The financial press was agog this week with reports that the New York Stock Exchange had reached a three-year high. Life is looking good for those with a stake in the big board. But what about the other America? How are residents of the subterranean continent living beneath the media’s radar faring? Not so well, I suspect.
I spoke a bail bondsman I know here in Connecticut. I was wondering why he’d not referred a case to me in a while. "No one has money," he said. "I have never seen anything like it." I hear such things often from lawyers. Clients have no money. There is trouble aplenty out there. But ordinary people can’t pay for representation.
My hunch is that the days of easy credit are long gone, and so, too, is home equity. Clients in need for years were able to tap a credit card or equity line for legal fees when trouble came unexpectedly. Now when trouble comes, there is no money left in the credit markets.
But what of the booming stock market? Don’t all boats rise when good times return?
Not hardly. Some folks just drown.
If that sounds unduly pessimistic, consider the data recently assembled by Charles Blow for his column in The New York Times. (If you don’t read the Times regularly, you are missing a treat, at least on Saturday. Each week, Blow presents a graphic column, using data generated from a wide variety of sources to do with charts, graphs and images what other columnists do with words.)
The United States ranks among the worst advanced economies in terms of quality of life. Only Singapore and Hong Kong report wider disparities in income. A recent survey found that 16 percent of Americans have worried within the past year about not having funds sufficient to purchase food, a number that was matched only by South Korea. Life expectancy at birth for Americans is among the worst of the 33 countries surveyed. But by far and away, we are off the charts in prison population per 100,000. We imprison 743 Americans per 100,000 population; that is double the rate of the next closest nation, Israel, which imprisons 365 people per 100,000 population.
I looked at these numbers, and considered the now surging stock markets, and my thoughts turned to a book that was once so influential it now has its own Wikipedia entry, Michael Harrington’s The Other America. Harrington wrote about poverty in the United States, providing such a powerful presentation of the forgotten lives lived just around the corner that it helped mobilize the Great Society and the war on poverty. Who is writing The Other America for today? Barbara Ehrenreich comes close. Read Nickled and Dimed. Just why did Glenn Beck take aim at Frances Fox Pliven, co-author of Hidden Injuries of Class?
I know there is distress out there. I see it in the stories my clients tell. I hear about it when lawyers and bondsmen report that suddenly their phones are quiet, and folks don’t have the funds necessary to pay for necessities. Blow’s column was like a body blow to the mid-section. "Empire at the End of Decadence," the banner headline read. "American Shame," a sub-headline declared.
Is now the time to press for economic rights as part of the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? There are cycles in American political thought. At the founding, we created a limited federal government. After the Civil War, a government of broad national powers emerged. But this government was limited by reconstruction’s backlash, and the courts were reluctant to give full effect to the Bill of Rights as against the state. At mid-century, broad federal legislation made political and civil rights more accessible to all; the courts went about the work of imposing obligations to honor the Bill of Rights on the states. Faltering steps were made to secure economic security for vulnerable Americans. By century’s end, the government’s role in assisting the Other America was under attack. We see today a nation divided, with too many Americans living marginalized lives, far from the glitter of the market.
My hunch is that our incarceration rates are so high because we cannot create a society in which the hopes of all for decent lives are integrated into a meaningful whole. We incarcerate the surplus population for offenses driven in many cases by a failure of hope. We do all this and we boast that we are free.
I cannot quite get a bead on all this. I catch snippets here and there. Today I see an uproar in Wisconsin, and I call it hope. People forging connections one with another and then appearing as one wave to crash into a government that cannot hear the rising tide of despair that defines the lives of many. I wonder, really, whether the Other America might learn once again to speak, and to demand something other than the rhetoric the right offers about freedom, and the rhetoric what portrays itself as the left in our elected politics offers about realism. I wonder whether a little fire this time might not awaken an elite slumbering and counting its gains in the stock market.
Is the Other America reawakening?