Friday, December 14, 2012

Welcome to We Represent the 47 Percent.

During the 2012 Presidential Campaign, the nation watched the video tape on Mother Jones of presidential nominee Mitt Romney telling a room of wealthy donors,  

"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing..." and adding that his "job is not to worry about those people..." and that he will "never convince them to take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

That 47% is code for the people in this country who pay no federal income tax, a divisive and dehumanizing term that's popular among Republicans.

Novelist Julianna Baggott and her husband and creative partner David Scott were stunned. Romney's 47% was baffling on many levels, but mainly Baggott and Scott hoped that people didn't simply believe in his divided and inaccurate view of America. They wanted people to know who the 47% REALLY includes -- not the version of us Romney had invented, but the truth.

Julianna wrote an Open Letter to Mitt Romney and posted it to her personal blog. The post got a lot of traffic, including the attention of novelist Jon Jefferson who urged her to think of a way to create a space for more voices to join in.

Baggott and Scott talked it over. That night, she wrote an email to a dozen writers, asking what they thought of starting a quick-response blog dedicated setting the record straight. Did they think it was a good idea? 

Instead of a poll of responses, they got letters to Mitt Romney -- from Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo to 82nd Airborne paratrooper and poet Seth Brady Tucker.

They began posting the open letters. News spread. An intern, Lisa Marie Keene, signed on to help with the inundation of letters, pouring in. 

We Represent the 47 Percent was born almost overnight. It quickly became a diverse collection of Open Letters that opened up a very specific moment in history, an abundance of voices that weave an intimate American portrait. These are letters from people who have been "those people," who have represented the 47% at some point in their lives, or who want to honor someone who has.

The 47% includes many elderly who are on social security -- a system they paid into all their working lives. And so we give you a letter from Robert Wrigley... 

"Among those 47%, my parents: my father, who is 90, with Parkinson's, a decorated WWII Navy veteran and a civilian employee for the Air Force for 27 years; my mother, who is 85, who worked as a Rosie-the-Riveter in the shipyards of Bremerton, Washington. They are not victims. They have every day of their lives taken responsibility for their lives..."
 And a letter from Dinty Moore, honoring his mother and his father, a World War II vet ...

"Once my father returned, he was scarred by the war and suffered those scars in many ways, so he never did manage to finish his degree, but he was always able to hold down a job, as an auto mechanic, and later in a steel foundry, until cancer hit him hard at age 60. He had paid into social security for more than forty years at that point, but only pulled out two years’ worth of benefits before he died."

The 47% includes people who have jobs and pay payroll taxes but because of low income and deductions, pay no federal income tax. And so we give you a letter from Erin Murphy who remembers the hard work of her own mother, sacrificing to make ends meet and raise her children on a school-teacher's salary. 

"I can still picture my mother at the kitchen table, the tower of bills rivaling the stack of student papers waiting to be graded... We more than qualified for free school lunches..." And yet her mother found time for her own children and those of others. "I could write a book about my mother’s devotion to her students..."
 And a letter from Katie Cortese about her Italian heritage and her mother's hard work.

"... what about my mother, who lived in a government-subsidized housing project in Charlestown, sewed her own clothes through high school, and paid for college with a cocktail of government loans, scholarships, and part-time work? " Cortese wrote Mr. Romney, "For my family and yours, temporary government assistance led to success and self-sustainability, not dependency."
Romney's 47% includes the truly poor -- and the children who grew up in those homes and relied on government services -- public school, free lunches -- for survival. We have a poignant letter from Carissa Neff

"Without the structure of public school, a place where I was fed a free hot lunch every weekday (and breakfast, too, for a time), I went hungry a lot of the time school wasn’t in session.  At home I lived on rations of free government cheese, free government peanut butter, and potatoes.  I was a child freeloader.  I’m not being hyperbolic, Mitt.  For years and years, I just took and took.  I had to."

Romney's 47% includes students in colleges and universities, stringing together grants and fellowships, and those just out of school, in their first jobs -- some of whom are raising kids. And we offer a letter from Gayle Brandeis.

"These were lean, challenging years, but they were sweet years, and I am grateful for what they brought out in me and those around me. We knew we were digging deep and creating community, creating a sustainable world for our children, but you would have seen us as freeloaders. As nothing." 

The 47% includes those who find themselves suddenly out of work, as was David Dickerson, who suffered a bad year; we have a letter from Trish Thomas Henley who bravely tells her story, saying, "I am the face of Welfare." And we have a letter from a young mother of three whose life was rocked by the sudden death of her husband.

