Tag Archives: two Americas

Which America Do You Live In?

My father was called up for service in World War II when I was a toddler, and when the war ended, I was still far too young to comprehend what “war” really meant. But one of the most vivid memories I have of those days was coming across my mother reading something called “The Black Book,” and crying.

The book was a compendium of Nazi atrocities. My mother said I was too young to hear about such things (as I recall, I was about five) but that I should always remember how lucky I was to live in the United States.

Years later, I read multiple historical and sociological analyses in an effort to understand how the Nazis came to power, how otherwise good people could participate in–or turn a blind eye to–what was happening. The lesson I took away began with an economic reality: when people are experiencing economic insecurity and privation–especially if they see that others are flourishing– resentments suppressed in better times surface, and the very human need to find someone or some group to blame for loss of status and/or security becomes incredibly easy for demagogues to manipulate.

There’s a reason that loss of the American middle class is so dangerous.

A recent book by an MIT economist paints a very troubling picture: America is now two countries, and one of those countries looks a lot like the third world.

 Peter Temin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT, believes the ongoing death of “middle America” has sparked the emergence of two countries within one, the hallmark of developing nations. In his new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, Temin paints a bleak picture where one country has a bounty of resources and power, and the other toils day after day with minimal access to the long-coveted American dream.

In his view, the United States is shifting toward an economic and political makeup more similar to developing nations than the wealthy, economically stable nation it has long been. Temin applied W. Arthur Lewis’s economic model – designed to understand the workings of developing countries – to the United States in an effort to document how inequality has grown in America.

Temin describes multiple contributing factors in the nation’s arrival at this place, from exchanging the War on Poverty for the War on Drugs to money in politics and systemic racism. He outlines the ways in which racial prejudice continues to lurk below the surface, allowing politicians to appeal to the age old “desire to preserve the inferior status of blacks”, encouraging white low-wage workers to accept their lesser place in society.

Temin lists policies that could begin to ameliorate the economic divide: Expanding education, updating infrastructure, forgiving mortgage and student loan debt, and programs to encourage social mobility for all Americans.

Right now, of course, the clear priority of Congress–let alone the current, deranged occupant of the Oval Office–is tax reduction for the wealthy at the expense of the already disadvantaged.

What’s that famous Santayana quote? Those who who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

 

Two Countries, Both American

There’s an important new book by Peter Temin, professor emeritus of economics at MIT, titled The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy.  It paints a depressing  portrait of America and the evaporation of what used to be a healthy middle class.

His assertion: America is no longer a single country. Instead, we are two separate nations, and those nations have dramatically different resources, expectations and fates. As a post to the blog of the Institute for New Economic Thinking put it,

In one of these countries live members of what Temin calls the “FTE sector” (named for finance, technology and electronics, the industries that largely support its growth). These are the 20 percent of Americans who enjoy college educations, have good jobs and sleep soundly knowing that they have not only enough money to meet life’s challenges, but also social networks to bolster their success. They grow up with parents who read books to them, tutors to help with homework and plenty of stimulating things to do and places to go. They travel in planes and drive new cars. The citizens of this country see economic growth all around them and exciting possibilities for the future. They make plans, influence policies and count themselves lucky to be Americans.

The FTE citizens rarely visit the country where the other 80 percent of Americans live: the low-wage sector. Here, the world of possibility is shrinking, often dramatically. People are burdened with debt and anxious about their insecure jobs if they have a job at all. Many of them are getting sicker and dying younger than they used to. They get around by crumbling public transport and cars they have trouble paying for. Family life is uncertain here; people often don’t partner for the long-term even when they have children. If they go to college, they finance it by going heavily into debt. They are not thinking about the future; they are focused on surviving the present. The world in which they reside is very different from the one they were taught to believe in. While members of the first country act, these people are acted upon.

According to Temin, the two sectors have entirely distinct financial systems, residential options and educational opportunities, and their inhabitants have very different experiences when they get sick or interact with the law.

Worst of all, those in the low-wage sector have no way out. American social/economic mobility may have been real once, but it is a myth today.

A review of the book in the Atlantic was titled “Escaping Poverty Requires Almost Twenty Years with Almost Nothing Going Wrong.”  The reviewer cites Temin’s assertion that racism, abetted by deliberate policy choices, produced these separate nations:

The upper class of FTE workers, who make up just one-fifth of the population, has strategically pushed for policies—such as relatively low minimum wages and business-friendly deregulation—to bolster the economic success of some groups and not others, largely along racial lines. “The choices made in the United States include keeping the low-wage sector quiet by mass incarceration, housing segregation and disenfranchisement.”…

Many cities, which house a disproportionate portion of the black (and increasingly, Latino) population, lack adequate funding for schools. And decrepit infrastructure and lackluster public transit can make it difficult for residents to get out of their communities to places with better educational or work opportunities. Temin argues that these impediments exist by design.

The book does offer a way out– suggestions for remedying the hopelessness of those trapped in low-income America.

He offers five proposals that he says might help the country return to more equal footing. Some are fairly clear levers that many before him have recommending pulling: expanding access to and improving public education (particularly early education), repairing infrastructure, investing less in programs like prisons that oppress poor minorities, and increasing funding for those that can help build social capital and increase economic mobility. But other suggestions of his are more ambitious and involve fundamentally changing the cultural beliefs that have been reinforced over generations. Temin advocates doing away with the belief that private agencies can act in the interest of all citizens in the way that public entities can, and should. His final recommendation is to address systemic racism by reviving the spirit of the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s and 1970s, when civil-rights legislation helped to desegregate schools and give black Americans more political and economic power.

I agree that changing the culture is imperative; but it is also an incredibly slow and difficult process.

If someone knows how, I hope they’ll share….