George is our handyman. As the owners of a 1780 stone house in Virginia, my husband and I have seen George a lot in the past five years. This year, we have seen his already sorry lot in life change for the worse.
It hit a new low last week when Kevin, his new partner, decided to start his own painting and home repair company. He had replaced George’s brother-in-law, Billy, who had quit in November and taken the license plates of the reconditioned ice cream truck that they used to haul their ladders, painting equipment and tools. Petty and pity.
Billy quit at the same time as George’s wife, Amber, decided that she wanted to go it alone, taking their young son Carter. Amber, who is not a well woman, is just about holding onto her low-pay, no-benefits job. And Gayle, George’s unmarried daughter, has just had a baby boy and lost her job, which had some benefits. Last week, Gayle asked her father to pay her rent. Her partner, Jed, who works at a hardware chain store and a chain restaurant, can only pay for food, car fuel, and some of their baby’s bills. So George is now paying child support to his estranged wife, and helping out his grown child.
For now, George is living with a nephew, Mark, who he hopes will work with him. George can’t work alone, because his health is collapsing from a combination of heavy physical work in his present and past job in an auto body repair shop, and from Type 2 diabetes and lung disease. Over the last five years, George has gone from a burly man to barely a man, almost child-sized. Needless to say, he has no health insurance.
I know exactly what Sen. Jim Webb was talking about when he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” that “Black America and Scots-Irish America are like tortured siblings. They both have a long history, and they both missed the boat when it came to all of the larger benefits that a lot of other people were able to receive,” the Virginia Democrat added: “There’s a saying in the Appalachian Mountains that they say to one another and it’s ‘if you’re poor and white, you’re out of sight.’ ”
George typifies these poor, working people–white and black–who fall out with each other but who need each other to survive. A nephew has a room, or couch, you can use for a while; a sister can pick you up and drive you to a job, or pick up a paintbrush, when your van, or partner, is out of sorts; and a high-school buddy can take your wife to the hospital, when she becomes ill at work, pick up your son from school, and watch him until you can get home.
So when the presidential candidates toss off references to the struggle of working-class people, they should see George in their minds’ eye. And when elected, the president should not toss these people into a desk drawer in the Oval Office.