Jane believes strongly in government subsidies to asparagus producers; John is diametrically opposed to asparagus. Jane is worth approximately one hundred times as much as John. Both are politically active. Guess whose voice is heard on Capitol Hill?
This country prides itself on supporting the rights of all to express their opinions. A few lobbies at all levels of political correctness--the National Rifle Association, various environmentalists, tobacco producers, Emily's List, the NAACP--have the assets to jackhammer their ideas into the minds of congressional representatives every day. Yet many groups who most need their voices to be heard now are the least equipped to speak out.
Examine the following cases: the poor of Appalachia, the nation's small farmers and legal immigrants. Each group is on the verge of economic collapse, and as a result needs to be attended to now, not next year. Though the causes of Emily's List and the NAACP are above reproach, they have booming voices. More importantly, they are currently secure, both politically and economically.
Who will come to the aid of the more silent groups? No pro bono organization can afford to speak for so many people of relatively little means. In Appalachia, the handful of elected representatives rarely see their far-flung constituents. The small farmers have a Grange that is a shadow of its former self and several small lobbies that are easily crushed by the huge beef, pork, milk and wheat magnates. Legal immigrants who are not independently wealthy, especially those from Asia and Latin America, have no one but their families to help them face the difficulties of making a fresh start as well as isolated or organized discrimination.
Why have these economically marginal groups been forgotten? As many of the nation's "offical" poor live in rural areas as in cities. Yet, the poor in the cities are more visible to the powerbrokers who also inhabit urban areas. The heavy concentration in smaller areas means that the urban poor can band together with greater ease to express discontent.
In central Tennessee or western West Virginia, no one sees the poverty but the poor. There are no growing industries in these regions--no biotechnology, no computer software developing, no international banking. The economy still relies on the vanishing coal and steel industries. As natural resources evaporate, so do livelihoods. Viewed by outsiders as "white trash", the people of Appalachia are not the most apt to be defended by average concerned citizens. But without a voice, these people can only suffer the indignity of leaving their homes for cities in a simple effort to survive.
Small farmers in the United States are in a seemingly irreversible decline. With each farmer who is bought out or squeezed out, "big farming" grows stronger and is better equipped to trample the next one. Of the three groups discussed here, only this one suffers the disadvantage of such a powerful, direct adversary. The dream of the Homestead Act of 1899 has almost disappeared; keeping up with prices fixed by the massive capital buying power of farming conglomerates has become impossible for the family farm.
Government efforts to help agriculture in general have not been especially effective for small farmers. Because of the credit crunch after the crash of 1987 and the millions of dollars in loans that went bad in the drought of the late eighties, the low interest rates of the past year and a half have not helped farmers as much as urban professionals. The constant battles over GATT and the EEC's agricultural subsidies have been more on behalf of big farming; small producers only feel the benefits of decreased foreign subsidies over several years, when market prices reset themselves.
Legal immigrants are the constant scapegoats of short-sighted, racist, and generally hateful politicians. They are seen as unemployable swallowers of social services--worse than their illegal counterparts who do not rely on such programs. This image is completely fallacious. Legal immigrants are very likely to be self-employed, and often start businesses that employ others and contribute to GDP. They do not consume national social services disproportionately or contribute to the "free-rider" problem in the welfare system.
What many Americans fail to realize is that immigrants contribute to demand and supply. Furthermore, by taking jobs that some Americans find unsavory, they make the economy more efficient. That is not to say that immigrants should be relegated to minimum wage jobs; in many cases, the children of the first generation to enter the nation's public schools enter college and become more successful than their parents. While demagogues quickly point out that immigrants contribute to the demand for resources and social service programs, they never mention the boosts to human capital that immigrants have and can contribute.
Few programs exist to help immigrants adjust to life in the United States. A xenophobic complex last manifested as a "great sucking sound" and the belief that everyone must face the same tough time that our ancestors faced give such aid a low priority. Quotas from the Immigration Act of 1921 and its successors still exist. Why do we fear those who would expand the markets of existing industries and create new ones? Only recent immigrants who have achieved a degree of success appear willing to fight such arcane measures of exclusion.
The overriding problem that faces these three groups is a kind of law of diminishing returns. As they lose money, they lose influence, and then they are helpless to avoid losing more money. If they start with little political and economic capital, they are helpless against those who have more, much more. We need a government agency to lend assistance to those in the most dire need, a sort of public defender in the lobbying arena. If politicians can turn their backs on the power brokers for a little while, they can save these groups before they fade out of existence.
Daniel Altman '96 is a Crimson editor. His column will appear every other Monday.