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Culture Change

Toward a Constitutional Amendment

The right to be poor 
— and to thrive

by Jan Lundberg

Governments and the very rich demand that people be content with having jobs, to generate the wealth.  To them it matters little what those jobs are, nor if there are enough well-paying jobs.  There is supposedly no alternative to almost everyone having a job, and this becomes more true as each generation is further disassociated from making a living directly from nature.  Yet, if we stop and think about it, one should be able to enjoy the basic rights to subsist decently and not be persecuted for not being a moneyed consumer. 

This essay delves into the meaning of being poor and what it means to question poverty and being consigned to what the dominant society treats as an inferior class deserving of very little.  A U.S. Constitutional Amendment is proposed, along with methods of obtaining it.  Yet, reformism only goes so far in a culture divorced from nature and that operates on the logic of the market.  Society once provided security for all members by means of honoring spiritual reality.  This may be our inevitable destination as part of a grand circle over many generations, such that the poor will indeed inherit the Earth.

Subtopics covered:
What is “poor”
The personal cost of being “poor”
Labor realities
Issues of religion, drugs, sex and jobs are political

Revolt of the poor – for what aims?  Cheap gas?
The Indians were poor but had everything
What poor people want and need

The above are considered in the context of the world’s diminishing finite resources including petroleum.

What is “poor”

A smoldering issue is the mind-boggling wealth amassed by the super rich, who so far aren’t expected to share their billions of dollars.  In such an economy, the poor are being incredibly kind and docile as they battle malnutrition, a disproportionate rate of cancer and exposure to lead.  The poor are forced to forego decent education amidst “gold plated” sectors of society, the top two being the military and the road-building industries.

The idea of a neighborhood or community creating its own food supply, child-care, elder-care, education, etc. is increasingly unheard of.  As people give up their independence and rights, the labor market is in effect filled by whores who do what they would not naturally do, but do so for money to buy essentials and frivolities.  Essentials should be freely available, but this is less and less possible for a huge population in a ravaged ecosystem that has been ruthlessly privatized.  The commons have all but disappeared, and the corporate media and the mainstream historians do not to call attention to this.

In extremely divided societies it is practically a crime to be poor, as the poor have always known.  One pays in many ways for not having been born rich or for not landing a well-paying job.  The costs include inadequate security, abuse from one’s “betters,” discrimination on almost every level of human interaction, and an earlier death. 

Yet, the poor have a purpose for the rich, of course.  Cheap workers and fodder for war are from the “lower classes.”  But there can be no wealth for the few without impoverishment for others, and expansion down through history has often meant soldiers and killing.

Much of the wealth in today's world, for more rich people than ever seen before, is from petroleum and its many uses throughout the economy.  The fact that petroleum is rapidly losing its abundance and low cost means the rich will be more or less wiped out, but that subject has been covered in previous Culture Change Letters. 

As an excuse for the ruling class to maintain its privilege and stranglehold on material wealth, social programs purport to “do something” for the poor.  There is the “safety net” and “the welfare state,” but unlike Scandinavia, Canada and Cuba, the U.S. does not deliver real security such as minimally adequate housing, health care, education, etc.  The U.S. has general relief, unemployment and disability payouts, and some pensions.  But the levels are seldom enough to live well, so, one has to usually keep working or rely on wealth (one’s own or family). 

Welfare programs are rarely necessary when the poor have their own land.  But nowadays in one of the most disparate countries in the world, the U.S., land ownership by the poor is not a feature.  More and more of the land and the money is possessed by a tinier fraction of the population.  A relatively poor person may own a home, but enough land for a productive food garden is something else again.

As a substitute for land and real security, the individual needs simply – as we are constantly told by the mass media and our “leaders” – cash, jobs and petroleum.  However, these are fleeting and just serve to isolate us sociologically and ecologically. 

The many can be said to own their own homes in the U.S., but having a mortgage is not the same as ownership.  And having to forever pay property taxes and utilities such as water – a basic right – means that “owning one’s own home” is not a sure thing.  Fewer homes these days are passed along to the next generation, for a number of reasons: the elderly abandon or are removed from their homes, palmed off to nursing homes to die; modern cheaply made homes fall apart, and the younger generations think more in terms of getting the money from selling the house than nurturing a sense of place.  Gardens are not appreciated as they once were; canning was common by the generation that brought up those who fought in the second World War.  The wartime Victory Gardens may have been the last gasp of the traditional family existence connected to the land.  After the war the nation’s domestic priorities were for suburban sprawl, Interstate Highways, commuting, and agribusiness farms and supermarkets (instead of local, mom and pop farms and grocery stores) – although one could say those atrocities were “for jobs.” 

