Inside Report: Not just phones, but community in American life

This isn’t just about cellphones, Clark says. It’s about the nature of American society.

The $2 billion program for low-income Americans is under attack as “Obamaphones,” although it has been around since Ronald Reagan’s day.

From that point, drawing from the writings of George Packer (“The Unwinding”) and from his own experience growing up in Arkansas, Clark treated editors of The Advocate to an indignant riff on the decline of community in American life.

The cellphone service has been demonized as some welfare program funded by the government, and Clark said that was about as legitimate an argument as where Obama was born. Words like “community” and “social mobility” came up again and again as Clark inveighed against “structures designed to create a two-tier society.”

“This is not something that private industry does not like,” he said of the cellphone services for the poor — including some 36,000 Louisiana veterans, many of them disabled.

As for the poor, with about 365,000 Louisianians total using the Lifeline service, he said maybe those people will become customers once they get work and their finances improve.

“It’s good for business and it’s good for the country,” Clark said.

And speaking of Ronald Reagan, Clark says, it’s nonsense that Reagan today would be against a program that helps people find jobs or communicate with their families.

“He came up from nothing,” Clark said. “He did not want to pull up the ladder that other people could use to better themselves as he did.”

Clark, a Democrat, decried what he calls a war to roll back the New Deal: “We have lost the sense of community in the business of America. What’s holding this country together? At least with a program like this we can keep people connected.”

In 1949, Clark’s widowed mother got a job and a home loan from a Little Rock bank owned by a local family. Over the years, Clark saw his account change hands as banks were bought and merged. It was emblematic of a gradual loss of community spirit, as local institutions that supported local causes and charities gave way to absentee owners and branch managers judged by short-term financial results.

“I’ve seen this in my own lifetime,” he said. “It took away the local community leadership that used to run these banks.”

There is a contraction of the leadership devoted to the long-term interests of the community, he said. “You can feel it in a city like Little Rock.”

The general said the U.S. Army in which he spent most of his life was one where “we were in this together.” There were differences in rank and housing, but not the great differences decried in Packer’s accounts of a society stratified and enfeebled by distinctions of wealth. Nor the kind of Latin American disease of social division of the haves and have-nots, as Clark saw there during his Army career.

In the U.S. Army, he said, “no one ever went bankrupt because their child was in an automobile accident.”

For Clark, that is a reasonable aspiration for American society as a whole.

Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is lkeller@theadvocate.com.