As a student at Skidmore, I have never felt particularly connected to the community, other than frequenting my favorite bars, restaurants, and movie theater. Thus, in attending a conversation on wealth inequality in Saratoga at Caffe Lena, that bridge was finally gapped, even if it only lasted an hour and a half. Although I only caught the final lines, the conversation was preceded by a poetry reading by one of the three panelists for the talk, a young black woman who worked with Soul Fire Farm, a farm organization dedicated to addressing systemic racism in agriculture and food access. Her words certainly set the tone for the conversation; handling the burden of suffering for oneself and those around them, whilst also pursuing a lasting solution. That sentiment is somewhat emblematic of broader America, with various groups dealing with financial and societal hardships, regardless of background. The issue lies on finding solutions to these problems, which is the main point of contention amongst an increasingly polarized American society. This conversation sought to bridge that gap in some ways, by bringing together the community to discuss the current problems the community faces, and how to address them.
The first of the three panelists was the executive director at the Fiscal Policy Institute in Albany, an organization dedicated to analyzing the financial policies of the New York state government. His presentation consisted of numerous facts about wage, poverty, income distribution, and other statistics in order to paint a picture, in numbers, of the financial burden which many New York residents face. These statistics confirmed what most in the room suspected, that the wealthy are still enormously wealthy, and the poor are still alarmingly poor. The other panelists, the aforementioned poet and a woman who worked with underprivileged community members as part of a state-funded social program, gave brief descriptions of their work before the floor was opened to questions.
Based on the questions asked, the room seemed to be of a similar political mindset, however the topic of polarization was pervasive throughout. It was quickly realized that the statistics and experiences shared by the panelists did not discriminate based on political affiliation, and that the entirety of New York state, both those in blue districts and those in red, where suffering the same financial burdens. Therein lies the goal of the gathering. The magic answer to solving these problems was not going to be found in that room; what could be discovered, however, was that the societal polarization that had pervaded American society was fabricated, and that the experiences of most Americans was quite similar.
The general consensus amongst the attendees was that the most immediate fix was to restructure the tax code, and by doing so taxing the rich more, and the poor less. In response, the executive director from the FPI responded that the government in Albany has struggled to pass such a measure due to a large presence of mainly Republican representatives who refuse to raise taxes. He elaborated that this stems from an ideological conservatism. I asked the panel then, is that due to allegiance to their voter base, misinformation, or obligations to campaign financiers. The response was that they had been elected based on socially conservative views in the voter base, and that they were not elected based on fiscal policy.
If the goal of the gathering was to overcome polarization to foster genuine discussion about wealth disparity, this aspect of New York politics is a barrier to that. The story is reminiscent of the “deep story” in Hochschild’s Strangers in their own Lands. The social conservatism which elects the representatives who continuously fight tax reform is reinforced by itself by extending the financial burden that lower income citizens struggle with. Because their financial burden goes unsolved, the “deep story” of abandonment, failure, and estrangement continues. It emphases their existing feeling of being a stranger in their own land. The community gathering in Saratoga attempts to overcoming that recurring feeling by unifying community members through their shared experiences.
Whether or not it was successful in its attempt is unquantifiable, but it perhaps offers an insight into attacking polarization nationwide. Local events such as this one carry an incredible amount of weight. The ability to share stories and experiences in community gatherings creates a personal effect which cannot be created by social media posts, online forums, or national news pieces. Therefore, a web of local community events such as this one can cooperatively erode polarization by localizing national issues and debates. By taking these dilemmas out of the abstract, the differences between opposing sides becomes much narrower, and ultimately the problem is easier to solve. Hopefully this event was able to facilitate that in Saratoga Springs, and that community bonds are strengthened as a result. The next step is to remain vigilant in the dedication to community-building and problem solving, so that eventually our differences can be converted from weaknesses into strengths.
photo courtesy of hunterwalk.com