Just check out the proliferating dollar stores and paycheck loan providers that both owe their existence to far too many of us being too poor to shop at “real” retailers or to go through a month without running completely out of money.
Even in cases where usually at least two breadwinners are struggling to make ends meet, a shockingly high number of us look at our forebears’ expectation of seeing their progeny lead better lives than they themselves did...as totally impossible.
The American dream has become a forbidding nightmare.
Under the profits-before-people priorities the Bush administration advances in absolute fealty to selfish and socially irresponsible special interests, the rungs have broken on our national ladder to success.
Jobs, pensions, and healthcare are being irrevocably lost. Conservatives attack overtime pay and seek to deny extended unemployment insurance. Living wages are resisted tooth and nail, with even proposals for modest increases in federal minimum pay getting assailed by business lobbyists as “unaffordable”. Reactionary Republicans rail against organized labor, striving to eviscerate the only entity strong enough to fight for public welfare and the common good through united clout that matches the greedy power of big business and high finance.
Manufacturing jobs that comprised America’s industrial heart have been outsourced to sweatshop locales in the Third World where foreign workers are rapaciously exploited while ex-employees of padlocked U.S. plants ponder their out-of-control bills and a bleakly fearful future.
This has spawned a whole new category of parasitism. Notice the many TV commercials for “debt management counseling” that commonly charges clients usurious rates and puts them more deeply in the hole.
Those “lucky” enough to have found work after this nation’s effective de-industrialization are making lousy wages with scant benefits in a service sector that’s impoverishing and ruining millions. How are adults with families supposed to survive on the part-time hours of jobs originally intended for high school students seeking a little income beyond their allowance?
With technological employment that was supposed to be our salvation also having gone down the tubes or overseas, a wave of jobless white-collar workers suddenly finds itself competing with teenagers for the opportunity to “manufacture” burgers at strip malls.
According to trends documented by Beth Shulman, in her eye-opening book, The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 35 Million Americans, nearly one-third of U.S. workers will fall within low-income ranks by 2010.
This clearly means that -- if they won’t be cruelly dying in needless wars fought just to enrich multinational corporations -- the children we’ve raised with such high hopes for success will face tomorrow going down instead of getting ahead.
While saddled with the exorbitant legacy of paying for massive tax breaks George W. Bush has given the wealthy in our time.
REAL PEOPLE BEHIND THE STATISTICS
When we hear news accounts of lost jobs, or the monthly unemployment rate, we understandably can’t associate with the real lives and tragic stories those abstract figures represent (unless we’re already experiencing the same ourselves).
Here, in the words of those directly affected, are some personal testimonies from people living in my native Midwest who know the impact of Bush-era hardship:
“I am very upset how older employees are being tossed away and how jobs are being shipped to other countries. What a slap in the face for those who came before us and tried to make this a good, hard-working America. What has happened to the American dream? I am very scared for my children and grandchildren’s future.”
--Gloria Jean, Menomonee, Wis.
“It’s mind boggling how dramatically life has changed for my wife and me since I was laid off two years ago. We don’t go out any more, see movies or eat fast food. This was the first year I couldn’t afford to buy her an anniversary present -- it was our 29th anniversary. Vacations are a thing of the past. I truly don’t believe that I’m ever going to be able to retire.”
--Ron, Bay View, Wis.
“It’s been 12 months since I was permanently laid off from the paper mill, and I have had no success finding a new job. I don’t have recent work experience in any other field, so that makes getting even low-paying, no-benefit jobs difficult...My unemployment has run out, and it’s put a tremendous stress on myself, my wife and my family. I think the most difficult thing is not knowing what lies ahead. Being out of work for this long has completely thrown out retirement plans for myself and my wife. Not to mention the tension that it’s placed on our marriage.”
--Dan, Duluth, Minn.
“My husband and I have run up credit card debt trying to stay afloat, and I’m afraid that we may lose our apartment. If that happens, I have no idea where we’ll go. My husband works as a bookkeeper for a convenience store, and when I was working, I was the primary breadwinner. So right now, we’ve just been living day-by-day. We can’t buy groceries because we have other bills that have to get paid.”