These letters include the voice of  a recipient of a Purple Heart, the wife of a med student, a special education teacher, a union carpenter... 

We have letters from those who share Mitt Romney's faith, but disagree with his disregard for the 47 percent; and we even have letters by those -- like the one from Erin Belieu -- who confess to their entitlement. 

"And yet I still grew up feeling entitled—to my hopes, to my ambitions for the future. Not just entitled, but—even worse!—I believed I had an inalienable right to my dreams, to pursue the potential for happiness that is one of our country’s most cherished, founding principles."
Our letters also include those advocating for healthcare reform, like the letter from Melissa Wiley who is raising one child who beat leukemia and another with special needs.

And let's not forget that during that same talk in Florida, Mitt Romney made an infamous joke. "I'd have a better shot at winning this ... I mean I say that jokingly, but it would be helpful to be Latino."

We have a letter for that too -- from Chantel Acevedo. 

The 47% -- those Romney claimed it was not his job to worry about -- has included many of us. His 47% has included those we love. His 47% includes those who work hard and who continue to dream hard.

We Represent the 47 Percent sought to humanize a statistic. The site will continue to stand. These are our stories, our lives, our voices. A vision of a divided America is doomed to fail. In the end, we don't represent 47% or 53%. We aren't numbers. We are a nation of individuals, and we are united. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Gabrielle Calvocoressi's Voice

Dear Governor Romney,

Hi from Marfa, TX. My name is Gabrielle Calvocoressi. I'm a poet and an educator. I'm writing this from my desk in Marfa, where I'm lucky enough to be spending six weeks writing because the Lannan Foundation has faith in me and my writing and has made it financially possible for me to be here. I'm very grateful. Very few people get anyone to take care of them this well for any amount of time.

It's been a tough morning, though. For about the first two weeks I really forgot my worries about money and making it all work. I forgot about the thousands of dollars I owe in taxes because I made money on readings and certain kinds of teaching and taxes weren't taken out. And even though I should have been putting that money away, we were so broke, my partner and I, that I couldn't figure out how to pay all the taxes I owed and also eat and keep traveling to give readings and teach so I could get grants like the one I'm on now that will help me write the books that will get me a teaching job that will take taxes out and also help me pay off the taxes I owe and my student loans. If I could figure out how to pay those bills then I could start thinking about how to get affordable health care.

I guess what I want to say is I'm one of the people you were talking about. I feel really embarrassed and ashamed that I can't pay all of my debts. I also feel scared most of the time. I do this thing where I add numbers to calm myself: how much will I make this year, how much could I make if I worked more, if I added a few more students I could pay off my debt in ______ many years. And the thing is I know that I am incredibly privileged. I have a great friends, I am by any stretch of the imagination very successful in my field, I have been with the same woman for 17 years (this October!!), I think that if I lost everything, I would still have family who would take me in. I think it would take a lot for me to be homeless, though I think the likelihood of being homeless is actually greater for me than it was a decade ago due to the decline of the financial health of my entire family.

I grew up in a very financially comfortable family. I went to an elite prep school. A lot of that good fortune came from not living with my mother, who was mentally ill. I lived with my grandparents and then with my father, all of whom were very well off. My mother came from an upper middle-class family too but by the time I remember her she was not doing so well. And by the time she took her life when I was thirteen, she didn't have much. I remember being really scared and upset that she didn't have any of her own teeth. She must have been about 37 when she had most of them removed. Anyway, it really terrified me. That could happen to someone. After she died, I kept getting her disability payments and those helped put me through school. I imagine she didn't pay taxes. She couldn't work or really take care of herself very well. She's also one of the people you were talking about, I think. Sick people who don't have access to decent mental health services that might help them lead rewarding and productive lives. I'm sure you've probably had people like that in your family. I mean, everyone has, I think. I feel like I never did enough to help her.

Anyway, I just wanted to say that I've been thinking about David Brookes saying you are a nice man who is making terrible decisions and pretending to be something he's not. One time when my mom came to pick me up from Catholic school, I pretended I didn't know her. I was so scared the other kids would see her in her broken-down brown car and her funny way of talking (now I think it was probably from the medication) and they'd think I was just like her. Among the things I've done in my life that I can't seem to forget, that ranks really high. I doubt you and I have much in common in terms of our beliefs, but if David Brookes is right and you're saying things like this when you don't even believe them then I really wish you'd stop. It makes people feel terrible. It makes me feel terrible to think I might have a president who hates me so much. And I bet it makes soldiers and their partners feel terrible. And all the people who are trying to make lives for themselves in this world. And aren't you supposed to love the least among us?

