ORIGINALLY WRITTEN PAUL PENNER
During last week’s PBS broadcast of “Now,” host Bill Moyer focused on middle-class America’s slow march toward extinction.
Thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, Moyer reported that this country lost 995,000 jobs in the last 30 months to countries such as Honduras, where the average wages were 55 cents per hour with no benefits.
Moyer said much of the American middle class is slipping below the poverty line, and, though employed, these citizens are no longer able to maintain their own standard of living. They have become a class of working poor.
One can debate whether the problems are the result of the globalization of trade, via trade agreements like NAFTA, or that other influences, like tax policies, as suggested by other observers, have had as much influence on the decline of the middle class as jobs leaving the country.
In any case, it is becoming increasingly evident that something is fundamentally changing the structure of the American economy.
According to Business Week’s Oct. 20 issue, the Labor Department’s report of gaining 57,000 jobs raised spirits on Wall Street. But that is hardly any consolation when compared to the net loss of nearly 1 million jobs prior to that time.
Such statistics-otherwise known as the cold, hard facts-have little impact on our own, small-town world until we, or someone we know, experiences the cold, hard reality of losing a job, or is facing a reduction in workload that brings their family perilously close to the brink of financial ruin.
Add to that mix losing health-insurance benefits and actually incurring a flood of medical claims, and the noose has all but snuffed out a family’s financial life.
Instead of reading statistics, the victims are known to us and we see their painful journey in life. And it hurts us to watch them struggle.
The term “victim,” however, is often viewed in a negative light- especially by those who seem immune to the effects of this new economic reality.
“It’s their own fault!” is a phrase often heard in the marketplace of ideas. “They are just too stupid to do anything else; they chose this work,” is another common sentiment.
When seen by people on the outside, the illogical dance toward the precipice appears to have an easy solution: Simply stop the behavior, get smart (how you do that is your problem) and choose another path.
But the problems are often complex and require an ability to overcome and persevere, which by this time, is not even a dream, let alone an idea one can act on.
By the time an outsider notices the fallout from the effects of financial cutbacks, the family car is in need of repair, maintenance of the family home has been neglected for a long time, small health-care problems have developed into bigger ones and family harmony is perilously close to the breaking point.
Add a few quirks in behavior that seem harmless in the beginning-like drinking alcohol on weekends or occasional use of recreational drugs-and there is a greater chance that divorce and a fractured family life is in their future.
“This is so negative,” some may say. “It’s time to take a step back and not let this ruin the holiday spirit.”
That depends on one’s perspective. Ask someone who has a well-paying job, a healthy retirement plan and generous health benefits, and you see only half of the picture. Ask the one who is living through this nightmare, and you see much more of the picture.
I am not suggesting that all who have been insulated from the latest economic downturn are ungrateful, uncaring and self-centered people. Nor am I suggesting that all who are experiencing a lower standard of living are victims of someone else’s treachery. People have been known to engage in destructive behavior, and have made the choice to do so.
With that exception, however, the differences between the fortunate and the less fortunate are not as great as one might think.
Imagine for a moment what one’s outcome might be if, instead of having been given the gift of great intellectual thought and excellent physical prowess, one was less gifted. Or, perhaps one still had a good mind, but was held captive by multiple sclerosis or some other degenerative disease.
An equally tragic circumstance may be that one has all the gifts and abilities of an Albert Einstein or Michael Jordan, but is born into a family with members struggling with an addiction or sexual abuse, and is sucked into the downward spiral of this lifestyle.
The thought of being blessed with the good things in life-like having a well-maintained home, a well-paying job, a family that loves and cares for each other-has now been placed in its proper perspective.
From that perspective, it is my hope that we who are more fortunate are willing to not only share a part of our good fortune during the Thanksgiving holiday, but to find ways to help restore the blessings in life to others.