The personal cost of being “poor” 

Being poor carries a stigma, but a different one depending on the society.  “Good peasant stock” may characterize the poor in most countries, and these poor may be disrespected, abused and unlikely to bring about changes for themselves.  In the U.S. being poor means something different, although they are also disrespected, abused, and apathetic or set in their ways.  But a poor person in the U.S. is feared as an automatic potential criminal, and lacks the family benefit of social cohesion of more traditional societies. 

“I don’t consume much, I don’t pollute much, I don’t pay taxes to fund war, I don’t exploit other people…” – a poor person in the U.S. can say that, but be reviled even by his or her “loved ones” for not pounding away at a meaningless job for dollars to pay for essentials that should be available as rights and not for purchase.  A self-respecting, liberated person should be able to say “I’m proud to be poor and I deserve to live well even if I’m not a cog in the machine!”  A reasonable but unrealistic sentiment, you might say.  How is one to succeed with such an attitude – through reading radical essays and hanging out in coffee houses where one can’t afford the coffee? 

One should be able to feel good without money.  But instead, modern society’s effect on the individual without money is at best an oppressive and foreboding sense of coldness all around.  If over 99% of our species’ time on the planet so far has been spent without needing money and without the modern concept of work, what good is today’s system except to herd and exploit the huge population?  If the system doesn’t work, it should be chucked.


We are only limited by our inability to unite and make demands.  Bosses and landlords are actually… unnecessary!  Like Barcelona before and during the Spanish Civil War, periods do come along when wrongs are righted.  They are accompanied by turmoil and some heroic figures, such as the French of 1968 who almost turned the country upside down toward equality and liberation.  For this generation in the U.S., my guess for the necessary historic conditions will be the sudden absence of abundant, affordable petroleum, triggering economic collapse, riots and die-off due to society’s dependence on petroleum for growing and distributing food.

There are more paradoxes to the disadvantages of the poor: in inner cities, the cost of food is higher at the corner markets.  And when people go to McDonalds or other fast-food corporate outlets – no matter what one’s income – a meal is not cheap if one really wants to satisfy one’s hunger.  Burger buns with plenty of air and low-nutrient iceberg lettuce don’t fill the belly and stick to the ribs very well.  When buying anything, there is an advantage to buying in large quantity: a cheaper price, the more one buys.  While there’s a logic to economies of scale, it does encourage waste and enables exploitation of the market by those inclined to manipulate goods and prices.  Just because a system is logical does not mean it should be retained.  If all members of society are not served, no one is served in the long run.

Such downsides of capitalism and any society based on money and materialism prompted this writer to devote an essay to the question, “Is the market the enemy?” (Culture Change Letter #16).  Now we can explore a radical reform no matter if we’re considering a vicious market economy or one with a modicum of real social security.  The Right to Be Poor and Thrive goes beyond the reformist, utopian “living wage” concept.  After all, what if one cannot find work, or is unable or unwilling?  Must we all fit into a presumed category or two, such as office worker or manual laborer?  What if we have an artistic calling, or feel we must protect ancient trees being felled by shortsighted citizens and cutthroat corporations protected by corrupt government agencies? 

Therefore, the right to be poor needs to be articulated, proposed and defended.  Being “poor” must also come to mean being able to thrive and pursue happiness without impediment – an inalienable right recognized by the U.S. Constitution.  This gets us into defining what it is to be poor.  If not having a dishwashing machine or other appliances, but instead one shares them or does daily tasks by hand instead of with electricity, that can be called poverty by an economist, but it’s wrong.  There are many people “below the poverty line” of $12,000 a year, but they may be doing quite well if they are growing their own food and doing some bartering.  The U.S. tax code says some must still pay taxes for income even if they are under the poverty line.  Meanwhile, corporations pay less and less tax, such that they now pay a mere fraction of what they paid in the 1970s.  According to the New York Times (April 13, 2004), "Almost two-thirds of America's corporations paid no federal income taxes during the late 1990's."

One can decide to be poor nowadays in the U.S.A. and pay dearly, no matter if “society” gives lip service to fighting poverty or not.  And one can be seen as electing to be poor and remaining that way, much to the delight of those who don’t want to share and who think it’s only possible to “do well” if there are those suffering underneath them.  The “right to be poor” does not mean “to hell with the poor, let them eat cake.”  

Labor realities

There is much to be said for not being entitled to eat if one does not work.  But things aren’t that simple.  It’s not like we are equals on some small fertile island where we must all work to maintain our strength to survive.  Instead, we are caught in an overpopulated world that has entrenched, ruling elites governing almost every useful bit of land. 

