Most people outside of the Portland area don’t know about my friend and role model, Genny Nelson. Her passing leaves a really big hole in my list of living models of Inclusivity and Societal Transformation.
Genny was someone who understood the complexities of poverty, beyond the surface issues pushed by the Right and the Left. Real transformation isn’t just supporting one side or the other. It isn’t even trying to blend or harmonize those sides. True transformation means searching for another way.
Genny and I would have some powerful conversations together… whether over coffee/tea, or Chinese food (or, more recently, in her living room, a week before our Covid lockdown). During one of our marathon conversations, we talked about how “Sisters of the Road” was an institution among people facing homelessness – and how she did not WANT it to be so. “Nowadays, the children and grandchildren of the people who first came to ‘Sisters’ are coming to us. What will it take to END POVERTY?”
At that point, I asked a provocative, speculative question, “What would happen if poor people were given the means of production? Not a better wage, not a minimum wage, not a “living” wage. What would happen if they actually owned a piece of each business?”
The lights went on for both of us, at the same time. We said to each other, almost in unison: “They would stop being poor, INSTANTLY!!” We went on to spin out some powerful scenarios:
— Think about the workers at Amazon, or Google, or Facebook… Not just the executives and the programmers, but the stockers and the janitors and the cafeteria workers. EVERYONE. What if, along with their regular paycheck, they also got a share of stock in the company? After 10 years, the janitor could afford to retire permanently! And, would then pass on a job for someone else to work for ten years or so…
This would cost Google/Amazon/Facebook virtually NOTHING. The stock valuation of the company remains the same. Jeff Bezos would have a net worth about $175 billion, instead of his current $196 billion. Since no human being can spend that much money anyway, he’s out of nothing!
— Think about my mother, stuck in the “welfare” system with her 3 children, being doled out inadequate amounts of money every month, forced to decide whether to feed us OR keep a roof over our heads… OR… do something illegal to earn a little more money (like work scrubbing floors or taking care of someone else’s sick child). A system that forces immoral choices. What if the government had stopped dribbling out inadequate amounts of money, stretched over 20 years, with nothing to show for it at the end?
What if the government had made her a LOAN, up front, of $10-15,000? Enough to go to school, or start a business, or buy a used car to get to work. (My mother would have bought a sewing machine and started a tailoring shop, one of her life dreams that never materialized.)
— What if farm workers earned their wages picking the fruits and vegetables, AND a share of profits in the enterprise? After all: they are the ones that make the enterprise profitable! And, what if they had more than just a share of the profits? What if they actually had a VOICE in how the farm was operated? (Wow. That sounds an awful lot like… DEMOCRACY!)
What would it take to do this? Actually, not much. Just some clarity, vision and willpower. Unfortunately, the three things most missing in our early 21 st Century society.
As with all of Commonway’s analyses, we start with the question: Who does NOT want to ‘end poverty’?
The list will surprise you:
— Everyone who believes that they benefit from the continuation of the status quo.
— Everyone who believes the negative assumptions about poverty. That people in poverty are:
- Alcoholic and drug addicted
- Mentally ill
- Profit from poverty
— Everyone who makes money from MANAGING the system.
— Everyone who gets to keep the wealth generated by an immoral system.