Thanksgiving, giving thanks, and giving back

 

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Today I’m hopping on a train to New York City (hence the Amtrak Acela poster from my office!), the travel piece of what has become an annual Thanksgiving get together with my cousins and friends. What began over a decade ago as an impromptu turkey day gathering is now a full-fledged tradition, and I look forward to it every year.

In classic New York style, we don’t start until the late afternoon. We’re all pretty hungry by the time the feast is served — and when I say feast, I mean it! The evening finishes up with many choices of desserts amidst singing and playing music.

Over the years, not much has changed about this gathering, the most noticeable difference being the kids now joining the grown ups at the main table. We repeat ourselves a lot from year to year, including well-deserved compliments to the chef and updates on how we’re all doing. That suits me fine. It is a source of continuity and connection, and a blessed reminder of how friends become family, and vice versa.

But for various reasons, I find myself a little down this year. I tend not to be the biggest holiday enthusiast to begin with, but I am particularly mindful right now of how many people are in need and how many are struggling with life’s challenges.

I started this blog five years ago, just as the Great Recession was going into full gear. Today, here in one of the world’s richest nations, we have millions who can’t find decent jobs, even more who are dealing with hunger on a daily basis, and a wealth gap that grows ever wider.

Beyond our shores and borders, the situation worsens, often by leaps and bounds. Recently I met a man around my age who is from Guinea in West Africa. He has been working in the U.S. for over 20 years. He lives on very little so he can send most of his earnings back to his family and village neighbors, who are in dire need of the most basic staples and provisions.

For those of us who are in a position to be thankful for life’s bounty, the best way to show our gratitude is to give back. Whether by way of money, service, advocacy, or some combination, we have opportunities to make a difference. As the saying goes, and inspired by multiple faith traditions, from those to whom much is given, much is expected, yes?

Life in an unequal, plutocratic society

We are living in an unequal, plutocratic society, and it is feeding an emotional dimension characterized by a dismissive lack of caring by many of the super rich and an angry, dog-eat-dog worldview for everyone else. So many of the employment policy issues I write about on this blog must be viewed against this broader, ugly canvass.

First, let’s establish the factual baseline: America’s wealth gap has reached extreme proportions. As Connie Stewart reports for the Los Angeles Times:

If you feel you’re falling behind in the income race, it’s not just your imagination. The wealth gap between the top 1% and the bottom 99% in the U.S. is as wide as it’s been in nearly 100 years, a new study finds.

For starters, between 1993 and 2012, the real incomes of the 1% grew 86.1%, while those of the 99% grew 6.6%, according to the study, based on Internal Revenue Service statistics examined by economists at UC Berkeley, the Paris School of Economics and Oxford University.

You can download the full study, led by Emmanuel Saez (UC-Berkeley), here.

Second, let’s define terms. Plutocracy, after all, is not a word used in ordinary conversation. Dictionary.com defines plutocracy in three ways:

  • “the rule or power of wealth or of the wealthy”
  • “a government or state in which the wealthy class rules”
  • “a class or group ruling, or exercising power or influence, by virtue of its wealth”

Sound familiar?

“A petty, narcissistic, pridefully ignorant politics”

Bill Moyers has become one of the most articulate and insightful commentators on the American plutocracy. Earlier this year, he did an excellent video essay on our out-of-control wealth inequality. Go here for a preview:

The unprecedented level of economic inequality in America is undeniable. In an extended essay, Bill shares examples of the striking extremes of wealth and poverty across the country, including a video report on California’s Silicon Valley. There, Facebook, Google, and Apple are minting millionaires, while the area’s homeless — who’ve grown 20 percent in the last two years — are living in tent cities at their virtual doorsteps.

“A petty, narcissistic, pridefully ignorant politics has come to dominate and paralyze our government,” says Bill, “while millions of people keep falling through the gaping hole that has turned us into the United States of Inequality.”

The worldviews of the ultra-wealthy

One of Moyers’s associates, Joshua Holland, reports on recent studies that confirm the attitudes and status of many of the ultra-wealthy. For example:

Two studies released last week confirmed what most of us already knew: the ultra-wealthy tend to be narcissistic and have a greater sense of entitlement than the rest of us, and Congress only pays attention to their interests. Both studies are consistent with earlier research.

We’re seeing the figurative creation of gated communities everywhere in our society. Even if the physical gates are not before us, excessive disparities in wealth and power are constructing barriers that isolate the most fortunate from everyone else, psychologically, politically, and financially.

The “cult of the selfish”

How does an unequal, plutocratic society experience everyday life and community (or lack thereof)? Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers International Union, writes in a piece for In These Times that America is being overcome by “the cult of the selfish”:

A cult of the selfish relentlessly assails the value of American community. And now, the cult’s cruel campaign of civic meanness is achieving tragic victories. Just last week, for example, it succeeded in getting a bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives that would slash funding for food stamps by $40 billion . . . . Also, it secured passage of a bill in the House that would de-fund the Affordable Care Act, thus denying health care—and in some cases life itself—to millions of uninsured Americans.

Denying food to the hungry, chemo to the cancer-stricken? That is not American. . . .

It is, however, exactly what the cult of the selfish is seeking. It wants an America without community, where everyone is out for himself. Alone. Self-seeking. Self-dealing.

“American Bile”

Public policy professor and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who has just released a new documentary titled “Inequality For All” (trailer here) observes that he’s never seen the kind of civic hostility that we’re witnessing in this country today:

I’m 67 and have lived through some angry times: Joseph R. McCarthy’s witch hunts of the 1950s, the struggle for civil rights and the Vietnam protests in the 1960s, Watergate and its aftermath in the 1970s. But I don’t recall the degree of generalized bile that seems to have gripped the nation in recent years.