Okay, I'm going to try and write now. Does a poetry fellowship seem stupid to you? Sometimes I feel dumb complaining. Like I chose to be an artist and aren't artists supposed to be broke? But I don't think anyone is supposed to be broke. I was raised to believe that you made a life by working hard at what you love and giving back to your community in all of the ways you can. I'm doing my best at both of those things. I'm the 47%

Looking forward,

Gabrielle Calvocoressi

Gabrielle Calvocoressi is the author of The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart and Apocalyptic Swing, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. She has been the recipient of fellowships and residencies from The Stegner Program at Stanford University, The Rona Jaffe Foundation, Civitella di Ranieri and The Lannan Foundation, among others. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Washington Post, Garrison Keillor's Poet's Almanac, The Boston Review and Gulf Coast. She is the Poetry Editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books. She's owes over $6000 in taxes that she is desperately trying to pay off. She has $38,000 in student loan debt. 
She cannot afford health insurance at this time.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Cathy Coone-McCrary's Voice

Dear Governor Romney,

I didn’t have my father’s stocks to sell in order to pay for college. But I still paid my own way, working as a waitress, among other jobs, in addition to being awarded numerous scholarships. In less than four years, I graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and was accepted into a straight-PhD-track program in English at the University of Georgia. While there, I won a teaching award, mentored new teaching assistants, and passed my oral exams with distinction. By age 29, I had earned my PhD.

Surely by now you have concluded that I cannot possibly be one of the 47%, that I could not possibly be a victim who takes no responsibility for her life. Well, people are not percentages, and the truth is always infinitely more complicated. 

At age 13, I considered suicide for the first time. When I was sixteen, I looked very seriously at a bottle of Drano and considered drinking it—a death, I recently learned, that would have been excruciating. In college and graduate school and then throughout my thirties and into my forties, I continued seeing suicide as the ultimate escape route: an ejection from a burning ship into outermost darkness. I do not exaggerate when I say that over the past 32 years of my life I have considered suicide thousands—yes, thousands—of times. 

Have you ever considered suicide, Governor Romney? If so, then you know all too well what suicidal depression feels like, its fingernails-being-ripped-out-of-their beds agony. But if you don’t know what it’s like, Governor Romney, please allow me to explain. It begins like an avalanche, without warning. You’ll wake up one day terrified of the world, galled by its white bright light and its sound of emptiness. You’ll lose twenty pounds, the weight will just fall off you, and you won’t be able to find where it went, or why, except that food will be tasteless and you just won’t care. You’ll hear death in the next room shuffling his papers and you’ll wonder when he’ll come in the bathroom for you; you’ll think it’s all your fault, if you would just try hard enough, if you would just stop being a victim and, for God’s sake, take some responsibility, stop being one of “those” people, buck up, stop being so damned lazy when the rest of the world has it way worse. 

Eventually you’ll go from wanting to die to thinking about how to. You will weigh the advantages and disadvantages of how to kill yourself, because you will not want to come back, you will not want to fail. Somewhere in the darkness you will wonder how you will look when you're found in your bath tub, and whether your face will be so swollen and disfigured that the one who finds you will not be able to recognize you, but at the moment you ask that question, you will have concluded that those you leave behind will be better off without you, that your death will destroy those you love but that they will move on and live happily ever after with another. A state like that is not exactly conducive to paying one’s federal income taxes, Governor Romney.

For the last fifteen years I have been in treatment. For the first ten of those fifteen years, I was not diagnosed correctly; it wasn’t until 2008 that I learned I have Bipolar II, a mood disorder characterized mostly by depression, but also by other mood irregularities called hypomanias and mixed states. To this day I am still working on finding the right cocktail of medications (yes, a full fifteen years after starting treatment), all the while dutifully going to therapy, week after week, trying to clean my head out, trying to let the light in. I wish I could have been treated overnight in an ER, Governor Romney, but Bipolar II just isn’t that easy to fix.

