Editor’s note: the following is an opinion piece by George Salamon
“The power of facing unpleasant facts is clearly an attribute of decent, sane grown-ups as compared to the immature, the silly, the nutty, or the doctrinaire.” Paul Fussell about George Orwell’s “power to face unpleasant facts.”
Orwell would have been proud of the way The New York Times exercised its own power to face unpleasant facts about what has happened to our country’s middle class and poor. The numbers have been known for some time now: between 1979 and 2007 the income gap between the top 1 percent and the rest of Americans more than tripled, as median family and household incomes fell while that of the top 1 percent rose by 31 percent.
But those are numbers. By now the effects of what those numbers don’t reveal are felt in the bones and marrow of those suffering from the effects. And in four articles between April 21 and May 10, all on page 1, the Times painted vivid portraits of hardship and hopelessness now rampant from the dirt poor in West Virginia to the once comfortable middle class in California.
The first piece, “50 Years Later, Hardship Hits Back. Poorest Counties Are Still Losing in War on Want,” (April 21) describes life in McDowell County, West Virginia, the poorest county in the state, “emblematic of entrenched American poverty for more than half a century.” After President John F. Kennedy visited this county, he established the federal food stamp program with his first executive order. And it was the squalor in this county and in others in Appalachia that President Lyndon B. Johnson had in mind for the battleground of his “war on poverty.”
Today, “much of McDowell County looks like a rural Detroit.” Although about 85 percent of America’s “most persistently poor counties” (defined by having a poverty rate above 20 percent) are rural, there’s no war being fought on behalf of their residents. In McDowell County the only good jobs disappeared with the decline of the coal mining industry: “When coal was king, there were two movie theaters and a high school, now closed. Everybody worked.” What can they do now?
Now many residents are addicted to prescription drugs. They see no way out of the grinding poverty and despair. One described himself as “30 years old and carrying my life around in a backpack.” His mother added: “It broke my heart.” But it’s not breaking hearts in Washington. The people in Appalachia described so beautifully by the late Joe Bageant in “Deer Hunting with Jesus,” as “the great beery, NASCAR-loving, church-going, gun-loving Americans that have never set foot in Starbucks” aren’t talked about much in our nation’s capital.
The people in Detroit, heavily African-American, aren’t either. On April 22, in “A Driver’s Bloody Run-In With an Angry Detroit,” the beating of a middle-aged white man by a group of young African-Americans after his pick-up truck accidentally injured an African-American boy (his life was saved by an African-American woman living nearby), set off reflections about the bleak circumstances in which the once-thriving city finds itself.
“You can’t fix Detroit,” a witness to the accident and beating told the NYT reporter. Hope for an economic revival, and with it perhaps a decline of the rage simmering in the heavily black city surrounded by many heavily white suburbs, has diminished in Detroit. The racial tension has a life of its own in America, but no diminution should be expected without a change in African-American economic reality.
And as in McDowell County, change has been steadily for the worse in Detroit. More than one third of the city’s 700,000 residents (it had 1.5 million in 1950) live in poverty and 17 percent are unemployed. Since 2005 half of its schools closed, half of its bus service has been lost and only 57 of its 300 parks are expected to open this summer.
Big investment banks were bailed out after the 2008 meltdown because, Washington wisdom (a moldy oxymoron by now) told us they were too big to fail. America’s 18th-largest city (by population) will have to muddle through on its own. Its citizens know where our establishment’s priorities lie.
The third article provided readers with the numbers about middle class decline: “U.S. Middle Class No Longer World’s Richest,” on April 23. Despite the so-called post-2008 economic recovery, “only a small percentage of American households is fully benefitting.” That comes as no surprise to people who have investigated how things got to be that way.
Harvard economist Lawrence Katz is one of those. Talking about the median American he said: “In 1960 we (middle class Americans) were massively richer than anyone else. In 1980, we were richer. In the 1990s we were still richer. That is no longer the case.”
But why? Three factors contributed: First, educational attainment rose more slowly in America than in the rest of the industrialized world; second, American companies contributed a smaller share of their “bounty” to the middle class and poor; and finally, other governments were more aggressive than ours in enforcing measures to raise the take-home pay of low-and middle-income households. “Socialism” was not allowed to creep in America, so the market ruled unrestrained.
Whatever the causes, the effects by now have reduced the percentage of Americans who believe that their country is headed in the right economic direction to thirty. Is it too late to save America’s middle class, once heralded as the backbone of the country and key segment for measuring its economic health and prospects?
The fourth installment of this sad saga of decline suggests it might be. The article on May 10, “Hardship Makes a New Home in the Suburbs” takes readers to the once booming city of Moreno Valley in the San Bernardino-Riverside area of California, a place where the “American Dream” was pursued with splendid success in the 1990s. Today, highway exits around the city of about 200,000 are populated with people asking for money and holding signs: “Laid off,” or “Need food,” and “Young children.”
The sign-holders belong to the “newly poor” in our suburbs. The article tells us that “by 2011, there were three million more people living in poverty in suburbs than in inner cities.” California, more than any other place, was once “synonymous with the suburban good life.” The state now owns the highest poverty rate among all fifty. Today nearly “nine million people in California – nearly one quarter of the state’s residents – live in poverty.”
Mary Carmen Acosta, her husband and children, once lived the “American Dream” in a five-bedroom house in a suburb a few miles east of downtown Los Angeles. Both had good jobs in the jewelry district in L.A. After both were laid off in 2011, they moved into an apartment in Moreno Valley. She sells jewelry her husband makes door to door and makes ice pops at home for sale on the street.
“The worst of it is the shame,” her husband said. She adds: “My friends in L.A., the ones who still have money, it’s like they forgot all about us.” But she seems resigned to the experience: “I see people all the time in worse positions than we are in. The kids are healthy and we have a roof. Maybe that is the best we can hope for.” Holding on to what’s left of the “American Dream” has become the new “American Dream” for millions.
The four articles in The New York Times paint a devastatingly bleak picture. Readers are confronted by a wealth of uncomfortable facts and struggling people. For the poor, only more poverty lies ahead. For the middle class, the fear of failing and falling into poverty. Robert Reich, who served as secretary of labor under President Clinton wrote: “It is doubtful that…measures designed to reverse widening inequality will be enacted soon.”
As Gore Vidal once quipped, we are on the way to becoming a two-tier state of the rich and the rest. When the blue state – red state division in America became obvious, the national motto, “e pluribus unum,” it was proposed only half in jest should be changed to “e pluribus duo.” The Times quartet has shown us that we are rapidly approaching the reality of the new motto. But who will heed the warning, and who will act to stop our grim march?