On Sunday, the Seattle Times had a front-page article about crime, drugs, trash and human excrement in SODO (Seattle’s stadium/industrial area) from an influx of RV dwellers who park there because police have given up trying to control the area. The last time M and I saw these conditions was during a garbage worker strike in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Then, this morning, our friend Laura called to tell us a midnight marauder had broken into and ransacked her son’s car, reclined the seat and slept in it. This was in a quiet residential neighborhood. Was it ballsy or just desperate? I sympathized with Laura and her son but felt sad for the perp at the same time.
And, tonight, coming out of our local market, we were met by a young woman selling Real Change, the non-profit Seattle newspaper sold by homeless or near homeless vendors. Sellers pay $.60 for each paper and resell them for $2. Our girl was smiling and grateful when I gave her $3, and though it was nothing to us it meant a meal for her. I should have given her more. I will next time.
Are these examples of the new normal?
Today is the 32nd day of the longest government shutdown in our country’s history. 800,000 federal employees are either furloughed and/or working without pay. Most are struggling to find a survival strategy until this nightmare is over… but government workers are not the only Americans thinking about survival.
Those of us who are privileged need to stop fooling ourselves.
Marilynn and I are in a couple’s book group, and our most recent selection, Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, is a study in how a growing segment of older Americans is coping with their survival.
Nomadland chronicles the lives of a growing band of older, mostly white, Americans who have been downsized out of jobs, lost their homes to foreclosure, can’t afford an apartment, were ruined financially by a medical expenses, or lost a wage-earner spouse who left them with nothing but a small monthly Social Security check. Their survival strategy is to embrace the “vandweller” lifestyle–living in small older RV’s, working seasonal jobs as campground hosts or “Camperforce” workers at Amazon distribution centers, moving from part time job to part time job as they travel around the country.
They have learned to adapt to a subsistence level of personal comfort and to survive by sharing tips on jobs, mechanical repairs, RV improvements, parking places, and how to avoid police harassment with their vandweller compatriots. These modern nomads live by forming friendships, coping strategies and support systems based on shared experiences. I find their vandweller lifestyle both sad and inspiring, unimaginable and creative, unacceptable and another iteration of the new normal.
Ms. Bruder followed them, formed friendships, and camped with them for three years. She ended up admiring their grit and creativity and her book tells their story. Read it!
From the Gold Watch to the Pink Slip
In my adult lifetime I have seen America…
- Drift from a thriving economy where companies bargained with employee unions and both sides prospered to organized attacks on unions and the enactment of state right-to-work laws that strongly favor employers.
- I’ve seen good manufacturing jobs give way to automation without a national plan for retraining.
- I’ve seen the funding for public education gutted by ballot referendums like California’s Proposition 13.
- I watched as traditional employee-centered companies surrendered to Wall Street’s shareholder value model resulting in layoffs for well-paid older workers and the hiring of, less expensive younger replacements, where the savings were funneled to skyrocketing executive salaries.
- I watched as my defined benefit pension plan, like so many others, was “stolen” and replaced by a much less to generous 401k.
- I’ve seen company paid insurance plans given up in exchange for a patchwork of state directed insurance offerings through Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.
- M and I grew up in strong, healthy middle-class families but lived to see our children’s two-income families struggle because Congress chooses to reward a few gold-plated 1% families.
What is the effect of these changes in my lifetime?
For decades, the US was recognized as having the world’s highest standard of living. That is no longer true. In 2014, adjusted for income inequality (UN Human Development Index which measures health, education, and per capita income) the US ranked 27th(tied with Poland).
According to 2017 US Census Bureau figures, 39.7 million Americans are living in poverty, 18.5 million of them in “deep poverty” (more than 50% below the poverty line) and an estimated 100 million “near” poverty. Every day we read about the increase in homelessness. Every night 40,057 veterans and 1,500,000 children are sleeping on American streets without shelter.
Today, nearly 70% of Americans consider themselves middle-class, but according to a Pew Research Center report the real number is just over 50%. Another recent study revealed that 78% of all full time American workers live paycheck to paycheck. (CNBC) Watch the news tonight and listen to the stories of furloughed federal employees who can’t pay their rent or mortgage and have to stand in line at food banks to get groceries for their families. That’s what happens when you live paycheck to paycheck and the government stops paying you.
What about healthcare? Out of 33 developed countries, the US is the only one without universal health coverage. US healthcare costs are $8,745 per capita, highest in the world, and despite having the most expensive health care system, the United States ranks last overall among 11 industrialized countries on measures of health system quality, efficiency, access to care, equity, and healthy lives, according to a Commonwealth Fund report (2014).
Let’s get real!
Given the statistics, American “exceptionalism” is a thing of the past though most Americans still believe in America’s promise. Building a wall on our southern border is not going to help deliver on that promise or benefit anyone but Don the Builder. That one rich man can hold 800,000 unpaid workers hostage in order to secure funding for a vanity project is obscene.
Today it was announced that funding for SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) is in jeopardy for March. Congress and Mr. Trump are still getting paid but food, in addition to paychecks, is being withheld by OUR government.
Let’s take the government back! Several plans have been offered to reopen the government. There is only one issue and one resister. Funding for “border security” can be isolated and negotiated separately. We need courageous leadership and the resister-in-chief is not providing it. It’s time for this to end.
In the meantime, Chef Jose Andres and his peripatetic World Central Kitchen, famous for providing free meals in disaster situations like Puerto Rico, and the recent California fires, has served 20,000 free meals and given bags of free groceries to furloughed US government employees on Pennsylvania Avenue in the last two weeks. Chef Andres’ location, it should be noted, is not far from the White House where the resister-in-chief so proudly served 300 Big Mac “hamberders” (that he “paid for himself,” yes, he really tweeted that) to the national champion Clemson Tiger football team last week. Really? Is this what inspirational leadership looks like?
Do you have a survival strategy? It’s become clear that we all need one.