After considering all contributing factors to high anger quotient in today’s America, he concludes that ultimately “we need to look at the economy.”

Put simply, most people are on a downward escalator. Although jobs are slowly returning, pay is not. Most jobs created since the start of the recovery, in 2009, pay less than the jobs that were lost during the Great Recession. This means many people are working harder than ever, but still getting nowhere. They’re increasingly pessimistic about their chances of ever doing better.

As their wages and benefits shrink, though, they see corporate executives and Wall Street bankers doing far better than ever before. And they are keenly aware of bailouts and special subsidies for agribusinesses, pharma, oil and gas, military contractors, finance and every other well-connected industry.

The shutdown: “Workplace Bullying Gone Wild”

Cindy Waitt, director of the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention and an important supporter of the Workplace Bullying Institute, writes for the Huffington Post that the current government shutdown is the result of classic workplace bullying tactics:

. . . Some of the members of  the 113th Congress are acting probably more irrationally than any we’ve seen in decades. But, from what I see and what I’ve learned over the years, I’d say they aren’t acting just like “nutcases,” they’re acting like what they are…workplace bullies.

. . . We currently face a government shutdown and the tactics being used by the “shutdown” gang are textbook bully tactics.

Community vs. confrontation

It adds up to an ugly, angry, confrontational culture, with the have-nots and the have-less being turned against each other. We can understand these dynamics, take on these huge disparities, and create a kinder, more just world, or we can increasingly be at each other’s throats. We have choices.

The three-pronged political attack on the very notion of retirement (except for a few)

In America, the very notion of a relatively safe and secure retirement is under relentless attack, and much of this broadside is coming from well-monied corporate interests, aided by supportive far-right politicians.

This is not by accident. Only when you connect the dots do you see a unifying force, and it’s very, very political. We haven’t been comprehending how the pieces come together because, frankly, concerns about America’s retirement funding crisis tend to be examined in silos, such as (1) Social Security; (2) public employee pension funds; and (3) 401(k) balances.

I’ve written a lot about the retirement funding crisis on this blog, but I’ve never pulled together some of the interrelated political threads. Here’s a start:

1. Attack on Social Security

Let’s open with the attack on Social Security. In reality, Social Security is among our most stable benefit programs. Although some of the concerns about the future stability of Social Security are legitimate, a relatively easy fix — raising the cap on payroll taxes that fund the program — would go a long way toward ensuring its long-term viability for generations to come.

Dave Johnson, in a piece for the Campaign for America’s Future, traces the ideological roots of the fanatical attack on Social Security:

In 1983 a couple of conservative “think tanks” developed a step-by-step plan to privatize Social Security, for the benefit of “the banking industry and other business groups.” The plan describes a strategy to convince people that Social Security is going broke and that it is a “Ponzi scheme,” to undermine confidence in the program and lead people to accept that it needs “reform.” The plan outlines methods to “neutralize” opposition. The plan involves a smokescreen strategy of saying things to distract people from seeing what they are doing.

This strategy for attacking Social Security was spelled out in a 1983 document from the Cato Institute (previously named the Koch Foundation), with Heritage Foundation input. You can read the original document for yourself, it is titled Achieving A Leninist Strategy. Please, if you have time, read the entire document (in particular the section “Weakening the Opposition”) to understand the strategy that has been unfolding in the years since . . . .

To far-right zealots, there is nothing more objectionable than a government-sponsored program that is working. Such is the case with Social Security, and hence the virulent efforts to destroy it and the support it provides to millions of retirees.

2. Corporate role in sabotaging public sector pensions

Stories about severe underfunding of America’s public employee pension plans are now becoming a daily occurrence in the media. As Matt Taibbi writes in a major piece for Rolling Stone magazine, this is pitting “private-sector workers who’ve mostly lost their benefits already against public-sector workers who are merely about to lose them.” A more insightful inside story, Taibbi suggests, is how Wall Street has looted public pension funds:

One of the primary reasons why public sector pension programs are so underfunded is that they fell prey to those who invested pension monies into the Wall Street casino, and they accordingly lost billions when it fell to pieces five years ago . . . .

It turns out, according to Taibbi, that the massive underfunding of public pension systems has been “caused almost entirely by the greed and wide-scale fraud of the financial-services industry – particularly with regard to state pension funds.” He continues:

. . . In February 2011, [economist Dean] Baker reported that, had public pension funds not been invested in the stock market and exposed to mortgage-backed securities, there would be no shortfall at all. He said state pension managers were of course somewhat to blame, but only “insofar as they exercised poor judgment in buying the [finance] industry’s services.”

In fact, Baker said, had public funds during the crash years simply earned modest returns equal to 30-year Treasury bonds, then public-pension assets would be $850 billion richer than they were two years after the crash. Baker reported that states were short an additional $80 billion over the same period thanks to the fact that post-crash, cash-strapped states had been paying out that much less of their mandatory ARC payments.

3. The 401(k) retirement “system”

Lynn Stuart Parramore, in a piece for Alternet, writes about who wins and loses when 401(k) accounts supplant pensions as a primary source of retirement funding:

Thirty years ago, as laissez-faire fanaticism took hold of America, misguided policy-makers decided that do-it-yourself retirement plans, otherwise known as 401(k)s, would magically secure our financial future in the face of gyrating markets, economic crises, unpredictable life events, stagnant wages and rampant job insecurity.

. . . There were red flags along the way. 401(k)s were originally supposed to supplement pensions, but clever corporate cost-cutters decided that voluntary individual accounts would replace them.

. . . Reality check: . . . . (T)he financial crisis destroyed America’s retirement fantasy. . . . Today, the balance in our retirement accounts falls wildly short of what we need to keep us from destitution in old age, much less to secure a comfortable existence.

