In 1976, Cambridge was a reasonable city in which to be poor. I arrived knowing no one but the two high school friends with whom I’d fled our native New Jersey. I had $500 in my pocket, and the dream of becoming a writer. Within forty-eight hours, we’d found housing. The next day I landed a job which easily allowed me to cover my share of the $212 rent for a three-bedroom apartment in what has become one of the city’s most coveted (and expensive) neighborhoods. Even as a Full Professor, I could never afford to buy a house there now.
Back then, Cambridge was a town with more bookstores than bars. It was a haven of funky eateries, like Nick’s Beef and Beer where, for $2.75, you could get a double cheeseburger with fries. Today, of course, there seem to be more banks than bookstores and bars combined. Anyone hoping to set themselves up as we did forty years ago needs ten times my grub stake. They also need to be prepared to hold two full-time minimum wage jobs to make their monthly nut.
Watching my students at UMass Boston scramble for a perch in a city once known as the Athens of America, I confess I’m horrified. When the Massachusetts State Supreme Court rejected the so-called millionaire’s tax, which might have provided as much as a billion dollars in support to our embattled public educational institutions, on a technicality, I was stunned. Stories about statewide hunger among college students appear regularly in the Boston Globe, alongside stories of luxury housing developments flying up around the city, owned by LLCs and who knows who? Meanwhile, compensation packages for CEOs on Wall Street in 2017 averaged $422,000.
Many of us understand perfectly why a once-obscure senator from Vermont almost overnight became one of the country’s leading political forces. In my own family there are children of coal miners and factory workers. I have friends on disability and cousins who were in their fifties when they were laid off during the second Great Depression of 2008, and who’ve never regained their slippery footing on the bottom rungs of the great American ladder. I know from them, as well as from friends and students, how rough life feels when you’re clinging to the margins. Doctors’ visits are neglected, tick bites go untreated, roofs continue to leak, and kids go to bed hungry. An era of nearly “full employment” finds my students working two or even three jobs—none of which offer benefits. Occasionally, some even find themselves homeless.
I remember what it felt like to walk into the Evergood Supermarket in Cambridge and see my own bounced checks pinned above the cash register. Before credit scores and algorithms began defining our lives, local merchants took a personal interest in their customers. We were neighbors, after all. The supermarket owners always gave me a chance to make good on my debt—and I always did. How do you think Whole Foods might react if you did something like that today?
Walking through Cambridge one morning in the spring of 2019, I hardly recognize the place. This is no longer a city in which to be poor. While numerous empty storefronts with “For Lease” signs can be found on every block of Harvard Square, these buildings haven’t been shuttered for the same reasons you’d find places boarded up in Dayton or Detroit. These days, Cambridge boasts more banks than bookstores and bars combined. Some of the banks now double as coffee-shops. The stores and restaurants that have closed were simply insufficiently luxurious for the new breed of Cantabridgian. Bio and other tech companies, nurtured by local institutions, have altered the face of the city. The once desolate former industrial neighborhood around Kendall Square now gleams with glittering metallic mausoleums of the human. Massachusetts, this most liberal of U.S. states, boasts one of the greatest income gaps in the country. While the public transportation hub at Alewife resembles the shambles of Manhattan’s Port Authority in the seventies, around it have risen new luxury condominiums and office parks. At the heart of this transformation sits Harvard University, whose most recent addition to the law school campus, the Wasserstein Center, looks like it was inspired by the works of Albert Speer.
Finding a remedy for the current, outrageous levels of inequality doesn’t require a degree in rocket science, only a tempering of the viral greed gripping our financial elites. First, raise taxes. Do it with a smile. Then make sure the minimum wage is a living one: anyone working forty hours a week should be able to earn enough to cover food and shelter in the vicinity of their place of employment. Fund all public schools equally. Make higher education free for those who want it and are qualified to pursue it. These are simple, common-sense solutions. And everyone knows it.