The poor are in effect the intended surplus laborers, keeping wages down by the availability of ever more (poor) people, many of whom are immigrants willing to work for any job at a dirt wage.  Poor people would love meaningful work to do if there just were some such work.  What’s offered instead is mostly “shit jobs” at minimum wage serving at retail outlets, often selling the public products that it does not need nor should want. 

Unionization is an approach, but has for various reasons been failing the working population steadily over the decades.  Some of the reasons are capitalist cleverness, stinginess and violence, corrupt unions and pro-big-business legislators, and none of those factors are the fault of the rank-and-file worker.  However, the worker could be a bit more militant, seek a little more education on the labor movement, and exercise some solidarity with other workers in and out of his or her industry. 

A real alternative to a “shit job” for many is the military.  It is indeed a place for the poor, but what a price to pay, even if one escapes with one’s life.  The idiocy and harshness of the mandatory anthrax vaccine for today’s U.S. occupiers of Iraq is a case in point.  

Issues of religion, drugs, sex and jobs are political 

We’re really talking about human rights here: the successful workers and even the idle rich have their options closed off too, in an overcrowded rat cage.  Of course, it’s preferable to “live so pleasantly, live this life of luxury” as the Kinks sang in their song Sunny Afternoon.  But many who can well afford to do so are complainers who seek “meaning” and sometimes decide to live more simply, or embrace spiritualism.

Religion has been called the opiate of the people, but religion has lost its hold on most of the U.S. masses.  Increasingly in its place have been actual opiates and other drugs – as well as distractions such as TV and sex – that for the most part keep the poor quiet.  But why, then, is there a Drug War on one of the least harmful drugs known: marijuana?  It has killed no one that can be documented.  The lucrative war on drugs and the powerful prison industry aside, here’s an explanation commonly held to in northern California where marijuana is an industry:  ingesting marijuana weakens the work ethic.  When one is high on pot the idea of routinized, pointless work to serve others is apparently absurd, when so many other pleasant possibilities present themselves.  That’s a substantive reason for marijuana’s suppression by the government and employers.  If people start getting their own separate ideas, economic growth and global trade could suffer.  And then too many folks might avoid military service and prefer instead to stay in their own community.  None of these considerations mean that the marijuana trade is a desirable part of our economy, or that the drug makes bad people any better.  Industrial hemp, however, is a useful plant and can (self-) employ people.

The Demopublican/Republicrat rulers have no provision for or intention of granting full rights to the poor.  Over two centuries of this government’s victimizing poor and minority peoples tells us that the rich look out for themselves and keep the poor quiet with just enough crumbs to hold off revolution.  In the 1930s the reforms made by the U.S. to create social security were largely in response to the rising communist and socialist movements among the workers.  By now, people have been so dumbed down by toxic food, fluoridated water, radiation, nonstop propaganda and no end of legal and illegal drugs that wages and healthcare benefits are allowed to steadily diminish.  The standard of living is deteriorating especially when we take into account the state of the ecological environment and the reduction of freedoms.  Those losses are not replaced by cash and sex, no matter how much is offered by the corporate press and other spammers.

The bogus purpose of society is to provide jobs, but not so long ago society’s purpose used to be to provide security for all by means of honoring spiritual reality.  Since the dominant culture began its ruthless expansion about 10,000 years ago, the security provided has been mainly to the rich property-owning class.  Today, people are brainwashed into thinking a “good job” is the point of one’s life.  Such folk would be stupefied by the anarchist poster “Employment is a Crime Against Humanity.”  Yet, when you ask a worker if it wouldn’t be better to obtain directly the essentials one needs – instead of the dollars to buy them – there is often little resistance.  Real security is the ability to engage in give-and-take with others and with nature at large.  It is possible to do this even in the present global economy, albeit as a free, poor person.

The masses working for others, being wage-slaves, and failing to thrive, are represented as an acceptable state of affairs by the employed class.  One hears reference to “the dream job,” when the best dream is no job as long as one is able to thrive.  Thriving means not just providing for oneself but for one’s family and giving to the community.

Overheard in Humboldt County by a back-to-the-lander who has been a traveling gypsy and activist:  "“Idiots work for stranger-bosses.   Those who work for others and obtain only the freedom to shop are schmucks without character.  The only person worse is a capitalist.”  His friend added, “People work so they can have a pleasant nest and attract a mate.  But why would I want a woman who wants an idiot – a guy who works?”

Revolt of the poor – for what aims?  Cheap gas?