And yet I’m one of the lucky ones: my husband has always had health insurance, and he is a very good man. Even so, my thirties, when I first started getting treatment, were the lost years, in which I could never feel safe, could never know for sure if I was going to stay alive or not, whether there was anywhere in the world for me. Still I managed to continue pursuing my passion for writing, while working at a series of low-paying jobs (for which, you may suspect, I paid little in the way of federal income taxes). I so desperately wanted to do something, wanted to make some kind of contribution—and yet I still continued to struggle with the constant water boarding of depression, the old demon of suicide. My biggest fear? That my husband would die or leave me and I would end up homeless, forever condemned, forgotten, a victim, lazy, irresponsible, for whom the solution was to just get a job and pay my federal income taxes. And my plan, such as it was? I decided I would somehow get to Hawaii and survive on the beaches there. I knew that at least I wouldn’t freeze to death there.

But this isn’t a story that ends in despair. It is a story that rises. It is a story that rises because I have refused to give up, Governor Romney—I have always said that I will take down this disease before it takes me down, and I have always felt that there was a reason for my existence in this world. What is that reason, you may ask? Well, it’s pretty basic: to help others. My job in life is to educate the public about serious mental illness, so I tell my story to anyone who will listen and I teach others like me how to tell their own stories. Yes, it isn’t the kind of work that will ever, very likely, allow me to build elevators for my numerous cars, not the kind of work for which I will pay much in the way of federal income taxes, but at least I know what it is to see people as people, not numbers, and to elevate them.

Cathy Coone-McCrary

Cathy Coone-McCrary earned a PhD in English from the University of Georgia in 1997; her dissertation, a collection of poetry, is entitled Counting Down Our Small Time. She has been published in national magazines, including The Greensboro Review and The Southern Poetry Review. Since 2007, she has worked with the National Alliance on Mental Illness as a speaker in NAMI’s program In Our Own Voice. NAMI was started in 1979, with the mission of providing education, support, research, and advocacy to individuals with serious mental illnesses and their family members. NAMI’s website is, where there is a listing of state affiliates as well. The hotline number there is 1-800- 950-NAMI (6264).

Melissa Wiley's Voice

Dear Mitt Romney,

A few months before her second birthday, my oldest daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. One minute, a Saturday afternoon in March, she was climbing on the chairs in a hospital waiting room, and the next minute she was being rushed into an exam room, quarantined for her own safety--her immune system shot, her platelets dangerously low, the situation so grave that if she'd bumped her head, she could have suffered intracranial bleeding. My husband and I were in our twenties, married three years. Kate had enjoyed a glowingly healthy infancy, and when the bruises blossomed all over her arms and legs, leading to a nightmarish day of testing and waiting and somber-faced doctors using words like "pluripotent stem cells" and "complete blood exchange," we could hardly believe it was real. Cancer.

It could have been worse. Scott had a good job at DC Comics in New York City, a job with a modest salary but (as a subsidiary of Time Warner) excellent medical benefits. It can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to wipe cancer out of a toddler's bloodstream. During the next nine months, Kate's (and therefore my) longest consecutive stay at home was ten days. The leukemia was quite advanced at diagnosis; she was deemed 'high risk' and put on a high-dose chemotherapy protocol, the kind that, if it doesn't kill you, gives you a good fighting chance of permanent remission. There were times it seemed it really might kill her. Her Broviac catheter went septic and had to be replaced in a rush surgery. Once, a bacterial infection ate away at a sore on her back. Before the doctors finally figured out what it was, they told us they thought it was a fungal infection and there might be similar lesions all over her internal organs. That was a bad day. Again: we got lucky. The bacteria was vanquished by I.V. antibiotics. She still has a crater-shaped scar there--"the divot," we call it.

Can you imagine it?--Scott, in his Manhattan office, editing comic books while his heart was in a hospital at the far edge of Queens. He'd take the subway home to our apartment in Queens, then drive out to the hospital to see us, bringing dinner, fresh laundry, sitting with Kate while I dashed to the Ronald McDonald House for a shower. Then he'd make the long, lonely drive back, late at night, up early for the next morning's subway commute to work. After he left, I'd sit by Kate's hospital bed, her I.V. beeping, and work. I wrote my first historical novel in that series of hospital rooms. My publishers loaned me a laptop.

(A writer friend of mine, herself a cancer survivor, once pointed out that I talk an awful lot about hair in that novel--my main character, a young girl, is always running around with her hair streaming in the wind--all those scenes written during the months when my little girl was bald. I didn't realize.)

