“None of us can thrive in a nation divided between a small number of people receiving an even larger share of the nation’s income and wealth, and everyone else receiving a declining share. The lopsidedness not only diminishes economic growth but also tears at the fabric of our society.” — Robert B. Reich, “Aftershock.”
We’ve really gotten ourselves in a pickle, haven’t we? Seems it all started in the ’70s or so when many women of the middle class decided that mothering and housework didn’t challenge them enough — when mom no longer had to milk the cow, tend the garden, hang the wash out to dry and iron most of it. More and more modern household appliances made housework and child care easier. Automatic washers and dryers, perma-press fabrics, and most families had two cars, so shopping was easy. Families were generally smaller and, especially after the kids were in school, many moms became restless. PTA and Tupperware parties didn’t fill the gap.
Aided and abetted by the women’s movement, many mothers found their place in the workforce. More and more families got used to the extra cash and set their standards of material accumulation higher — a larger home, flashy car, more and better fashions, karate and dance lessons for the kids, etc. The great American Dream was flourishing and it wasn’t long before, in order to keep up with the Joneses, it became essential for mom to be employed. It also became more common for mom to go to work not long after giving birth and find junior some kind of day care arrangement. Add, for whatever reason, the increase in single mothers, and the workplace became more and more feminine.
The proliferation of things to spend money on grew: cable television, computers, smartphones, video games, eating out, salon treatments, teeth whitening, and even stiff competition for the most impressive handbag. So where has all of this transformation taken us? It underlies a great lack of focus on things that are really important — like family, relationships, the welfare of the middle and working classes and the way our country is becoming more and more beholden to greedy corporate interests.
Along with these, there were other gradual changes, as described by Mr. Reich. “Starting in the late 1970s, and with increasing fervor over the next three decades it (government) deregulated and privatized. It increased the cost of public education, reduced job training, cut public transportation and allowed bridges, ports and highways to corrode. It shredded safety nets — reducing aid to jobless families with children and restricted those eligible for unemployment insurance so much that by 2007 only 40 percent of the unemployed were covered.”
Reich added: “We allowed companies to break the bargain with impunity — slashing jobs and wages, cutting benefits and shifting risks to employees, from you-can-count-on-it pensions to do-it-yourself 401(k)s, from good health coverage to soaring premiums and deductions. We stood by while American companies became global companies with no more loyalty or connection to the United States than a GPS device.”
Many giant industries had decided that producing products in a country that tolerated unions provided living wages, pensions and health insurance, etc. would bring in bigger profits if made in Mexico or China. So they closed down many operations in the United States, leaving their workers in the lurch, often having to grab whatever employment they could find — benefits or not — and becoming victims of a corporate exodus to greener pastures. So now many families who were thriving toward the end of the last century have been struggling to stay afloat. The rich are getting richer while the middle and working classes desperately try to maintain some sense of normalcy. And corporate interests laugh all the way to the bank.
Unfortunately, now most people are so busy trying to keep their heads above water that they have no time or energy to devote to political activism. For them, the Great American Dream has become a mere apparition. Charles Derber describes it well in “Corporation Nation”: “Harried, exhausted and helpless, many Americans retreat after work to the cocoon of their television room. There we are comfortably seduced by corporate messages about the world, pacified by sitcoms and soaps, and removed from the contact with others that might begin to elicit a sense of empowerment and hope.” And don’t forget addiction to their many digital devices.
Naomi Wolf warns us in her provocative book “The End of America”: “We have to abandon the passive role we have accepted as mere consumers of media; we must see ourselves in a new light — or rather see ourselves once again in a revolutionary light — as citizen leaders responsible to speak the truth.”
So, what next?
Since 1984, Dorothy Dimitre has written more than 700 columns for various local newspapers. Her email address is email@example.com.