The right of being poor, like freedom in general, is not something to have granted to us; it must be fought for, taken, and defended.  Besides being challenged by bad health, lack of decent employment, lack of leisure time to think, learn and act in concert, the population is deliberately distracted by the corporate media and government.  For example, when a newspaper or television promotes certain news at the expense of other news, there is a reason.  The owning class holds onto what it has, and it never encourages the rabble to get agitated about real issues of a fundamental nature.  For example, cars are held to be necessities that are beautiful and fun.  No end of advertising dwells on cars, while editorial space and investigative journalism are nonexistent on the destruction wrought by roads and cars.  Journalism and editorializing for the sake of distraction is pursued at all times, and the government is in on it: a war or a terrorist attack will sure as hell keep the workers and the unemployed confused and in line, until the next war or manufactured panic.  Rather than calling attention to a pattern that would expose culpability for political corruption and state violence, corporate news editors, writers and producers instead posture themselves as concerned, for example, about cheap enough consumer products that the poor want.

Cheap gasoline is treated as a permanent necessity, and perceived as some kind of a right no matter what the destructive consequences, no matter what the alternatives are for energy and transportation.  It’s frustrating to see otherwise caring politicians such as Edward Kennedy and John Kerry clamoring for cheaper oil products by criticizing Republican in the White House for continuing to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.  The SPR’s filling does put upward pressure on oil prices.  But that is good, as is conserving oil and having a large reserve of it for the sake of the food supply.  Another misguided reaction to “high” oil prices is consumer boycotts of an oil company or of gasoline on a certain “gas out” day.  These never seem to graduate to a “boycott driving” day.  The poor waste as much on cars as the upper middle class, often times, and are – like the rich – mostly impervious to arguments in favor of voluntary car-free living.

The Indians were poor but had everything

The U.S. ignores its past, supposedly trying to move beyond the nation’s foundation of genocide and slavery.  But the good is ignored as well, when we consider native Americans’ rich diversity and survival in harmony with nature.  The American Indians had no money for the most part, and instead had skills, family and nature’s abundance to see them through.  The Indians respected natural cycles and one’s humble place in the universe.  Over the millennia the Indians honored practices such as fasting as one of their ways to feel at one with the Earth, the elements and the fellow creatures that the tribes depended on.  Animals’ lives that the Indians had to take, in order for the people to survive and thrive, were honored in each kill so as to ensure continuity of the animals.  As for material security, Europeans were impressed that the Indians had communal storehouses for corn in the event someone’s crop failed or a neighboring village needed food.  In Europe and Asia, the purpose of stockpiling grain was tribute for oppressive rulers.  The American Indians generally had councils and elders serving as chiefs with the constant consent of the tribal population.

What poor people want and need

Besides knowing (as few people do) how much we’ve all lost under a society based on exploitation, the daily struggle against adversity and greed makes plenty of people want a revolution.  But they don’t have the guts; things aren’t quite bad enough for them now.

Rights of the poor:

(None or the above should be of substandard or unsafe quality.)
           A clean environment locally and globally
           Time to do what one decides to do
           Movement unrestricted except upon personal space of others
      Constitutional rights
Participation in media    
Education, to one’s choosing

On this note, whether we agree on the right to be poor and to thrive, or whether the aforementioned specific rights belong in a fantasy – given the unfair distribution of wealth and the fact that “free trade” “agreements” are enforced through the barrel of the gun – we can fall back on John Lennon’s immortal words from his song Imagine:

            You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one

In the U.S., how about a new Amendment to the Constitution: The Right to Be Poor and to Thrive.  Such an Amendment would be meaningless unless the poors' rights are obtainable and guaranteed by legislation and major funding.  That would be the peaceful, less disruptive way as opposed to civil disobedience that often elicits a bloody response from the authorities.  If the Congress, as de facto servant of the rich, will not enact the Amendment and provide the wherewithal for the poor to enjoy land and other rights, then Congress and the rich would be admitting that the nation is based on inequality and injustice.  Because the poor must gain their rights over the resistance of Congress and the rich, the fight will not be at the ballot box but via civil disobedience and other forms of massive protest.  To paraphrase Philip Berrigan, unless people are getting arrested for what they believe in, a movement isn’t a movement.

Some day the word "poor" may change its meaning after fundamental socioeconomic changes occur that are already in the works.  In many a primitive language, words and concepts such as “work” and “free” do not exist.  The cultures of such languages must therefore be rich in what “poor” people need. 


 March 30, 2004

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Jan Lundberg's columns are protected by copyright; however, non-commercial use of the material is permitted as long as full attribution is given with a link to this website, and he is informed of the re-publishing:


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