Kate survived. Her hair grew back. She's seventeen now and a marvel. We feel lucky every day, just looking at her. After the worst of her chemo was over and she'd moved to the low-dose, outpatient, maintenance phase, Scott left his job at DC Comics to stay home and write fulltime. By then both of us were doing well as freelancers, writing children's books and comics. We had just had our second baby, another little girl, and after all those days Scott had spent apart from us, he wanted to be with his family as much as possible. Cancer does that to you. Kate's divot isn't the only scar. But that one's a good scar--a deep gratitude, a joy in being with your family, an awareness that every day you spend together is a gift.

Of course, leaving the job meant our healthcare costs went way up. We were on COBRA for a few months, but it was crushingly expensive. We shifted to an individual, direct-pay plan: also very expensive, especially factoring in the higher copays, lab fees, and prescription prices. In late 2001, when Kate was cleared to travel, we moved to Virginia where the cost of living was considerably lower. But the interstate move resulted in Kate being dropped from our family medical plan; we had to take out a separate policy for her: an extra $600 a month. Being self-employed is expensive. No employer to kick in for healthcare, dental, vision, or even to pay part of your FICA.

That was part of what staggered me about your 47% remarks, Mr. Romney--how unaware you seemed of the reality of the self-employed, the low-income earners, the struggling middle class--and how contemptuous. That and the complete lack of logic. You took two separate circles in a Venn diagram--in one circle, people likely to vote for President Obama; in another circle, people who because of low income and the Bush-era child tax credits, do not owe federal income taxes--and conflated them as if they consist of identical sets of people. Surely you realize that they're different circles, only partly overlapping. In the "didn't owe income taxes" circle, the 47% of the American public you characterized as people you'll never "convince they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives," are retirees, students, disabled people, and low-income earners. Hardworking, honorable people--a lot of whom happen to be Republican, by the way. Most adults occupy that circle at some point in their lives--during college, for example, or after retirement. And of course, the "Obama voters" circle contains large numbers of people who do pay federal income taxes--in fact, many of those folks pay a higher percentage of their income than you do, yourself. The careless way you conflated those circles was astonishing.

(Not to mention the way you turned "people don't OWE federal income tax" into "people don't PAY federal income tax." As you yourself have stated, "I don't pay more [in taxes] than are legally due and frankly if I had paid more than are legally due I don't think I'd be qualified to become president. I'd think people would want me to follow the law and pay only what the tax code requires." Should that 47% you deplore pay more than they legally owe?)

In 2003, our fourth child was born, our first son. Barely an hour after his birth, he was rushed away from me to a different hospital for emergency NICU treatment--born with a coil of intestine in his umbilical cord. No one was expecting it; I'd had a perfectly normal pregnancy. I left the maternity hospital six hours after delivery to be with him in the NICU. He had his first surgery at two days old; others followed. Every day that first week, something new was diagnosed--with more diagnoses to follow in the next few years. He is hard of hearing, cognitively disabled, developmentally delayed. He began receiving physical and occupational therapy at four months of age; for a while the doctors told us it was possible he would never walk. Scott and I worked with him for hours a day--especially Scott, working Stevie's hands, his arms, his legs; doing the massage and stretching exercises the therapists taught us. Steven runs around now with a somewhat awkward gait--but he runs. He's been in hearing aids since before his first birthday. We've spent more hours than I can count in speech therapy, PT, OT, hospital labs, specialists' exam rooms.

Gov. Romney, you've vowed that if you are elected President, you'll repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act. In the first debate, you said "preexisting conditions are covered under my plan." But that's not entirely true. What you're referring to is a law that already exists--HIPAA, which says that if you lose your coverage you can continue to purchase it, as long as there's no break in coverage longer than 63 days. It might be expensive, but you can't be denied for preexisting conditions. But what if you didn't have any coverage to begin with? Or what if you can't afford the expensive premiums?

Look, I get it. Preexisting conditions mean risk. Insurance companies are in business to make money. Without provisions to ensure coverage for people with preexisting conditions, people like Kate and Steven are going to find it difficult to buy health insurance as adults, plain and simple. There was a heartbreaking number of children on that cancer ward at Schneider Children's Hospital in 1997. Some of them died--children we knew, children we lived with for months, children we loved. Most of the patients we knew, thanks to excellent and timely medical treatment, survived both the disease and the toxic drugs that destroy it. All of those kids, those survivors who fought so hard and endured so much pain, now have "preexisting conditions." Some of them are adults now. Because of the Affordable Care Act, they can stay on their parents' insurance through age 26. After they age out, if they can't find jobs that provide medical benefits, will you dismiss them as people you "don't have to worry about," shirkers who don't "take personal responsibility and care for their lives"?

