Buy Photo

Patsy Ouellette

"With five simple words in the Declaration of Independence -- 'All men are created equal' -- Thomas Jefferson undid Aristotle's ancient formula, which had governed human affairs until 1776: 'From the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule.'" And with those words, Henry Wiencek, writing in the October 2012 issue of Smithsonian, starkly described civilization's centuries-old quandary involving social order. So the question at hand now is, have we made any progress?

If we believe all men are created equal, why do we live as though some were marked for subjection? The Associated Press tells part of the story in an article published in The Californian on Sept. 21 titled "Bakersfield-Delano ranked 4th most impoverished region in U.S." One in four south valley residents, the AP reports, lives below the poverty line, though our "agricultural productivity is soaring." One might understandably believe that this is because some people are just downright lazy. But let's look at the facts. As noted in the August 2012 issue of Progressive Dairyman, "a dairy worker works 10 hours a day, 6 days a week (a common scenario among California dairies), at $8 an hour." That's $480 for a 60-hour week. Yes, you read that right. (California exempts overtime pay laws for agricultural workers.)

Of the valley's deeply ingrained poverty problem, the AP article actually had the temerity to say, "The most important barrier is the valley's lack of economic diversity." As though changing our standing by changing the ratio of high-to-low-wage jobs is the real issue.

Would that change the economic situation of even one ag worker? I can't help but think of the Lowell "factory girls" in 1910, working 14-hour days on the banks of the Merrimack River in Massachusetts. They could hardly breathe in the smothering humidity of the torpid summer heat because the windows were nailed shut so the damp air would prevent the fibrous threads from breaking on the crazily spinning looms, the lint floating lazily in the air. The doors were also locked to keep the girls from leaving their posts. I can hear it now: "Don't worry, girls, we've decided to address the public relations problem the city is having. We're raising the pay of all the able-bodied men."

There is one answer, and one answer only. People are increasingly against taxation to support the social safety net. The real goal is to eliminate the need for a safety net. The marketplace is the best way to help the poor. Pay a living wage, and they aren't poor anymore.

Oh, Patsy, there you go, spouting those old-fashioned Christian ethics: "We are our brother's keeper"; "He who cares for the least of these cares for me," that silly anti-capitalistic, anti-Ayn Rand dribble. When "Atlas Shrugged," he was telling us, "That's the way the world works, baby -- get over it." Well, maybe we shouldn't get over it. Maybe on the world atlas, in the country called the USA, there's still an American dream where everyone has a chance to do better.

As Caroline Farrell, executive director of the Delano-based Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment, recently told The Associated Press: "There's a class and racial divide here and we need to decide how we are going to change that."

Senate Bill 1121, requiring overtime pay for agriculture workers, was passed in 2010 by the Legislature but was, unfortunately, vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, as the AP reports (and published in The Californian on Sept. 26), "Fresno County's agricultural output has set a new record. ... A 15 percent increase from the previous year." It is time to try again.

Maybe then, Thomas Jefferson and I can stand with Maya Angelou as she soulfully cries,

"The tales they tell, sound just like lying. They grow the fruit, But eat the rind."

And we can finally hear those words as a mournful anthem to the past, and let the present march forward with heads held high, knowing that, indeed, "All men are created equal."

Patsy Ouellette of Bakersfield is an eighth-grade English teacher at Norris Middle School. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.