Carole Owens: To get by, Jay USA pushes the edge

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STOCKBRIDGE — Jay USA is an aficionado of Goodwill and garage sales; that's how he affords household goods and clothing. But how did he afford his house? ("The plight of Jay USA," Carole Owens, Eagle oped, April 1.) Jay rents and lives there with five (sometimes six) unrelated adults; he knows the names of those who stay the longest, but many are short term. From the exterior of the house, it appears Jay lives a middle-class lifestyle. Inside, he "sublets" three of the four bedrooms. He has to. He also had to convert the back porch into two additional, illegal bedrooms using plywood and folding screens. With five rooms rented, he can afford to live in the sixth, and that is the only way he can afford it. He even nets a few bucks.

Who, you might wonder, is willing to rent a bedroom and shared bath in the company of strangers and call it home? Dozens of people; when a room becomes available, a line forms. Perhaps this is not how the average American lives, but it is how too many in America live.

Entertainment is a challenge. Jay loves Disney but cannot afford the $133/day entrance fee. A Florida resident gets a three-day pass for a fraction of that cost. He knows how anyone might appear to be Florida resident. If he falsified a license or passport, that would be a serious crime. Disney, however, accepts a gas or electric bill, as proof of residency. Falsify that and you are figuratively and literally in, and no one cares, not even Disney. All the entertainment he enjoys is a variation on that theme. He stands at a gate for as long as it takes to buy tickets at a cut rate or to "score" them for free.

What about the 25% taxes John Madison paid? Jay doesn't pay taxes. He doesn't even file a tax return. There is a category in the tax code that allows non-filing legally if net income is less than a set amount. Jay's income is above that amount, but he collects the five rents under the table, and with dodgy deductions, the income above the table appears low enough.

Do not mistake the man for dumb or lazy, as poor is a condition but not of character. He affects the middle-class life style he craves. He has a nice car — not too old. He leases it; another form of credit. Does he see the poverty trap from which he will never emerge? Maybe not; or maybe he does.

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If poor all his life, he learned the power of being poor. Our legal system only calculates in dollars and cents, not morals and ethics. Jay has no money, owns nothing, and therefore is lawsuit-proof. Furthermore, no one cares about the many corners cut; the law has no time for petty crime. Oddly, the poor can also be snobs, deeming those with assets people who worry too much and have fewer coping skills.

John Madison colored inside the lines and demanded the same of his fellows and his elected officials. Jay USA thinks of himself as honest. Sure, Jay lives close to the line and steps over when need arises or necessity dictates. He justifies his actions as a function of his poverty.

Jay sees himself as a man coping with conditions forced upon him; a survivor, making it work. He is more accepting of the peccadillos and perfidies, the corruption of his friends and elected officials than John Madison was, but then Jay USA lives in a world where salaries have hardly risen and the cost of everything else has. He still wants the American Dream and he does what he must to get a piece of it.

Does the economy have to be as "democratic" as the government? Yes. One supports and nourishes the other. Without equality, one pulls at the other. Flatten the Bell Curve, squash the middle class and democracy wobbles.

This is the second in a series of columns on the economy by Carole Owens.


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