Letting go of our economic myths and fantasies

America is supposed to be the land of opportunity, where people who work hard can create wealth and security for themselves and their families. Yet, the startling rise of families living in poverty challenges this treasured American myth. Leo Hindery, Jr., Chairman of the US Economy/Smart Globalization Initiative of the New America Foundation, feels the Obama administration is not paying enough attention to what he calls a “pandemic of poverty” sweeping the nation.  His article describing this disaster, “America’s Dirty Little Secret:  Who’s Really Poor in America” can be found here.

The statistics Hindery offers are shocking:

  • At least 50 million people are ill-fed — up from 37 million just a year ago — including 17 million children. Hunger in America is now at an all-time high, and there are currently entire national geographic regions — the very large 15-state ‘South’ being one of them — where more than half of all public school students are poor and ill-fed.
  • 30% of the nation’s 50 million homeowners own a home whose value is below its mortgage balance, and this number could rise to an almost unbelievable 50% by year-end 2011.
  • Despite the truly dismal ‘real unemployment’ figures with which most everyone now agrees — a staggering 30 million workers and 19% of the labor force — very little attention is being paid to the particularly adverse effects the recession is having on people of color, recent immigrants, and out-of-school youth. And almost no one is acknowledging the sad reality that even the nation’s 130 million full-time workers have had an average economic loss of 15% just since December 2007 — an average effective work week of 34 hours rather than 40 — which means that the number of unemployed workers, measured economically, is actually as high as 50 million.
  • And 100 million people, fully one-third of the entire U.S. population, are at or below “200% of the federal poverty line of $21,834 for a family of four,” which is a needs-measure made lame by the fact that no family of four can actually comfortably live on such a low annual income.

Hindery feels the best response to this sobering reality is to adopt FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights” that would guarantee every person, in addition to education and health care:

  • “a job with a living wage. . . .that would earn enough to provide adequate food, clothing  and recreation;
  • “protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment;”
  • “and a decent home.”

FDR wanted to create a socialist democracy, a regulated market economy, which would provide a basic standard of living for every citizen. He sought equality in the pursuit of happiness and believed individual freedom requires economic security. But a socialist democracy that spreads the wealth and insures the basic well being of all its citizens, flies in the face of the individualist American fantasy of becoming wealthy and powerful. For the many who still live in this fantasy world, a socialist democracy would curtail personal economic freedom and that chance to “make it big.” But in reality, although a small percentage of Americans have amassed large sums of money, the vast majority never will. In our current fantasy-based “free market” economy, a shocking number of us cannot even afford basic needs. And a country without a stable middle class effectively kills opportunity for all, except for the financial and corporate elite.

Until we Americans collectively shed our economic myths and fantasies, we will not be able to grow and mature as a nation.  A mature citizenry, in my opinion, would embrace the wisdom of FDR’s economic bill of rights. It was a great idea when he introduced it in January 1944, and it remains a great idea today.