August 12, 2017, Da Lat, Vietnam
My childhood family in High Point, North Carolina was poor. My parents were high school grads who found their way from farms 20 miles south, to this small textile and furniture town, and both got jobs at the most prominent textile factory, Adams Millis. All four kids worked on our small truck farm at the North end of town, and for neighbors–mowing lawns, harvesting tobacco, washing cars, stacking produce at the local grocery store, whatever we could find. Starting wage for me was $.15 per hour at age 12. When I entered college on a scholarship, my wages were $.75 per hour in the reference library.
My parents were never able to save. Even with the harvest of crops on our small farm, their combined wages were barely enough to keep us in a used pickup and a beat up car, plus clothing and essentials.
This may seem really rough, but that wasn’t how it felt in those days. We were poor, but clearly far from the poorest in town. There were many like us. We always had transportation, decent clothes, school supplies, and plenty of good food. Dad raised pigs and chickens for meat and mother canned a lot of the summer crops to last us through the winter. We felt happy and secure. We had “enough.”
To supplement his wages, my father sold produce off the back of his pickup truck, sometimes in the African American neighborhood of High Point–and there, we could see real poverty.
There are three important differences between then and now:
- We had advantages
- Times have changed
- Inequality has risen sharply
First, as children of the 50s and 60s in the US, my family was white and we were WASPS. Our hard working parents went to church, didn’t drink, and didn’t use drugs. We had support from friends and relatives in a crime free environment. We had decent public schools. But the makeup of our nation today doesn’t look like High Point in the 60s and 70s. What about the millions today who are not white, not WASPS, may not have solid parents, live in real poverty far worse than we experienced, and may be surrounded by criminals, drugs, and little in the way of support?
Second, times have changed. Although we were poor, the reality is that we had little doubt about opportunity at that time in the US. When I graduated, I knew there would be many jobs available to me, and only worried about how to choose the best one. IBM offered me a job and Citibank another. I took banking. My brother took Southern Bell. My sister took Sears Roebuck, and the youngest took the Trammel Crow real estate firm in Texas. We all had the possibility of long term employment. We all had benefits including health insurance.
Our careers spanned a rapidly changing jobs era in America. These days, even if you have a college degree, it’s not that easy to find a good job, or to keep it. With the cost of education outpacing wages by a wide margin since the 70s, many more cannot afford college. Good luck if you can’t get through college today! The triple forces of Conservative economic policies since Reagan, globalization, and technology have eviserated manufacturing jobs, which Trump tries in vain to restore. There was opportunity and mobility then.
Third, as I argue in previous posts, inequality matters. Inequality has skyrocketed while mobility has simultaneously declined. Even in those days. we were painfully aware that there were social classes to which we were not privileged in our small town. You might ask, so what, everyone has someone above them in income and class, right? Yes, right, and we Liberals have no interest in completely eliminating inequality–only in significantly moderating it. While inequality/status was a mild depressant then, it is now colored in bold terms all around us. In previous posts, I cite studies which show the damaging effects of high levels of inequality. Those include physical and mental health, life expectancy, crime, drugs, and slowed economic growth, plus the obvious misery of those at the bottom.
If only the US of today was committed to everyone “having enough” as a social contract. That’s not adequate, as I have argued above, but we don’t even have that. We have something like a philosophy of responsibility for yourself. Translation: If you are out of work, it is probably your own fault and we only help (a little) those who demonstrate that they try hard. They can only demonstrate trying hard by actually finding work. Thus the earned income tax credit–you can’t get support if you don’t have income.
Isn’t it obvious that we need a re-vitalized and active government (you can choose Federal, State or Local, it’s all government) to address the future of work, community, shared prosperity, and inequality? Is there an alternative?