The cards are stacked against what’s left of middle class America, and for the working class it’s even worse. With many of the former joining the ranks of the latter, or joining the ranks of the unemployed, the squeeze is on for people in large enough numbers to signal that America is in trouble.
At the Oregon State Legislature Ways and Means hearing in Springfield on April 23, hundreds of people gathered to hear one person after another step up to the podium to tell their story of lack and hardship. They were begging the legislators for funding for different programs, and many expressed the humiliation they felt at having to beg.
Everywhere I go these days I meet people who are struggling to get ahead. Some are working two or three low paying jobs just to stay afloat, and others are looking for work — any work. Many are students going deeper and deeper into student loan debt, knowing they might not be able to find jobs in their chosen fields when they graduate.
This situation has been going on for a long time.
“The politicians and the media behave as if the poor don’t exist. But with jobs still absurdly scarce and the bottom falling out of the middle class, the poor are becoming an ever more significant and increasingly desperate segment of the population,” wrote columnist Bob Herbert on Jan. 7, 2011 in an article for the New York Times titled “Misery with Plenty of Company.”
The theme of Herbert’s commentary continued the following month.
“More and more Americans are being left behind in an economy that is being divided ever more starkly between the haves and the have-nots,” wrote Herbert a month later on Feb. 7, 2011 in “A Terrible Divide” for the Times.
So what’s changed in the few years since these articles were written? There’s a financial recovery going on, but not for those on the wrong side of the divide. “The twenty-first century has not been kind to the middle class in America,” says Herbert in his 2014 book, “Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America.”
“Millions of hardworking men and women who had believed they were solidly anchored economically found themselves cast into a financial abyss struggling with joblessness, home foreclosures and personal bankruptcy,” Herbert writes.
Countless young people, college students and graduates included, are in bleak circumstances and their hopes for a better future are tenuous. The same is true for Americans of all ages.
Baby-boomers make up much of the shrinking middle class, many of whom jumped around from job to job, from career to career, which is not a sound path to security in old age. Plenty were doing well enough, considering — but 2008 changed that. Millions, caught unawares, lost most of what they had.
Hardship cascaded through every American state, with some states being hit worse than others. While traveling the country researching the book, Herbert commented that he saw things he’d not seen in America before. “The Great Recession and its dismal aftermath showed unmistakably that a great change had come over the country.”
Initiative and hard work are no longer reliable indicators of success in America. At least not for those attempting to play the upward mobility game. Personally, I think that the days of individuals succeeding within hierarchical structures are over. And if that is true, we need different structures and different attitudes about success.
There’s something to be said for embracing stoicism, which says that the wise learn to live in harmony with reality. It might be time to redefine what the pursuit of happiness really means. Happiness does not equal progressing upward and the acquisition of stuff, unless people decide that it does.
America might be ripe for transforming into an entirely different culture, one that embraces thrift, sustainability, creativity and community. There are signs of this in cities across the country, and Eugene is one of those cities. Something more may be needed, however, such as silent withdrawal from anything that does not serve the common good.
I know of many individuals doing just this. However, when people in large numbers withdraw, it could create a shift across the country.
“All of the great movements in America — from abolition to civil rights, to the labor and women’s movements and the fight for gay rights — all were led by citizens fed up with an intolerable status quo,” writes Herbert in his book. “That is how societies change. That is how America can, should, and — with proper commitment and cooperative spirit — will change.”