To fill in the details, Parramore summons data from a new Economic Policy Institute Retirement Inequality Chartbook that provides “dozens of charts that examine retirement preparedness and outcomes by income, race and ethnicity, education, gender and marital status.”

Earlier this year, the National Institute on Retirement Security, a non-profit, non-partisan research and education center, released a 28-page study, The Retirement Savings Crisis: Is It Worse Than We Think?, by labor economist Nari Rhee, which lays out the alarming data. Here are the major findings:

New NIRS research finds retirement savings are dangerously low, and the U.S. retirement savings deficit is between $6.8 and $14.0 trillion.

…The average working household has virtually no retirement savings. When all households are included— not just households with retirement accounts—the median retirement account balance is $3,000 for all working-age households and $12,000 for near-retirement households.  

The findings confirm that the American Dream of retiring comfortably after a lifetime of work will be impossible for many. Based on 401(k)–type account and IRA balances alone, some 92 percent of working households do not meet conservative retirement savings targets for their age and income. Even when counting their entire net worth, 65 percent still fall short.

The role of individual thrift

All too often, the retirement savings crisis is described as the cumulative result of individual failures to save money. To be sure, many people in a position to save could have done, and could be doing, better in terms of personal savings levels. Too much of America’s “prosperity” has been built on buying stuff we don’t need, financed by easy credit.

But the easy credit has been extended, like cheap crack cocaine, by those who want to get us hooked early and deeply. Furthermore, the disappearance of pension plans, the flattening of personal income, high unemployment, and growing inequality of wealth in society are significant, contributing factors toward this individual “failure” to save for retirement.

Potential solutions

Increasing, not decreasing, Social Security payments and the creation of public pension systems for all are among the fixes that have been floated by policy experts in retirement funding.

But before we can get to these policy solutions, we must educate ourselves as to what and how this happened. We need to understand how we got to such a precarious, frightening place where Teresa Ghilarducci, one of the leading authorities on this subject, believes that “most middle-class Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees.”

 

Bookends of a coming mega-meltdown

Twenty or so years from now, Americans will look back and ask: Why didn’t we do more? Why didn’t we accept some modest sacrifice to avoid the extreme suffering of today? Why did we ignore what was so perfectly clear back then?

No, I’m not talking about climate change, though you can add that one too. Rather, I’m looking at the scary, jolting confluence of sky high student loan repayment burdens concentrated on one end of the adult age spectrum, and woeful shortfalls in retirement funding for a majority of Americans on the other. I’ve written on both of these topics before (especially America’s retirement readiness), but let me add one excellent investigative piece and one important study to the mix.

Student loan debt

If you’re in college or grad school, or you’re a parent of someone who is, you likely know the score. Gone are the days when a few thousand dollars saved from the family budget covered a big chunk of a child’s tuition and expenses. Income levels have stagnated for most in the U.S., but tuition costs have soared. And the lion’s share of people seeking post-secondary education must borrow money, often gobs of it, to pay those bills.

If you want more detail, the Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi has written a superb investigative article — Ripping Off Young America: The College-Loan Scandal — that is must reading for anyone affected by the financing of higher education. Here’s a snippet:

How is this happening? It’s complicated. But throw off the mystery and what you’ll uncover is a shameful and oppressive outrage that for years now has been systematically perpetrated against a generation of young adults. For this story, I interviewed people who developed crippling mental and physical conditions, who considered suicide, who had to give up hope of having children, who were forced to leave the country, or who even entered a life of crime because of their student debts.

…[T]he underlying cause of all that later-life distress and heartache – the reason they carry such crushing, life-alteringly huge college debt – is that our university-tuition system really is exploitative and unfair, designed primarily to benefit two major actors.

First in line are the colleges and universities, and the contractors who build their extravagant athletic complexes, hotel-like dormitories and God knows what other campus embellishments….

…Next up is the government itself. While it’s not commonly discussed on the Hill, the government actually stands to make an enormous profit on the president’s new federal student-loan system….

The crisis is compounded by a horrible entry-level job market for recent graduates. It’s hard to pay off those loans and save a bit of money when you’re doing your 5th or 6th unpaid internship.

Retirement funding

In the meantime, at the older end of the population, the nation’s largest generation is hurtling towards the traditional retirement years. The only problem is that many Boomers will be in no position to retire, even if Social Security remains intact. Their numbers just don’t add up.

Recent confirmation of the dire situation comes from the National Institute on Retirement Security, a non-profit, non-partisan research and education center. Its 28-page study, The Retirement Savings Crisis: Is It Worse Than We Think?, by labor economist Nari Rhee, is clearly laid out and alarming to read. Here are the major findings:

New NIRS research finds retirement savings are dangerously low, and the U.S. retirement savings deficit is between $6.8 and $14.0 trillion.

…The average working household has virtually no retirement savings. When all households are included— not just households with retirement accounts—the median retirement account balance is $3,000 for all working-age households and $12,000 for near-retirement households.  

The findings confirm that the American Dream of retiring comfortably after a lifetime of work will be impossible for many. Based on 401(k)–type account and IRA balances alone, some 92 percent of working households do not meet conservative retirement savings targets for their age and income. Even when counting their entire net worth, 65 percent still fall short.

Where the twain meet

Let us fast forward 20 years and assume we’ve done nothing besides making some minor tweaks to Social Security and lowering the interest rate a tad on student loans.

It’s 2033, and millions of Boomers are working into their 70s and 80s, not by choice, but rather by necessity. The Social Security Trust Fund is running dry, and older Americans who didn’t have, or already burned through, retirement savings are faced with a 25 percent cut to Social Security benefits, funded now on a pay-as-we-go basis by payroll taxes on aging Gen Xers and Millennials.

