I preface this post with the admission that I have always been a child of privilege. I come from a family of well-educated Chinese immigrants; my mother is the only member of her generation on either her or my father’s side of the family that didn’t earn a Ph.D. (she only has a measly Masters, much like her slacker son and his Harvard MBA).
I grew up in a home my family owned, with a mother who didn’t have to work outside the home, and could focus on raising two kids. We even paid exorbitant sums of money so I could attend a pricey private school for gifted children (we weren’t rich however; once I started attending the Mirman School, our old practice of vacations around the world–Bermuda, the Bahamas, Japan, Taiwan–went by the wayside, replaced by shorter domestic trips to visit family).
My parents got to live the American dream–they sent their son to Stanford (which they paid for), and put me on the express train to success.
But I also recognize that I have been insanely lucky. Thus far, my family has been sheltered from the economic storms of the past few decades. My father was never out of work. We never had to move or do without.
That’s why I spend time thinking about the plight of Americans who have been shunted aside by our winner-take-most world. I recently read this New Yorker article about two working-class families that filmmakers followed for 20 years:
“If you screened “Two American Families” for Charles Murray and other
social critics who believe that the decline of America’s working class
comes from a collapse of moral values, social capital, personal
responsibility, and traditional authority, they would probably be able
to find the evidence they’d need to insulate themselves against the
sorrow at the heart of the film. None of the four parents finished
college. The Neumanns’ divorce leaves Terry and the children in worse
straits than ever. The Stanleys don’t move to rural Mississippi, where
life is cheaper. The kids make plenty of their own mistakes. None of
them thinks of inventing Napster. The Stanleys and Neumanns are punished
to the fullest extent of the economic law for every mistake made, and
for all the mistakes they didn’t make.
But the intellectually honest response to this film is much less
comforting, for the overwhelming impression in “Two American Families”
is not of mistakes but of fierce persistence: how hard the Stanleys and
Neumanns work, how much they believe in playing by the rules, how
remarkable the cohesion of the Stanley family is, how tough Terry
Neumann has to become. Both families devoutly attend church. Government
assistance is alien and hateful to them. Keith Stanley says, “I don’t
know what drugs or even alcohol looks like.” In the words of Tammy
Thomas, whose similar story is told in my new book, “The Unwinding:
An Inner History of the New America,” these people do what they’re
supposed to do. They have to navigate this heartless economy by
themselves. And they keep sinking and sinking.”
The reasons for the sinking are well-known; a global economy and improved technology have eliminated the low-skill, high-wage union manufacturing jobs that enabled so many blue-collar workers to live the American Dream during the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. My father-in-law, for example, hustled his way into the American Dream, owning his own home and sending his daughter to Harvard, despite being an immigrant with no more than a high school diploma. But there is no way to bring those jobs back, despite what economic creationists like Barbara Ehrenreich might think.
Yet the fact that people aren’t well-suited to the new global economy is not a good excuse to discard them like obsolete laser discs.
The Charles Murrays of the world can argue that the poor make poor decisions, but those poor decisions occur because people don’t have the training or experience to make good ones. I remember one TV special about a young Ivy-league graduate who spent a year on his own, with no money, no help, and without revealing his education. He worked his way up to a steady job, an apartment, a used car, and a growing savings account. Yet while he couldn’t use his tangible advantages, he could use the discipline and skill built up over a lifetime of privilege.
The way to break the cycle is to give all Americans the breathing room to develop that discipline and skill.
There are three big non-discretionary expenses most families face: Healthcare, Education, and Housing. The three are intimately linked; Senator Elizabeth Warren for example, wrote a book about how the pursuit of education launched a housing arms race (thanks to our system of tying education to geography). As a result, even middle-class families’ finances are stretched thin, and the most common reason they break is because of unexpected healthcare costs.
I’d be willing to bet that most of the stress in families’ lives come from those three factors.
We don’t have to fix all three; simply relieving the strain on two of the three would be enough.
If we really want to help those who have been harmed by structural changes in the economy, America should provide universal healthcare and education. (Universal housing is simply too difficult to make happen, as urban planners have repeatedly learned to their sorrow)
Universal healthcare and education would give all Americans the opportunity to get an education and develop life skills, without the constant tension today’s working-class families feel.
Even with these supports, some people would make poor decisions and lead hapless lives, but that is simply part of reality. We cannot and should not target equality of outcome. But these supports would help the talented but poor focus on maximizing their talents and, in the process, the value they create for society.