Or what about those who want to become, say, a writer or an artist or an inventor or who have the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that leads someone to take a chance and start a new business---all life plans that don't come with employer-provided health insurance. Are they irresponsible too?

Melissa Wiley 

Melissa Wiley is the author of more than a dozen books for kids and teens, including The Prairie Thief, Inch and Roly Make a Wish, Fox and Crow Are Not Friends, and two series of novels about the ancestors of Laura Ingalls Wilder. She lives in San Diego with her husband, Scott Peterson, and their six children, whose antics are the inspiration for their webcomic, Into the Thicklebit, illustrated by Chris Gugliotti. Melissa is a contributing writer at's GeekMom and blogs about her family's love affair with books at Here in the Bonny Glen.

Tara Masih's Voice

Dear Mitt Romney,

As a young girl with a bicultural heritage, I grew up between three worlds: the world of my wealthy maternal grandparents in New Jersey, the world of my paternal grandparents who lived in a small village in Northern India, and the world of my middle-income parents in a community near New York City. I was comfortable in all places: at the country club, at the bazaar, and at the town’s harbor park.
I learned that there are many ways to live. And they all have honor. And even though my parents sometimes struggled to make ends meet, the ends were always met.

But when I reached adulthood, life took me to a place where I didn’t think I would ever go—to the divorce court. And I had a three-year-old and no one to help out. I think people with privilege like to think that they can control all—their lives, their income, their families, their environment, their fellow beings—but they can’t. And life can take anyone to unexpected places in a second—into a hospital, into debt, into bankruptcy. Or just hovering above the poverty line, as I was, part of the dire national statistics for single women heading the household. I made juuuust enough to not qualify for government programs, but too little to pay government and state taxes. And I was grateful the government protected me and my son in that way.

But even though I was not paying those taxes, I was paying the state sales tax every time I bought something. I contributed to other people paying taxes, as I worked for companies that did, enabling them to make their bottom line. So you see, Mr. Romney, the 47% is still contributing to the economy and helping to keep others afloat (like yourself) so that they can pay their taxes. And believe me, we are more than happy to get to a place where we are making enough to contribute on our own. I don’t know anyone who says I’ll work for less so I can owe less. Owing less, for the lower-income class, means you have less. Everyone wants more.

I once spoke to a woman living on the streets. She had no job, begged for money, but was adamant that she still helped the economy every time she went into McDonald’s to buy her cup of coffee. She felt a sense of pride when she went into the store with her hard-earned cash (yes, what some have to do for spare change can be harder than what some do for millions in investments). She felt like she was contributing something. She wanted to contribute something. 

We can’t get away from taxes, even on the streets.

Thanks for listening to this story, just one of millions.

Tara L. Masih

Tara L. Masih is editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (a ForeWord Book of the Year), The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays (a Skipping Stones Honor Book), and author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows (a National Best Books Award finalist). She has published fiction, poetry, and essays in numerous anthologies and literary magazines (including Confrontation, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Natural Bridge, The Pedestal, Night Train, and The Caribbean Writer), and several limited edition illustrated chapbooks featuring her flash fiction have been published by The Feral Press. Awards for her work include first place in The Ledge Magazine’s fiction contest and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Web nominations.

Monday, October 8, 2012

From We Represent the 47 Percent.

Last Monday, I had a seven-hour train ride. For most of it, a nun was seated across the aisle. Probably in her eighties, she wore an all-white habit and was blind. She carried a heavy yellow cassette recorder on her lap, but still people walked up to her and told her their life stories.

In front of me for the first two hours, there was a man trying to start a wealth management company. He talked of one hundred million dollars of investments. He placed call after call on his cell phone. 

It just dawned on me -- what with this site being on my mind -- that all the Catholic clergy are part of the 47 percent. Anyone who's taken a vow of poverty has to be, by definition. I was seated between the extremes of the 47 percent and the 53 percent.

And I thought a minute about those words: A vow of poverty. And, for the first time in my life, I thought of them in light of Mitt Romney's private comments to wealthy donors and suddenly I saw how -- in this money-driven culture -- those words could seem unAmerican.