--Lisa, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
“People just can’t find jobs that offer good wages, health care and retirement benefits. In fact, I’ve had to let go of my COBRA health insurance because I couldn’t keep up with the payments. It’s so difficult to keep a positive attitude through this whole struggle. Losing my job has made me humble, and I continuously question my self-worth. This has been such a difficult time for my wife and me.”
-- John, Crystal Lake, Illinois
(For more testimony from other parts of America: www.showusthejobs.com/51stories)
HOW THIS MESS CAME ABOUT
Our current ordeal goes back more than twenty years. Shortly after taking office, President Reagan harshly broke the federal air traffic controllers’ union (PATCO), thereby signaling to private employers that an aggressive anti-labor posture would be supported at top governmental levels. Big business dutifully followed suit, triggering a flurry of downsizing, runaway plants, outsourcing, speed-up, forced overtime, orchestrated union-busting, etc.
This accompanied “Reaganomics,” a callously deliberate plan to shift the nation’s wealth from workers’ wallets to corporate coffers, leading in time to the U.S. replacing class-stratified England as the developed country with the world’s most glaring income gap.
The rich grew stupendously richer, and the poor soul-devouringly poorer.
George W. Bush wanted more of the same. He used such deceits as miniscule tax breaks for average citizens to gain support for mammoth giveaways of the federal treasury to billionaires. Federal (as well as state and local) programs designed to meet people’s crucial needs had to consequently be sharply cut back. Or eliminated altogether.
Whatever small amount Joe or Jill Average saved in taxes was quickly surpassed by out-of-pocket expenses for costly private substitutes for governmental services they’d taken for granted in the past.
More importantly, as the economy inevitably tanked and millions of us became too poor to buy back the goods our labor produced, more and more of us were driven to shop at Wal-Mart and similar cut-rate merchandisers to try to buy some cheap semblance of prosperity. That trend killed local businesses by the thousands, taking decent wages and vital tax-base contributions with them.
The chickens had come home to roost. Now the entire system was threatened by shortsighted greed blind to its own, ultimate consequence.
IT TAKES A FIGHT TO WIN
We’re over a barrel and being pick-pocketed by unscrupulous political and economic interests because we abdicated what should be a perpetual struggle for social and economic justice for the wage-earning multitudes.
A nation’s health, strength, and eventual viability can’t be determined by how well a selfish elite fares -- especially when that elite’s standing is purchased by exploiting working people who invariably comprise any society’s backbone.
We, as threatened workers, now need to show that backbone. And our decisive sense.
Conservatives who fear our simmering anger and latent power try every diversion to keep us from militantly uniting to demand good jobs and fundamental justice.
Wedge issues like abortion, gun control and gay rights are presented with great sensationalism. “Worry about homosexual marriage. Forget about how little you’re paid, and that you haven’t got health insurance or can’t afford to retire.”
Avaricious crony capitalists afflicted with chronic Enronhalliburtonitis, and their Republican protectors, count on us accepting such diversions. It’s what allows them to laugh all the way to the bank.
But we have the means to set things right. It’s called unity, unity, unity.
By steadfastly combining across racial, gender and other ultimately inconsequential lines to mutually assert our shared right to enough jobs with good pay for honest work, we can force a realization in Washington that we, the people, actually rule America.
Not unscrupulous bosses who wake up each morning to see how much money they can extract by willfully undercompensating the arduous labor of others.
The collective labor that’s the true source of every rich person’s wealth.
Simply defeating Bush and sending him back to the tumbleweeds of Crawford isn’t sufficient. We need to also deliver a body blow to rightwing Republicanism at all electoral levels, and in its capacity to influence popular culture through its infamous demagoguery. Crucially, we have to elevate the worker -- not the high mucky-muck in shiny shoes and a tailored suit -- as the true American hero, in whose service all political decisions are first considered.
Envisioning ourselves as the primary engine of history is absolutely key.
In our own bread-and-butter interest, we’re obligated to unleash the popular might a favorite slogan of progressive movements stirringly calls forth:
“The people united cannot be defeated!”
Dennis Rahkonen, from Superior, Wis., has been writing progressive commentary and verse for various outlets since the ‘60s. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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