The New York Times
Look out the window. 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. Not only are millions of people jobless and millions more underemployed, but more and more of the so-called fringe benefits and public services that help make life livable, or even bearable, in a modern society are being put to the torch.
Employer-based pensions, paid vacations, health benefits and the like are going the way of phone booths and VCRs. As poverty increases and reliable employment becomes less and less the norm, the dwindling number of workers with any sort of job security or guaranteed pensions (think teachers and other modestly compensated public employees) are being viewed with increasing contempt. How dare they enjoy a modicum of economic comfort?
It turns out that a lot of those jobs were never so secure, after all. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tells us:
“At least 44 states and the District of Columbia have reduced overall wages paid to state workers by laying off workers, requiring them to take unpaid leave (furloughs), freezing hew hires, or similar actions. State and local governments have eliminated 407,000 jobs since August 2008, federal data show.”
We have not faced up to the scale of the economic crisis that still confronts the United States.
Standards of living for the people on the wrong side of the economic divide are being ratcheted lower and will remain that way for many years to come. Forget the fairy tales being spun by politicians in both parties — that somehow they can impose service cuts that are drastic enough to bring federal and local budgets into balance while at the same time developing economic growth strong enough to support a robust middle class. It would take a Bernie Madoff to do that.
In the real world, schools and libraries are being closed and other educational services are being curtailed. Police officers are being fired. Access to health services for poor families is being restricted. “At least 29 states and the District of Columbia,” according to the budget center, “are cutting medical, rehabilitative, home care, or other services needed by low-income people who are elderly or have disabilities, or are significantly increasing the cost of these services.”
For a variety of reasons, there are not enough tax revenues being generated to pay for the basic public services that one would expect in an advanced country like the United States. The rich are not shouldering their fair share of the tax burden. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to consume an insane amount of revenue. And there are not enough jobs available at decent enough pay to ease some of the demand for public services while at the same time increasing the amount of taxes paid by ordinary workers.
The U.S. cannot cut its way out of this crisis. Instead of trying to figure out how to keep 4-year-olds out of pre-kindergarten classes, or how to withhold life-saving treatments from Medicaid recipients, or how to cheat the elderly out of their Social Security, the nation’s leaders should be trying seriously to figure out what to do about the future of the American work force.
Enormous numbers of workers are in grave danger of being left behind permanently. Businesses have figured out how to prosper without putting the unemployed back to work in jobs that pay well and offer decent benefits.
Corporate profits and the stock markets are way up. Businesses are sitting atop mountains of cash. Put people back to work? Forget about it. Has anyone bothered to notice that much of those profits are the result of aggressive payroll-cutting — companies making do with fewer, less well-paid and harder-working employees?
For American corporations, the action is increasingly elsewhere. Their interests are not the same as those of workers, or the country as a whole. As Harold Meyerson put it in The American Prospect: “Our corporations don’t need us anymore. Half their revenues come from abroad. Their products, increasingly, come from abroad as well.”
American workers are in a world of hurt. Anyone who thinks that politicians can improve this sorry state of affairs by hacking away at Social Security, Medicare and the public schools are great candidates for involuntary commitment.
New ideas on a grand scale are needed. The United States can’t thrive with so many of its citizens condemned to shrunken standards of living because they can’t find adequate employment. Long-term joblessness is a recipe for societal destabilization. It should not be tolerated in a country with as much wealth as the United States. It’s destructive, and it’s wrong.