These younger folks, by the way, are struggling to pay off student loans that are not dischargeable in a bankruptcy proceeding. For many, their finances have required them to make some hard decisions, such as having fewer or no kids.

Of course, this means they’re less likely to be in the market to buy the big suburban houses put on sale by older Boomers looking to downsize their living spaces and reduce living expenses. (It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as their credit ratings are blown from their student loans and the credit card debt they’ve taken on to make ends meet.)

In the year 2033, many of the Gen Xers and Millennials are hoping to pay off their student loans and modest mortgages (that’s all the house they could afford) by their late 50s. Some of their retirement prospects, by the way, are even dimmer than that of the average Boomer.

In 2033, what we could’ve done now will seem so obvious…

Obvious, but not easy. It will require belt-tightening by institutions and individuals who can afford it, higher taxes on some (including raising the payroll tax cap to beef up Social Security), creative public policies to recreate the retirement system, an all-out war on the student loan racket, more emphasis on community needs, and less tolerance for extravagance, waste, and corruption. Some kindness will go a long way, too.

It may sound like I’m preaching the meme of austerity. No, to the contrary. I’m suggesting that we strive to live comfortable, healthy, safe, and enriching lives rather than be in a state of want. But we’ll need a values adjustment to get there.

(By the way, much of this will help to address global climate change. Less mad, privatized consumption will have a cooling effect on our planet, literally and figuratively.)

Call me Chicken Little, Cassandra, whatever

The sky is falling. But this begs the philosophical question: If the sky falls on Washington D.C. and Wall Street, but no one there heard or felt it, did it really fall?

Seriously, at a time when dramatic measures are needed to avoid terrible societal and individual pain later, our leaders in the private, public, and non-profit sectors aren’t exactly sounding the alarm bells. And much of America is oblivious to, or willfully ignoring, this coming mega-meltdown.

We do have choices, but time is running out.

Witnessing the “split-screen American nightmare”

In a New York Times online op-ed essay, “Crumbling American Dreams,” political scientist Robert Putnam (Harvard) returns to his hometown to assess the current state of America:

My hometown — Port Clinton, Ohio, population 6,050 — was in the 1950s a passable embodiment of the American dream, a place that offered decent opportunity for the children of bankers and factory workers alike.

But a half-century later, wealthy kids park BMW convertibles in the Port Clinton High School lot next to decrepit “junkers” in which homeless classmates live. The American dream has morphed into a split-screen American nightmare. And the story of this small town, and the divergent destinies of its children, turns out to be sadly representative of America.

The rest of his essay describes a familiar set piece for middle America, featuring the disintegration of manufacturing industries around his hometown that once provided sources of steady, decent-paying jobs for high school graduates. The disappearing industrial base has translated into human want and suffering on a significant scale.

My hometown, too

I’ve seen a Port Clinton-type scenario before.

My boyhood hometown of Hammond, Indiana was a busy working class and middle class city during the 1950s and 1960s. During the heart of those years, the area’s steel mills served as a reliable source of steady jobs for (mostly male) high school graduates. And thanks to high demand for steel and to collective bargaining, it was possible to raise a family on a mill worker’s wages.

But all that started to change in the mid-to-late 70s, when the number of shifts declined and layoffs increased. By the time I left Indiana for the East Coast in the early 80s, the steel industry was gasping for its life. As we fast forward to today, Hammond and many surrounding towns and cities continue to struggle with the death throes of the region’s industrial economic base.

Purple problem?

Putnam first came to public attention with the publication of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), in which he chronicled the decline of the country’s civic, religious, and political organizations and urged the renewal of these community bonds. This has become a defining theme of his work since then.

True to his other writings, in his Times piece Putnam is hesitant to assign primary blame for the economic gulf in our communities on the basis of politics, instead suggesting that more systemic, bipartisan forces have been at play:

The crumbling of the American dream is a purple problem, obscured by solely red or solely blue lenses. Its economic and cultural roots are entangled, a mixture of government, private sector, community and personal failings. But the deepest root is our radically shriveled sense of “we.”

Behind the “split-screen American nightmare”

While I agree that responsibility for our current condition must be shared among many stakeholders, I wish that Putnam would acknowledge that powerful political and economic forces have widened the gulf between haves and have-nots, cut away the middle class, and — to use Putnam’s words — hastened the “radically shriveled sense of ‘we’.”

As I’ve written before, evidence of societal inequality keeps piling up, and the economic “recovery” has largely benefited the most fortunate. Many thoughtful commentators have argued that the U.S. has become a plutocracy, a society in which the game is rigged for, and controlled by, the wealthy and powerful — at the expense of democracy, genuine opportunity, and a compassionate safety net.

Some might suggest that “plutocracy” is over the top. After all, even the poorest Americans live under conditions that millions of people in other parts of the world would gladly accept. Furthermore, upward mobility remains within the grasp of some, despite growing obstacles.

But the gaping wealth gaps cannot be ignored. Until we aggressively address the political, economic, and social dynamics creating these societal headwinds, we’ll be seeing many more modern-day versions of Port Clinton, Ohio, and Hammond, Indiana, during the years to come.

Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings?

In this era of the Great Recession, suicide has become a leading cause of death in America, especially among the middle-aged, and it is to our shame as a society that this reality is not an ongoing, dominant focus of our attention.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report documenting the alarming crisis:

From 1999 to 2010, the age-adjusted suicide rate for adults aged 35–64 years in the United States increased significantly by 28.4%, from 13.7 per 100,000 population to 17.6 . . . . The suicide rate for men aged 35–64 years increased 27.3%, from 21.5 to 27.3, and the rate for women increased 31.5%, from 6.2 to 8.1 . . . . Among men, the greatest increases were among those aged 50–54 years and 55–59 years, (49.4%, from 20.6 to 30.7, and 47.8%, from 20.3 to 30.0, respectively). Among women, suicide rates increased with age, and the largest percentage increase in suicide rate was observed among women aged 60–64 years (59.7%, from 4.4 to 7.0).