I've written before about how nuns have played a huge role in the survival of my mother's family. Here's one that I think of now. When my mother was in college, her father got very sick and could no longer pay her tuition. She was going to have to drop out. Except there was a nun -- Sister Rita Estelle -- who'd been raised in extreme wealth in Texas. Although she'd given it all up and taken a vow of poverty, she managed to get someone in her family to pay for my mother's education. Tough and smart, Sister Rita Estelle rarely spoke of God. Like the nun I sat across from on the train, people talked to her everywhere she went. "They think they know me," she told my mother.

I went to Catholic schools from 6th grade through college. Some of my most influential teachers were those who'd taken vows of poverty. At my middle school, I remember the nuns driving tractors in their full habits, black veils flipping in the wind.

In the religion that helped shape me, the people who are the most revered, who are the most faithful, who have dedicated themselves to Christ have taken vows of poverty. Although their food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare are covered by the Church, they don't make enough to trigger those federal income tax payments and therefore they are part of Mitt Romney's 47 percent -- those who he defines seeing themselves as victims; the people I was taught to most admire, he called "those people."

This realization was a relief. Not only was I taught that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven, not only was I taught to revere people like Mother Theresa who lived in service of the poor -- I was taught these things by those who had rejected not only wealth, but who had rejected even being middle class.

Now, I am painfully aware of the hypocrisies of the Catholic Church. I was with my mother when she made it to Rome -- only to be anguished by the incredible displays of wealth. I have written about how difficult it has been to leave the Catholic Church, for many tragic reasons, but I've also written that Catholicism has formed me as a writer, as a human being -- irrevocably -- and I'm thankful for it.

And I also know that it doesn't take a Catholic upbringing to find Mitt Romney's private comments about nearly half our nation deeply chilling and disturbing. His comments shook many of us -- from all walks of faith, including those of his own faith, as well as atheists -- indelibly, to our cores. 

Perhaps it was even worse when, after Mitt Romney's conversation with wealthy donors was released, he stood by his comments and therefore his depiction of the 47 percent as those who he "could never convince to take personal responsibility for their lives". When he came out on Fox News nearly three weeks later to reverse his comments, it felt like it was far too little and far too late. He also didn't say that his depiction of nearly half of the country was wrong. He did nothing to counter this horribly divided view of our nation.

I have had the honor of reading the stories collected here, this gathering of voices. I have had the privilege to read about the lives of "those people" -- 47 percenters who've worked three and four jobs to make ends meet, who served their country in times of war, who've lost the person they love and rely on, who've lost their jobs, who've paid into the system and now live on Social Security.

I've read about those who were new to this country and poured love into their children, those who were the first in their families to graduate from college, even high school. I've read about those who grew up in poverty and, with help, have become teachers, writers, parents themselves. I've read letters by those who have sacrificed financially to go back to school, to go into a lower-paying job where one serves others, to have one partner at home with the kids even though other options would raise their annual income -- letters from those who've made deep personal sacrifices.

I've read letters from a Purple Heart recipient, a paratrooper, and Pulitzer prize winners. I've read and read and read.

I love these voices. I admire these Americans. They remind me that money isn't what makes an American. These voices humanize a statistic, one voice at a time, proving that we aren't statistics at all. We are human beings, each with our own story. 

The American Dream is far more diverse, far more interesting, far more complex than the accumulation of wealth -- and sometimes it's far more gritty, determined, and inspiring; sometimes it's soulful and full of grace. Sometimes it's not a dream just for America, but the world -- and, for some, it's about this world and the next. 

For now, we have decided to let this collection of voices stand. We may add more occasionally and the site may take shape in new ways in the future. But, for now, We Represent the 47 Percent.

-- Julianna Baggott

Julianna Baggott along with her husband, David G.W. Scott started We Represent the 47 Percent. Baggott is the author of 18 books, under her own name and two pen names. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and on NPR's Talk of the Nation, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. 

Chris Cutler's Voice

Governor Romney, I rarely pay attention to campaign commercials. Frankly, I have better things to do that listen to politicians toss vitriolic comments at their opponents and promise things they’ll never attempt.  But I’ve been listening a lot lately. I could not avoid hearing your surreptitiously recorded comments about 47% of the citizens of this country. Your insensitive and rash judgement both incensed and insulted me.

Technically, I am not one of the 47%.  My husband and I live a comfortable life. We always had good jobs and have not wanted for much. We raised one son, paid the college expenses his scholarship did not cover. We also were lucky enough to help my mother, dead now seven years, because she was one of the 47%. All of her life. So were her parents, immigrants who helped make this country what it is today.

