dollys have would basically be tantamount to a death sentence.

And so, with only a quick mind and sheer doggedness at her disposal, Ree starts trying to ascertain the whereabouts of the prodigal father, before this deadly eviction hammer falls. Trouble is, the extended community — who are more often than not related by blood ’round these parts — take none too kindly to Ree’s asking tough questions about a central participant in the local, lucrative criminal enterprise. Even Ree’s uncle Teardrop (Hawkes), her father’s brother, tends towards the unhelpful or abusive whenever she comes by for another round for questioning. But what can she do? Ree’s back is to the wall, and the only thing she can do to save her family from certain starvation is to push forward and find her dad, with all the ugly consequences that’ll entail…

Part of the reason Winter’s Bone didn’t work for me, I think, is I felt like I’d just seen a more engaging version of this movie — a regional neo-noir with a bleached-out aesthetic, involving working-class folks in a tight-knit community dabbling in crime to get by — in Nash Edgerton’s The Square. But even that film aside, and with all due respects to the wanderings of M. Lebowski, I get a bit irritated with noir-offerings that put a puzzle before you (in this case, where is Ree’s Pop?), but then don’t really give you the tools to play along.

Put another way: For all Ree’s gumption, only in the occasional scene here — like, when she’s shown a burned-out meth lab where her dad supposedly died — does she get to put two-and-two together in a way that moves the story forward. Instead, she’s more often relegated to being a passive figure in her own tale, at which point some other character will swing by her endangered home and dole out whatever info is needed to get the plot moving again. Perhaps this is by design — one of the best scenes in the movie is when Ree tries to sign up for the Army for an infusion of much-needed cash, and is very kindly told that her options right now are even more limited than they already seemed. Still, this passive tendency makes Winter’s Bone feel like a movie where this happens, and then that happens, and this happens, rather than an engaging mystery. There’s a sense of urgency, sure — the ticking clock of impending eviction — but there’s still no narrative drive to this story.

At which point a fan of this film might say: You’re missing the point. Winter’s Bone is less about typical noir plotting than it is about character, social realism, and establishing a strong sense of place. Well, convenient straw-man fan, I’m glad you got brought this up, because this actually gets to my bigger problem with the movie. From its Welcome-to-the-Real-America opening moments, Granik’s film goes out of its way to establish its versimilitude — but that’s exactly where the movie increasingly felt off to me. And while I think it’s uncharitable to say of Winter’s Bone that it’s the tale of Cletus (or Brandine) the Slack-Jawed Yokel told as tragedy — at times it really does feel like we’re hunting possum in that same hillbilly-stereotype trailer park.

Now, I won’t profess to be any kind of expert on what a life of grinding poverty in the Ozarks looks and feels like — I’ve never been to that part of the country, although I have spent time in some very broke regions of the Carolinas, West Virginia, and the Deep South. So, maybe I’m wrong, and Winter’s Bone is actually witheringly acute in its depiction of the ways of dirt-poor rural folk here. But when there are more scenes of hootenannies and squirrel-hunting in your movie than there are of people doing “normal” things like, say, watching TV or driving to Wal-Mart, I really start to wonder. And that goes double when your characters tend to speak in a near-Milchian poetic argot about their kin and the ways of menfolk and the like.

To be clear: I wasn’t offended by this Othering of them there Mountain folk, but I didn’t really buy into it either. And so the more the film strived toward versimilitude — look at how poor (and yet noble!) poor can be! — the more Winter’s Bone just felt like a hyper-stylized, and even downright artificial, Ozark requiem by way of Cormac McCarthy to me, and the more I disengaged from it. Call me uncouth (I blame mah upbringin’), but, without feeling much of either the story or the milieu, I basically spent the majority of Winter’s Bone — even its ostensibly shocking culmination — just dutifully waiting for it to end.

For Christmas, Buy her a Drum(stick).

“Songs performed by Dylan on this new album include, ‘Here Comes Santa Claus,’ ‘Winter Wonderland,’ ‘Little Drummer Boy’ and ‘Must Be Santa.” Put away the Mannheim Steamroller — In order to help Feeding America, the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan will release a holiday album, Christmas in the Heart, October 13. “It’s a tragedy that more than 35 million people in this country alone — 12 million of those children – often go to bed hungry and wake up each morning unsure of where their next meal is coming from. I…hope that our efforts can bring some food security to people in need during this holiday season.

The Edwardses Punt.

“Elizabeth Edwards likes Hillary Clinton’s plan for universal health insurance. Husband John Edwards doesn’t much care for Clinton’s ‘old politics.’ So goes the his-and-her debate in the Edwards household.In a new interview with People magazine, John and Elizabeth Edwards announce they’re staying neutral. “Bottom line: the couple said they will not endorse either remaining candidate, saving their political capital for their own causes – his, fighting poverty; hers, fighting for universal health care.