The report prompted a lot of media coverage upon its release, but now it has faded into the shadows of the news cycle.

Boomer suicides and the economy

Suzanne Gerber, blogging for Next Avenue, associated the dire economic situation and related pressures with rising suicides rates among Boomers:

Noting that suicide rates tend to rise during times of financial stress — and 2008 might go down in the history books as one of the worst years in modern American history — Dr. Ileana Arias, CDC deputy director, acknowledged, “The increase does coincide with a decrease in financial standing for a lot of families over the same time period.”

Arias further observed that the spike in suicide rates could be a reflection of a combination of stressors specific to baby boomers. As the sandwich generation, many of us, while fighting our own financial battles, are also taking caring of aging parents, many with dementia, and providing economic and emotional support to our adult children, who are having difficulties launching their own independent lives.

Thomas H. Maugh II, in a 2011 piece for the Los Angeles Times, reported on an earlier CDC study indicating that among working people ages 25-54, suicides increase during bad economic times and decline during more prosperous times.

Everyone is familiar with stories of businessmen jumping to their deaths from window ledges during the Great Depression. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that those stories, sometimes viewed as apocryphal, have a strong basis in fact: The rate of suicides rises during times of economic hardship and declines in periods of prosperity.

The earlier CDC study included statistics from the Great Depression of the early 1930s and subsequent economic crises. As Maugh further reported:

Overall, the study — which did not distinguish between men and women — found that the suicide rate was 18 per 100,000 adults in 1928, the earliest year for which data are available, and climbed to 22.1 per 100,000 in 1932, the last full year of the Great Depression. That 22.8% jump over a four-year period is the largest in history.

Since then, the suicide rate has been dropping, with much smaller increases at the end of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal (1937-38), the oil crisis (1973-75) and the double-dip recession (1980-82).

As I have written previously here, when reporter Louis Uchitelle began researching his book The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences (2006), he did not anticipate that he “would be drawn so persistently into the psychiatric aspect of layoffs.”  But he soon understood that the “emotional damage was too palpable to ignore.”  For the suddenly unemployed, “a layoff is an emotional blow from which very few fully recover.”

Not “Set for Life”

The emotional costs of unemployment are vividly evident in a disturbing and important 2012 documentary, “Set for Life,” which tells the stories of Baby Boomers who have lost their jobs and who are trying to find work in the midst of our recessionary economy.

“Set for Life” is the work of journalist and producer Susan Sipprelle, assisted by filmmaker Samuel Newman (bios here). It centers on the ongoing sagas of three fiftysomething individuals searching for work, supplemented by interviews with experts and information that put their stories in context.

In an October Huffington Post blog post introducing the documentary, Sipprelle observes that having worked hard and done many of the right things, her protagonists believed that they were “set for life.” However, recent years have taught them a harsh lesson to the contrary:

While the three main characters in Set for Life search for work in today’s daunting job market for older workers, they suffer financial woes, self-doubt, and health concerns. Thrust by the recession into a quest they never expected to face late in life, they ponder deeper questions that are relevant to everyone: What defines my self-worth? What is my definition of happiness? Can I reinvent myself? Can I prepare for and accept change?

Retirement

As I have written often here, the idea of a relatively comfortable and stable retirement is disappearing for many middle-aged Americans. According to economist Teresa Ghilarducci, one of the nation’s leading experts on retirement policy, “(i)t looks like most middle-class Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees,” adding that “(t)he baby boomers will be the first generation that will do worse in retirement than their parents.”

Ghilarducci’s comments appeared last year in The Week, a weekly news magazine, as part of an informative piece spotlighting a largely neglected Boomer retirement savings crisis. Unfortunately, most workers have not built 401(k) accounts sufficient to fund a comfortable retirement; the average 401(k) balance “is just over $60,000,” according to The Week. Even worse, “(m)ore than half of U.S. workers have no retirement plan at all.” Social Security payments “averaging $14,780 a year for individuals and $22,000 for couples” won’t bridge the gaps.

In sum, for many workers, the American Dream is no more. The assumption that working hard and playing by the rules would lead to a decent job and a relatively comfortable retirement has been demolished. Unless we do something dramatic, many Boomers are staring at what Thoreau termed as “lives of quiet desperation.”

Student loan debt and suicides

It’s not just older workers who might feel crushing economic burdens and see little way out. Cryn Johannsen of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project writes about the spectre of suicide in connection with student debt:

Suicide is the dark side of the student lending crisis and, despite all the media attention to the issue of student loans, it’s been severely under-reported. I can’t ignore it though, because I’m an advocate for people who are struggling to pay their student loans, and I’ve been receiving suicidal comments for over two years and occasionally hearing reports of actual suicides.

Student loan levels have skyrocketed over the past three decades, and now the labor market is not producing enough good entry-level jobs to absorb heavily-indebted graduates, many of whom owe $100,000 or more in principal alone.

Europe

If we need more evidence of this deeply human crisis, the meltdown of the European economy has been linked to rising suicide rates of workers who see no escape from their plight.

Last year, Barbie Latza Nadeau reported for Newsweek (link here) on increasing suicide rates in countries such as Italy, Greece, Spain, and Ireland – all of which have been in the throes of severe economic crises even worse than that in the U.S. She observes that “(i)n the countries most affected by the euro-zone crisis, depression is on the rise and suicides are spreading.” In addition, amid widespread unemployment in these countries, governments are cutting back on social support services for the jobless and those in need of assistance:

“The main reason for the rise in suicides is the recession and now austerity—both making hard times more difficult and reducing funding for mental-health services,” says David Stuckler, a Cambridge professor who coauthored a report on the health effects of the economic crisis in Europe. “Usually an epidemic is thought of as a short-term increase in a disease—by that criterion, suicides would be an epidemic.”

