Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Jon Jefferson's Voice

Dear Mr. Romney –

You did not, in fact, build that. You inherited that.

The middle class and the working poor built it, while you and Ann were enjoying mouthfuls of silver spoon in Bloomfield Hills. Bloomfield Hills: One of the five richest towns in America, where the median family income is $200,000, and where half the houses are worth a million dollars or more.

I was lucky: I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I didn’t grow up with a boot on my back, either, the way so many of the less-lucky do in America.

I was lucky: I grew up in the socioeconomic bracket whose tax rates are higher than yours – the middle class you simultaneously court and condescend to. My dad never finished college, but he was smart and industrious. He worked in grain elevators, buying soybeans from farmers, selling soybean meal and soybean oil on the commodities market. My mom worked hard, too – cooking for six every night, sewing clothes for the family, doing clerical work every fall when the trucks lined up to deliver the soybeans and the farmers came to collect their checks.

I was lucky: The work ethic came entwined in my DNA. At 12 I was mowing yards; at 16 I was lifeguarding; at 18 I was shoveling soybeans at the grain elevator. Because my dad was “management,” I drew the dirtiest jobs; my nose and lungs oozed sludge that was black with soybean dust. Other laborers told me, “You work too damn hard,” but I couldn’t fathom not working hard, and I was grateful for the job.

I was lucky: I won scholarships that put me through a college and a graduate university my family could not afford. Other Americans opened their hearts and their pockets to create opportunities for kids with potential but not much money. People I never met, people who had no obligation to me, invested in my future.

People like that invested in my children’s futures, too, in the form of taxpayer-supported Pell grants and student loans, just as I now invest in other kids’ futures. Thanks to student loans and grants, my son has a bachelor’s degree, and my daughter is about to earn her Ph.D. They’ve both got good heads.

They’ve also got good hearts. Case in point: One Saturday when my son was 11, I took him with me to work on a Habitat for Humanity house in a mountain community two counties away. The new homeowners – the family buying the house – worked alongside us. The day was gray and bone-chilling; even with the car’s heater running full blast, I shivered the whole way home. That night, just before he fell asleep, my son murmured, “Daddy, when can we do it again?” His kindness moved me to tears and to action, and we started a Habitat chapter in our own county. Today the sleepy seed he planted has borne much fruit: half a hundred new or renovated homes for low-income East Tennessee families. Poor, but working poor. Forty-seven-percenters. Lazy, entitled “victims”? Not the proud, grateful folks I saw hoisting trusses and driving nails.

They didn’t inherit those houses, Mr. Romney. They built them, and we built them: forty-seven percenters, every one of us, at one time or another, in one way or another. Million-dollar mansions? Not by a long shot. But those houses, and the people who aspired and acquired and created? They’re every bit as worthy and respect-able as you and yours. By God and by gospel they are.

And when I look for a presidential candidate who’s earned the right to lead, I find one in a black man who overcame every obstacle that the pedigreed and privileged and prejudiced could put in his way. A man who is astonishingly successful and powerful, but who does not demean those who aren’t. A man who still values, still worries about, and still beckons to those who might yet – given a decent chance and a helping hand – follow his footsteps, dare to dream, and inspire us all to be bigger and better, not smaller and stingier.

A hard-working, thanks-giving, tax-paying 47-percenter,

Jon Jefferson

Jon Jefferson lives in Tallahassee, Florida. He is the author, in collaboration with forensic anthropologist Bill Bass, of two nonfiction books and seven crime novels, six of them New York Times bestsellers. www.JeffersonBass.com