Two worlds in one city

September 16, 2008

Gary Lapon reports on the tough realities for working people in a city that Joe Biden just visited.

DEMOCRATIC VICE presidential candidate Joe Biden held a fundraiser at the Log Cabin in Holyoke, Mass., September 10, raising $300,000 with a $500-per-seat reception, followed by a $2,300-per-plate dinner.

Meanwhile, across this small city of about 40,000 people, 300 new families sought food assistance this summer from Margaret's Pantry, emptying its shelves.

Biden's visit with the well-to-do served to highlight the scale of the social crisis in Holyoke, one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts.

According to the Boston Globe, "one in five public school students [in Holoyoke] is homeless, living in a shelter or foster care, doubled up with another family, or in transitional housing...the U.S. Census Bureau reported last month that the proportion of school-age children living in poverty in Holyoke increased from 33 percent in 2000 to nearly 40 percent in 2005."

Gender and race play a major role in poverty, and the impact is stark in Holyoke. According to the Census Bureau, in 2000, 22.6 percent of families in Holyoke lived below the poverty line. The percentage rose to 48 percent for families with a female head of household and 71 percent of families with a female head of household and a child under five.

Joe Biden paid a visit to Holyoke, one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts
Joe Biden paid a visit to Holyoke, one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts

Holyoke is over 40 percent Latino, and per capita income for Latinos in Holyoke in 2000 was $7,757, just 40 percent of the per capita income for white residents. Around 60 percent of residents qualify for food stamps, which average about $1 per person, per meal.

"ONCE KNOWN as 'The Paper Making Capital of the World,' Holyoke has a rich industrial history," reads a report profiling Holyoke from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "But the city has suffered from what many small cities in New England have experienced: a decline in manufacturing, population loss, and a shift toward a new economy based on services."

A Wistariahurst Museum essay called "Holyoke's Industries" sheds some light on what is meant by a "rich industrial history."

It's a history rich in suffering. Irish immigrants died digging canals in the city in the mid-19th century. Immigrant workers, including children, arrived in Holyoke starting in the mid- to late-19th century to work 90-hour weeks in the paper mills and textile factories for low wages. Today, rates of poverty, injection drug use and HIV are among the highest in the state.

It's a history rich in struggle. From the unemployed immigrants who marched on City Hall in 1876 demanding work and crying out that "We didn't come to this country to starve"; to Anna Sullivan, who led an organizing drive for the Amalgamated Textile Workers Union during the 1930s, winning the first 40-hour week at the Skinner Silk Mill, Holyoke workers have a strong working-class tradition.

It's also literally a history of the rich. Just minutes from the old industrial downtown are the old mansions of families like the Skinners, which amassed their fortunes on the backs of workers.

Like so many cities and towns where exploited workers created the wealth that made the U.S. ruling class into the wealthiest in the history of humanity, Holyoke workers have been tossed aside like pieces of trash, left to fight for the occasional scrap as the once-bustling city crumbles around them.

Enter Joe Biden, champion of the credit card companies that prey on the poor in cities like Holyoke to tap the local elite and add to the nearly $400 million that Barack Obama has raised so far in his bid for the White House.

Biden dined with wealthy supporters to the tune of $2,300 per plate, raising a total of $300,000 in an evening in Holyoke. $2,500: that's over two years of food stamps for the average recipient. $300,000: that's almost $2,350 per family with children in a homeless shelter in Holyoke, more than enough for first and last months' rent and a security deposit in an apartment around here.

With heating oil prices in Massachusetts expected to increase by at least 50 percent this winter, combined with skyrocketing prices for essentials like food, health care and education, Holyoke residents and others in New England and across the country will face tough choices this winter on questions like eating enough or staying warm.

Biden wasn't available to answer questions about what he and Obama plan to do to prevent what is shaping up to be a disastrous winter for the poor of Holyoke, whose lives are already hanging by a thread.

As reported by a local ABC station, Biden spent eight seconds walking from his car to the Log Cabin banquet hall in Holyoke, past a crowd of supporters who couldn't afford to attend. Biden made a beeline for the big money, neglecting to even wave to the crowd assembled outside as he fixed his hair to look good for the local elite.

Barack Obama and Joe Biden seek to appeal to the bitterness and anger among working-class people while assuring wealthy donors that they will be responsible managers that answer to the ruling class--a feat that requires them to talk out of both sides of their mouths.

So Obama brags about being against the war in Iraq before it started, but voted for war funding, won't commit to a full withdrawal and intends to escalate the war in Afghanistan.

Biden talks about understanding the plight of workers, but legislates to make it more difficult for them to get out of crushing debt. And he walks past his low-income supporters without a word, in one of the economically hardest-hit cities in the country.

Thanks Joe, we got the message loud and clear: If we want our voices to be heard, we have to join together so they are loud and united enough that they can't be ignored.

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