Nadeau began her piece with three stories of three Italian workers who committed suicide due to their personal financial struggles. I suggest checking it out if you want a clearer sense of the human costs of the recession.

“The Lives of Others”

In the motion picture “The Lives of Others” — a dark depiction of life in communist East Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall — we learn that the East German government stopped counting suicides in 1977. Instead, people who died by suicide were called “self-murderers.”

It was an easy way of dismissing the widespread despair and fear caused by an inhumane system that contributed to the world’s second highest suicide rate. East Germany, of course, was under a communist rule that sucked freedom and enterprise out of everyday society. When life under that oppressive regime caused people to sink into hopelessness, the government decided it was time to blame the victims.

To some, this historical factoid might justify touting unbridled capitalism as a panacea to heavy-handed government. However, while I have little use for communist systems, America’s suicide statistics remind us that extreme despair transcends economic and political ideologies.

Response I: Creating jobs and reinforcing our safety net

We have to create jobs, while maintaining programs for those in need.

When America faced the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government enacted the New Deal legislation that created a stronger social safety net, including the minimum wage, Social Security, and public insurance for our bank accounts. It also created massive public works programs, funding everything from construction projects to artistic works. Ironically, it was this influx of government spending, followed by the huge increase in public expenditures necessary to fight the Second World War, that saved capitalism and put America on path for its greatest era of prosperity.

Today, many large corporations are sitting on piles of cash, and the stock market has fully recovered from the massive hit it took during the meltdown. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate improves in tiny, incremental steps at best.

It’s not as if we’ve run out of important, meaningful work that needs to be done. If corporate America and Wall Street won’t create jobs despite their abundant earnings, then let’s tax their wealth and use the proceeds to put people back to work, fixing our bridges and roads, building connective public transportation systems, educating our children, providing affordable health care, safeguarding our communities, and caring for our elderly.

Response II: Forging a healthier society

More broadly, we need to forge a society that too often worships individualism and selfishness into one that more deeply values community, dignity, opportunity, and peace of mind. As Suzanne Gerber states:

Whether it’s biochemical or situational, the net result is the same: People are stressed to the max, financially struggling, pessimistic about their prospects and don’t have the traditional means of support previous generations relied on to get them through wars, epidemics and economic downturns.

In the past, people had family and community to turn to for support and strength and hope. Today we’re a fractured society, with families strewn around the country or globe, and our ancestors’ belief that “family is glue” all but eroded. Even people who didn’t have close family had strong religious convictions or a network of neighbors. We’re a Velcro society, and we all know what a weak substitute that is.

Suicide is a scary, intimidating, and complicated topic, and it makes many of us uneasy. But a nation’s suicide rates should be among the prime indicators of its collective health and well-being. We need to “own” these statistics, understand what’s behind them, and do our best to respond to them. This will enhance our lives a lot more than obsessing over stock market reports and enabling corporations whose leaders don’t give a hoot about the rest of us.

***

This blog posts builds upon, draws from, and integrates a good half dozen pieces written over the past two years. It is a sad testament to the state of things that the ties between mental health, suicide, and the economy continue to be so relevant. 

“At some point, we need to have a serious conversation about $5 t-shirts”

The title of this piece quotes a Facebook post by Jennifer Doe, a widely respected labor organizer here in Boston.

Jennifer is referring, of course, to the latest workplace safety horror in Bangladesh: Last week, an eight-story building housing garment factories collapsed, with the death toll approaching 380 and very likely to rise. (Go here for extensive coverage by The Guardian.)

Last November, some 120 people died in a fire at another Bangladeshi garment factory. It bore an eerie similarity to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City, where 146 workers perished.

The $5 t-shirt, the $30 DVD player, and so on

The Bangladeshi workers were making clothes for U.S. brands. As we go about our business today, many of us could be wearing the results of their toil.

Which is exactly Jennifer’s point. Lots of consumer goods that we buy in shiny department, big box, and electronics stores carry low price tags in large part because they were made by workers in impoverished countries who earn subsistence wages while facing harsh, sometimes life-threatening working conditions.

Thrift vs. blood savings

I fully understand the value that many Americans put on thrift. Especially during these difficult times, inexpensive clothing, electronics, and other goods are especially appealing to anyone on a tight budget.

My mom grew up during the Great Depression. Throughout their lives, she and her sisters dutifully clipped coupons and waited for sales to buy things they needed. While concededly I have not wholly internalized their level of thrift, I get it: Hunting for a bargain is a good thing.

But we need to face the question of the human costs of these bargains. Most of us have purchased goods made by low-paid workers in other countries. In the case of products made in countries like Bangladesh, however, we’re talking about downright blood savings. These folks are dying so we can buy inexpensive stuff.

The path to labor globalization

The terrible situation in Bangladesh is hardly an isolated phenomenon.

The globalization of manufacturing involves the constant search for the cheapest, most exploitable labor possible. The rough pathway started with manufacturing jobs secured by union collective bargaining agreements in the north, followed by the flight of those jobs to anti-union southern states. When those wages got “too high,” manufacturers fled to other countries where workers were willing earn a tiny fraction of what even the lowest-paid Americans expected to receive.

More recently, as manufacturing workers in places like India have engaged in labor organizing, these companies are packing up again for new places to mistreat the rank-and-file, such as Bangladesh. However, now that Bangladeshi workers are protesting these recent disasters, I’m sure these companies will start looking elsewhere.

