It’s the current American reality that’s become a nightmare for millions upon millions whose lives, occupations and economic stability once seemed to embody it.
A new survey released Thanksgiving week by the Washington Post and the Miller Center, a nonpartisan, public policy-focused affiliate of the University of Virginia, offers fresh evidence that Americans overwhelmingly still hold fast to the positive beliefs that in the 20th century helped project the buoyant optimism of the American character.
For example, 85 percent of Americans think that being able to attend college is at least a part of the American Dream; and 87 percent feel that way about home ownership. A nearly equal proportion – 86 percent – consider that doing better than their parents is part of the American Dream; and 61 percent claim that the idea of the American Dream is meaningful to them personally, while another 18 percent say it’s not meaningful to them but is to other people.
However, the true importance of the survey, which has been conducted since the 1970s, is that it’s the latest document to plumb the impact of the economic crisis – the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 – that’s pushed many Americans into desperate circumstances.
In significant measure, that calamity has eroded not just to their financial resources but also their hopes about the present and the future. More than 60 percent say they worry the economy’s unsettled condition will cause them to be laid off, the largest proportion of concern that question has ever produced. Nearly half, 48 percent, said they feel less financially secure than a few years ago; and 66 percent expect it’ll be harder for people like them “to get ahead” in coming years; while a total of 73 percent say they’re somewhat or very dissatisfied about the country’s economic situation. Only 39 percent believe their children will be able to better the family’s current standard of living; another 24 percent believe their children’s circumstances will roughly match theirs; but 28 percent believe their children will be economically worse off.
Not surprisingly, lower-paid workers worry far more than those higher up the wage scale about losing their jobs or running out of money to pay their rent and other necessities before the end of the month. That truism has a greater importance now than usual because more than half of the jobs created since the Recession ended have been low-wage positions paying on average little more than $30,000 a year.
The economic hardship faced by these workers – the working poor – and the millions of Americans at or below the poverty line has been underscored in recent months by a number of developments.
- The one-day work stoppages by fast-food workers in dozens of cities across the country to dramatize their very low wages.
- The increasing number of states and municipalities that are moving on their own to increase the minimum wage in their jurisdictions (more than 4 million workers are paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour).
- New research showing the astonishing growth of income inequality in American society,
- New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s proposal to increase the taxes on the city’s wealthiest resident in order to fund improvements in the public schools. A new poll shows the idea has drawn widespread support from residents – including conservative and wealthy residents – of both New York City and the state.
- The increasing attention being paid to the predicament of food stamp recipients, who face severe cutbacks in their monthly allotments on top of one they already suffered this month.
- And, lastly, there was Pope Francis, in a lengthy official, and startling, document issued two days before Thanksgiving, sharply criticizing the “idolatry of money” and the conservative “trickle-down theories” of economics for having helped usher in a “globalization of indifference” to the plight of the poor.
Those criticisms, embedded in the 200-plus page missive, were clearly a call for efforts to reduce the degree of income inequality in Europe and the United States as part of a broader campaign to make compassion a central part of nation’s and individuals’ approach to solving problems.
These and other developments raise the question: Are we witnessing the development of a “critical mass” of individuals and institutions of diverse philosophical views, that’s ready to redress at least some of the causes of the dangerous increase of poverty and income inequality?
Now, that would be a dream worth working for, in the United States and abroad.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.