9:21 AM Eastern - Wednesday, June 23, 2010

You've Got Nothing Coming

Things are bad right now for a lot of families. Elizabeth Warren laid out exactly how bad they'd gotten last December, and not much has changed since:

... Today, one in five Americans is unemployed, underemployed or just plain out of work. One in nine families can't make the minimum payment on their credit cards. One in eight mortgages is in default or foreclosure. One in eight Americans is on food stamps. More than 120,000 families are filing for bankruptcy every month. ...

Many of the Americans in these dire circumstances, as Warren puts it later in her article, "did all the right things, but ... still have no real security." Typical wages have stayed flat while productivity went up, while health and child care costs went up, while housing costs went up. Wages stayed flat, relative to inflation, as executive pay went way, way up and taxes on the wealthy went way, way down.

The banks that crashed the world economy grew too big to fail out of extending credit to make up the gap between pay and living expenses for the majority of the population. Or, as Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO said recently, "You can't subsitute bad loans for good jobs without bringing on a catastrophe."

And now that most people are either broke or mortally terrified of becoming so, politicians and economists are conditioning people to get used to it, because unemployment isn't going down and no one's worried about it anymore. Congress told the unemployed last week that there was no help on the way.

A political discourse that used to center around how best to realize the American Dream has become an endless chorus belting out one crushing message:

You've got nothing coming.

Take retirement, if you can.

As pensions were replaced with 401(k) plans, workers depending on them for retirement were promised high rates of return that would more than cover the risks they were taking. Some of the best payouts went to fund managers. Workers who were still covered by a pension system, and who may have taken pay cuts to secure future pension payouts, saw those funds raided to pad profits and cut down by corporate bankruptcies.

Now, with millions of Americans uncertain about even their immediate futures, attacks on Social Security, the only guaranteed retirement income for many, have stepped up. Though Social Security can pay for itself for the next 34 years (via) without any changes, the program is said to be in crisis.

Now, the only people in the country, besides CEOs, with decent private retirement security are public employees. The same public employees who are being blamed for the national budget crises. Though as Amy Traub writes:

... [When ...] education and work experience are accounted for, state and local employees earn 11 to 12 percent less than comparable private sector workers. ... [D]espite recent declines in home prices, police officers and elementary school teachers still don't earn enough to buy a typical house in two out of five metro areas. Firefighters and librarians are unable to afford the median home in the New York, Los Angeles and Chicago metro areas. Nationwide, a school bus driver's wage isn't enough to pay rent on a standard two-bedroom apartment. ...

This is the privileged elite that's irresponsibly plunged the country into debt? The police officers and librarians of America have been living high on the hog? Our local elementary school teachers broke the bank?

If only it were true that we valued their professions so well.

Though in fact, in West Philadelphia, where I've been renting for the past couple years, the area's educators have turned a declining neighborhood into a stable, vibrant community. They've created tremendous returns for local homeowners in the Penn Alexander elementary school catchment by providing, with extra funding and curriculum support from the University of Pennsylvania, good educations for young children:

... The school, with math and reading rankings well above the state average, has helped make the community one of the most sought-after in the city, bringing rapid change in a neighborhood that was seen as gasping for air 15 years ago.

... A differential long existed, with homes closer to Penn, the city's largest private employer, costing more than those farther away. But the gap has widened since Penn Alexander opened, and now a house in the catchment area will cost about $100,000 more than the same house across the line, according to Kevin Gillen, vice president of Econsult, an economic-consulting firm in West Philadelphia, and an expert in the Philadelphia housing market. ...

That's what good education can do for a community, even if teachers who can't afford a home of their own may provide it for us. And public employees provide a lot, for all of us.

Telling teachers or child-care workers they don't deserve their meager pay tells the rest of us that we don't deserve good learning environments for our children.

Attacks on the health care and pensions of firefighters or police officers tell the rest of us that we don't deserve good emergency services.

Attacks on the benefits of public sanitation and transit employees tell the rest of us that we don't deserve clean, safe streets or good public transit.

Attacking the people who make our towns and cities livable is a direct attack on the standard of living of every American. It's a claim that, contrary to the cherished American dream, we've got nothing coming. Not even a public library to go to when we're down on our luck and can't afford the movies.

It's a sorry state of affairs when the political establishment is so afraid to call crony capitalism to account that, in their desperation to be seen holding someone accountable, they start blaming fire departments. Nothing can be done about Citigroup, so they're trying to get people drowning in debt to be mad at school janitors instead; what good is a clean school, anyway?

Genius.

Have they been telling us we've got nothing coming for long enough that we believe it, long enough for it to work?

Not if the residents of Pacoima, CA have anything to say about it. How about you?

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