They may be running out of South Asian countries, but sub-Saharan Africa has yet to be fully exploited in this way. Wouldn’t it be obscenely ironic if American-led multinationals targeted the continent that supplied future slaves to the U.S. for their next round of exploitation? It’s not an implausible scenario.

Terrorism: Small businesses, wage earners pay a high price

Greater Boston is in lockdown mode at mid-afternoon of this otherwise lovely spring Friday, with law enforcement authorities pursuing the suspects from Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings. For some of us, it means a try-to-work-at-home day as we attempt to do something constructive while following news updates.

Of course, this is an unsettling day for just about everyone around here. But for so many small businesses, wage earners, and service providers like cabbies, it also is a costly day of lost income, even if the reasons for the shutdown are entirely justifiable.

I don’t know what political messages the perpetrators intended to send by their horrible actions, but among those paying a significant price are businesses and individuals who can least afford to do so. Big companies that can absorb a loss, and higher salary earners who will get their full paychecks regardless, will be okay, while many others will find it even more difficult to balance their books and to make ends meet.

Working Notes: Moyers on wealth inequality, EHS on workplace bullying, adjunct profs organize, and more

Several interesting items worthy of attention:

Moyers on American wealth inequality

Bill Moyers presents an excellent video essay on America’s out-of-control wealth inequality. Click above to watch, or go here for a preview:

The unprecedented level of economic inequality in America is undeniable. In an extended essay, Bill shares examples of the striking extremes of wealth and poverty across the country, including a video report on California’s Silicon Valley. There, Facebook, Google, and Apple are minting millionaires, while the area’s homeless — who’ve grown 20 percent in the last two years — are living in tent cities at their virtual doorsteps.

“A petty, narcissistic, pridefully ignorant politics has come to dominate and paralyze our government,” says Bill, “while millions of people keep falling through the gaping hole that has turned us into the United States of Inequality.”

EHS on Workplace Bullying

Laura Walter, in a lengthy, substantive piece for EHS Today (a periodical for environmental, health, and safety professionals), writes about the effects of workplace bullying. Here’s her lede:

A few years ago, Maria had never even heard the term “workplace bullying.” But by the time she shared with EHS Today the path her professional life has taken in recent years, she used words like “traumatized,” “powerless,”  “hostility,”  “retaliation,”  “mafia” and “war zone.” All this from a self-described happy, optimistic person who loved her job as a nurse and who never expected to become the target of bullying at work.

Dr. Gary Namie and the work of the Workplace Bullying Institute are featured prominently in this article.

Adjunct Professors Organizing

SEIU, America’s largest service workers union, is organizing part-time faculty in colleges and universities. Overall, adjunct professors comprise one of the most exploited groups in higher education, receiving paltry salaries and minimal, if any, benefits in return for heavy-duty teaching responsibilities. Peter Schmidt reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education:

A national labor union that has made strides in organizing adjunct instructors in Washington, D.C., and its Maryland suburbs is starting a similar regional campaign in Boston and is planning one in Los Angeles, too.

Service Employees International Union developed its “metropolitan” organizing strategy out of a belief that, by unionizing adjuncts at enough colleges in a large, urban labor market, it can put other colleges in that area under competitive pressure to improve their own adjunct instructors’ pay and working conditions.

As the article points out, Boston is among the cities selected for organizing efforts. On Saturday, Massachusetts Adjunct Action held a symposium at the Kennedy Library, drawing participants from some 20 area schools. Go here for social media commentary on the event.

Unpaid Internships Across the Pond

Peter Walker reports for The Guardian that the British government will investigate 100 firms for potential violations of wage laws stemming from their use of unpaid interns:

The government has referred 100 companies for investigation by HM Revenue and Customs after a campaign group told ministers they might be breaking the law through their use of unpaid interns.

The firms, which have not been identified publicly but are understood to include a number of household names, were referred by Jo Swinson, the junior employment minister, after a meeting she had with Intern Aware, which campaigns against the abuse of the internship process.

I hope this will inspire unpaid intern activists and the U.S. Department of Labor toward similar initiatives!

Hat tip to “Interns ≠ Free Labor” Facebook group

Fidelity exec on U.S. retirement savings

Fidelity’s head of asset management told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that America faces a crisis in terms of retirement readiness. Beth Healy reports for the Boston Globe:

Fidelity Investments’ president of asset management, Ronald O’Hanley, issued a stern warning Wednesday before a gathering of the US Chamber of Commerce that Americans are not saving enough for retirement and are in danger of living their later years in poverty.

O’Hanley told attendees at the chamber’s capital markets summit that the country needs to “act now to avert the looming catastrophe America faces if we don’t get serious about addressing the inadequacy of our retirement savings system.”

Already, nearly four in 10 retiree households do not have enough income to cover their monthly expenses, according to the Boston mutual fund giant’s research. And well over half of Americans have less than $25,000 in total savings, not counting their homes or pension plans, O’Hanley said.

It’s a message we cannot repeat too often.

The Future of Social Security

Of course, if we’re talking about retirement readiness, then the health of the Social Security program must be considered as well. The topic is all over the news right now because the folks in Washington D.C. are taking hard looks at how to shore up the Social Security retirement and disability funds. On the always interesting Next Avenue site, Richard Eisenberg has a good overview piece that examines the possible policy options:

You’ve probably heard a lot lately about President Barack Obama’s Chained CPI (Consumer Price Index) budget proposal, which would cut future Social Security annual cost of living increases, as I’ll explain shortly. But I’d like to tell you about other ways Social Security may be changing to remain solvent — and the one strategy for claiming benefits you might want to take advantage of before it disappears.