To which I feel compelled to ask: What political capital? Let me get this straight. On the one hand, we have Barack Obama, the “change” candidate who has had the nomination in the bag, mathematically speaking, for several months now. On the other, we have Hillary Clinton, the candidate whose campaign Edwards himself memorably deemed “the forces of status quo,” and who has left no GOP tactic untried to hack and slash a path to the nomination. And the Edwardses are neutral? That’s not statesmanship. That is political cowardice, pure and simple.

I mean, this isn’t a huge surprise: It’s been an open secret for awhile that the Edwardses would likely stay neutral, partly (if not mainly) on account of Elizabeth’s personal issues with the Obama candidacy. Still, I thought they’d eventually rise above their pique and get on board with the “change” they’d espoused for months and months on end. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve personally defended Edwards (usually from the children of doctors, who’ve been indoctrinated with the idea that malpractice lawsuits rank just below genocide on the list of Crimes Against Humanity, and thus that Edwards is merely some kind of rank profiteer living off their dear parents’ hard work.) I applauded his candidacy in 2008, and even voted for the guy in 2004. But, really, this is the kiss-off: If they still can’t manage to bring themselves off the fence at this late hour, I just can’t take either of them seriously anymore as leaders or progressives. “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Edwards is Out.

“It’s hard to speak out for change when you feel like your voice is not being heard. But I do hear it. We hear it. This Democratic Party hears you. We hear you once again.

And we will lift you up with our dream of what’s possible: one America — one America that works for everybody; one America where struggling towns and factories come back to life, because we finally transformed our economy by ending our dependence on oil; one America where the men who work the late shift and the women who get up at dawn to drive a two-hour commute and the young person who closes the store to save for college, they will be honored for that work; one America where no child will go to bed hungry, because we will finally end the moral shame of 37 million people living in poverty; one America where every single man, woman and child in this country has health care; one America with one public school system that works for all of our children; one America that finally brings this war in Iraq to an end and brings our servicemembers home with the hero’s welcome that they have earned and that they deserve.

Today, I am suspending my campaign for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. But I want to say this to everyone: with Elizabeth, with my family, with my friends, with all of you and all of your support, this son of a mill worker is going to be just fine. Our job now is to make certain that America will be fine.

Senator John Edwards calls it quits. [Transcript, Obama response, Clinton response.] As I’ve said a few times now, Edwards has run a quality campaign focusing on the important and neglected issue of poverty’s persistence, and he should be applauded for it. And, if nothing else, he’d make a great attorney general in the next Democratic administration. And, now, there are two

While he left the race on his own terms this morning, my guess is Senator Edwards will endorse Obama sometime in the relatively near future (although perhaps after Super Tuesday.) Even if calling Clinton “the candidate of the status quo” in the New Hampshire debate a few weeks ago didn’t telegraph his preference, I’m guessing Clinton’s anti-Edwards robo-calls in South Carolina probably rankled. (And Edwards campaign manager Joe Trippi is on the record as no friend of Mark Penn.) So, let’s hope he comes out for Senator Obama sometime relatively soon.

That being said, I’m not sold at all on the notion that Edwards supporters will now drift into the Obama camp. True, a sizable amount of Edwards voters are likely anti-Clinton votes. But, I’m guessing an equally sizable number were drawn to Edwards’ “I’m a fighter” message, in which case they might prefer Clinton’s recent pit bull tactics over Obama’s message of unity. And, of course, Edwards’ base was mostly white working-class and rural voters, and — while Obama did well with this demographic in Nevada — thus far said group has leaned toward Clinton. So, it’s an open question.

If nothing else, though, a 2-person race should help to mitigate the Florida-Michigan delegate issue. And it should make tomorrow’s debate that much more interesting…

Kristof: “Experience” is a canard.

“The point is not that experience is pointless but that it needn’t be in politics to be useful. John McCain’s years as a P.O.W. gave him an understanding of torture and a moral authority to discuss it that no amount of Senate hearings ever could have conferred. In the same way, Mr. Obama’s years as an antipoverty organizer give him insights into one of our greatest challenges: how to end cycles of poverty.LIke Tim Noah, the NYT’s Nicholas Kristof argues Clinton’s claims of superior “experience” don’t hold up. “[T]he presidential candidate left standing with the greatest experience by far is Mr. McCain; if Mrs. Clinton believes that’s the criterion for selecting the next president, she might consider backing him.To put it another way, think which politician is most experienced today in the classic sense, and thus — according to the ‘experience’ camp — best qualified to become the next president. That’s Dick Cheney. And I rest my case.

Speaking of Reality Checks…

“‘Gender,’ writes Gloria Steinem on the op-ed page of the Jan. 8 New York Times, ‘is probably the most restricting force in American life.’ That is incorrect. Poverty is the most restricting force in American life. It’s become somewhat unfashionable to point this out, but I don’t see how it could be otherwise.” Slate‘s Tim Noah responds to Gloria Steinem, concluding that “Steinem was willing to torture logic on the Clintons’ behalf a decade ago; she’s willing to do the same today.” (Off-topic and apropos of nothing, did y’all know that Steinem is Christian Bale’s stepmother? Like the Figwit-Conchord connection, I learned this just recently. The world is a pretty small place sometimes.)

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