Let me tell you about them, Governor. My grandparents left a tiny village in Italy in search of a better life in America, the land of opportunity. Life was not much better once they arrived in this foreign-of foreign places.  They didn’t speak the language.  They had little money.  They lived in cramped quarters, working 12-15 hour days while dealing with the prejudices and abuses of their bosses and neighbors. They put up with the indignities, though, because they had dreams, desires and drive to better their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren.

They settled in Youngstown, Ohio, because the steel mills provided more opportunity for immigrants.  Like all foreign laborers, my grandfather worked 12-hour shifts in inhumane conditions to earn barely enough money to feed and house his growing family.  My grandmother built a large, stone oven in her garden and baked bread that she would sell to neighbors to supplement what money she culled from Grandpa’s pay.

“You grandpa work hard-a for nothin’,’” my grandmother often told me.  “No money.  I sell bread to feed-a da kids.”  Eight kids.  My grandparents raised them in a two-bedroom house with no indoor plumbing. They received no help from anyone other than each other, but they made sure the kids went to school, graduated and got good jobs.

My mother, Mary, was the youngest of five girls. She wanted to be a nurse, Governor, but the family couldn’t afford the tuition.  Mom got a job as a secretary and put herself through business school. After she married my father, she became a full-time mom.

Our life was not easy. My father, a milkman who had dreamed of being a doctor, suffered a disabling heart attack when my brother and I were still in grade school. Because my parents were frugal, we were able to survive on their savings and Social Security payments.  You know about Social Security, don’t you?  It’s that so-called entitlement program that my parents paid into for years.

I’ll let you in on a secret, Governor.  Our parents always told my brother and me that we weren’t really poor, that there were others worse off than we. I resented that because I didn’t have what my friends had.  I couldn’t buy new records or clothes or shoes like my friends did.  I wore my cousin’s hand-me-downs or clothes that Mom sewed. I was embarrassed.  Now, though, I realize they were teaching us to appreciate what we could do with the little we had.  They taught us that the most important things in life were determination, education, independence and responsibility. Responsibility. To ourselves and to others. As poor as we were, we still donated what we could – clothes, food from our garden, a few pennies – to those who were suffering more than we were. 

I’m not going to bore you with everything, Governor, but let me tell you one last thing about my mother’s life. She survived my father by 36 years. And for those 36 years, she lived in fear because her “notch baby” Social Security payments barely paid for her medications and monthly bills. My brother and I and our spouses helped her so she could remain in her house.  I can’t imagine much it embarrassed my mother to accept money from her children.  She was a proud woman, though, and she refused to file for food stamps or other governmental aid because others needed it more.

My mother, though, continued to help others.  She still bled for those who hurt more than she. Two weeks before she died, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The day before my mother passed, she sent a $10 check to a Hurricane Katrina fund set up by her church.

I’m glad my mother was not alive to hear your comments about the 47%, Governor.  I’m glad my grandparents and millions of other immigrants who built this country are not alive to hear your comments, Governor.  They did a lot more than pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  They gave blood and sweat and life to these United States and took little but what they deserved. They were not freeloaders.

Because of their great sacrifices, I slipped over the line, Governor.  According to your reasoning, I’m one of the 53%.  I’m well-educated, Governor. I work hard.  I pay taxes. I take my job as a voter very seriously. I research issues. I listen to all sides before I make a decision.  I think for myself.

And I’m voting for Barack Obama. 

He is one of us, Governor.  He grew up like most of us did.  He understands that those of us who have much have a responsibility to others.  He knows that by giving children hot meals, medical attention, a good education and exposure to the arts, we are teaching them that they can better themselves and the lives of others around them.  He understands that compassion goes a lot farther than contempt.

He understands that our country is a blend of many nationalities, races, religions, beliefs. He also knows that everyone in this country needs to work together to pull ourselves out of the mess he inherited.  He recognizes the fact that we are individuals,  that we each should have the right to decide what we do with our own bodies. He’s not perfect, Governor, but he gives us hope that maybe we can survive and become a great country again.

He gets it, Governor.  He understands.  I don’t think you do or ever will.

And that, Governor, is why I’m voting for Barack Obama.

Christine Cutler

Chris Cutler is the founder and executive director of The Las Vegas Memoir Project.  A writer, she received her MFA in creative writing from Murray State University.  Chris is on the editorial board of and writes for BLVDS magazine and teaches memoir and business writing through the Division of Educational Outreach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  Several journals have published her work, and she’s currently writing a memoir about her Italian grandmother’s journey to America.