America’s economic meltdown continues for millions: Articles worth reading

The human costs of our ongoing economic crisis continue to mount. If your primary impressions of the economy are shaped by the rise in the Dow Jones Average, you might be wondering what I’m talking about. But for countless millions of others who are more concerned with the challenges of paying their bills, feeding their kids, saving for the future, and finding work, crisis remains an apt way to describe this economy.

I’ve collected a number of articles and blog posts that help us to connect the disturbing dots:

Bob’s cousin

Bob Rosner, blogging for Workplace Fairness Weekly, writes about “Broken Hearts: Unemployment’s Devastating Impact“:

Last week my cousin died of a heart attack. After working continuously for the first two-thirds of his career, recently he’d bounced from short term jobs to stretches of unemployment. This cycle is tough enough on someone just starting out a career, but for someone in their early 60’s, it can literally be a heartbreaker.

Read what he has to say about maintaining hope through the 4 “Ps”: perspective, pride, pals, and possibilities.

Profits over people — by a longshot

But hold on, it’s not as if our economy remains in complete meltdown mode. Nope, that just applies to the vast millions who are struggling to make ends meet and to secure decent work. Derek Thompson, business writer for The Atlantic, sums up the situation in meaty blog post:

Here are two things that are true about the economy today.

(1) The Dow Jones industrial average is poised to set a new record as corporate profits stretch to all-time highs.

(2) There are still fewer working Americans today than there were before the start of the Great Recession.

He goes on to explain:

When the economy crashes, we all crash together: corporate profits, employment, and growth. But when the economy recovers, we don’t recover together. Corporations rack up historic profits thanks to strong global demand, cheap global labor, and low interest rates, while American workers muddle along, their significance to these companies greatly diminished by a worldwide market for goods and people.

The forgotten

Although the official unemployment rate continues to improve very slowly, overlooked in those figures are the millions who are no longer included in the counts. Annalyn Kurtz reports for CNN.com:

An often overlooked number calculated by the Labor Department shows millions of Americans want a job but haven’t searched for one in at least a year. They’ve simply given up hope.

. . . These hopelessly unemployed workers have just been jobless so long, they’ve fallen off the main government measures altogether.

. . . Five years ago, before the recession began, about 2.5 million people said they wanted a job but hadn’t searched for one in at least a year. Now, that number is around 3.25 million.

The future of retirement

As I’ve written frequently here, the demise of retirement as a normal lifespan experience may be one of the longer-term effects of our economic condition. Steven Greenhouse, labor reporter for the New York Times, offers a thorough look at the future of retirement in the U.S.:

While retirement has assumed myriad forms across the country, many economists and other experts on retirement see some common, increasingly worrisome trends. A growing number of workers are convinced they will not have a comfortable retirement. A Boston College study in October found that 53 percent of Americans were “at risk” of being unable to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living once they retire, up from 30 percent in 1989. A study last May by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 44 percent may not have enough money to meet their basic needs in retirement.

Burdening next generations

As the cost of a college education continues to climb, student loan debt rises with it. Martha C. White reports for Time on the economic repercussions of massive student loan debt:

The broader economic implications are troubling. Graduates struggling to dig out from a mountain of student debt also tend to put off getting married, buying homes, and having kids. And since a bigger chunk of their income will go towards servicing the mortgages or car loans they are able to obtain at higher rates, they’ll have less spending power when they do eventually buy big-ticket items like homes and cars.

And that’s not even addressing the psychological impact of mountainous debt and reduced hopes. Cryn Johannsen of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project writes about the spectre of suicide in connection with student debt:

Suicide is the dark side of the student lending crisis and, despite all the media attention to the issue of student loans, it’s been severely under-reported. I can’t ignore it though, because I’m an advocate for people who are struggling to pay their student loans, and I’ve been receiving suicidal comments for over two years and occasionally hearing reports of actual suicides.

Inequality = more stress and illness

America’s wealth gap is widening despite the supposed economic recovery, reports Rick Newman for U.S. News & World Report:

The problem, however, is that the recession raised the bar for success while leaving fewer haves and more have-nots. America as a whole may be just as wealthy as it used to be, but the wealth is being shared by a smaller slice of the population. And that rearrangement may end up being permanent.

In this piece for BillMoyers.com, Theresa Riley interviews epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson, an authority on the destructive public health consequences of societal inequality:

The pattern we’ve found in our research is quite extraordinarily clear. More unequal countries, the ones with the bigger income differences between rich and poor have much more violence, worse life expectancy, more mental illness, more obesity, more people in prison, and more teenage births. All these problems get worse with greater inequality, because it damages the social fabric of a society.

The end of the American dream?

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, assessed our economy in the context of the November election:

In this election, each side debated issues that deeply worry me: the long malaise into which the economy seems to be settling, and the growing divide between the 1 percent and the rest — an inequality not only of outcomes but also of opportunity. To me, these problems are two sides of the same coin: with inequality at its highest level since before the Depression, a robust recovery will be difficult in the short term, and the American dream — a good life in exchange for hard work — is slowly dying.

Stiglitz’s public policy prescriptions “include, at least, significant investments in education, a more progressive tax system and a tax on financial speculation.”

Goodbye to trickle-down economics?

The policies that led us to this widening gap between the haves vs. the have-less and the have-nots have been at least 30 years in the making, with “trickle-down economics” being the policy mantra of the era. This concept held that if wealthy people could keep more of their money and businesses could be freed of regulatory safeguards, the benefits would trickle down to everyone else. The centerpiece of trickle-down theory was that tax cuts to the wealthy would give a jump start to America’s economic engine, an assumption rebutted in a non-partisan Congressional Research Service report discussed in this Huffington Post piece.

If you’re interested in learning more, read some of these articles and start connecting the dots for yourself. We’re at a critical economic juncture in America, and the well-being of all but the most fortunate is at stake.

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