As wages stagnate and costs rise, US workers recognise the guiding ideal of this nation for the delusional myth it is
Gary Younge Guardian/UK 22 September 2013
The final chapter of America's Promise, a high-school textbook on American history, ends with a rallying cry to national mythology.. “The full promise of America has yet to be realised. This is the real promise of America; the ability to dream of a better world to come."
Such are the assumptions beamed from the torch of Lady Liberty, coursing through the veins of the nation's political culture and imbibed with mothers' milk. Their nation, many will tell you, is not just a land mass but an ideal. Such devout optimism, even in the midst of adversity makes America, in equal parts, both exciting and delusional. According to Gallup, since 1977 people have consistently believed their financial situation will improve next year even when previous years have consistently been worse.
But when President Barack Obama was planning his run for a second term his pollsters noticed a profound shift in the national mood. "The language around the American dream wasn't carrying the same resonance," They weren't sure a college education was worth it."
This wasn't just about the recession, but a far more protracted, profound and painful descent in expectations and aspirations that has been taking place for several decades. For underpinning that faith in a better tomorrow was an understanding that inequality in wealth would be tolerated so long as it was coupled with a guarantee of equality of opportunity. In recent years they have seen both heading in the wrong direction – the gap between rich and poor has grown even as possibilities for economic and social advancement have stalled.
Between 2007 and 2010 the median American family lost a generation of wealth, putting them on a par with where they were in 1992. Last week the census revealed that median household income is roughly the same as it was in 1988 and that the poverty rate had actually increased since 1973. Meanwhile, median male earnings in 2010 were on a par with 1964. This is not for want of effort. American workers continue to make gains in productivity and American companies continue to reap the benefits. Last year corporate profits, as a share of the economy, were the highest since the second world war. The trouble is, none of the benefits went back to them
And while wages have stagnated, costs have shot up. A family's health insurance contributions have increased 90% over the past decade. Over the past five years tuition costs have leapt 27% at state universities and 13% at private institutions above inflation. A nation that has long prided itself on being forward-thinking is reconciling itself to going backwards. Both parties supported the financial deregulation and international trade liberalisation that laid the foundations for this despondency. Each blames the other for its consequences. Neither is capable of doing anything about it because the very monied interests that made this situation possible also make the politicians.
Little of this is unique to the US. The main countries within the European Union, including Britain, are suffering from wage stagnation. The retraction has not been taking place as long as it has in the US, but has been on the same trajectory for quite some time. But there are two key differences. The Germans, British and French were not raised with a guiding myth that is being contradicted at the end of every month when families routinely find they can't meet their expenses. Second, most European nations do have a welfare state (at least for now) that contends with the fallout. Those who look to America as a trendsetter that maps our future should be careful what they wish for.
The self-proclaimed leader of the free world is turning into a low-wage economy with a class system more rigid than most and a middle class that wavers between poverty and precariousness. More than half the people using the food bank in Larimer County, Colorado, that I visited last year were working. More than one in four families in New York's homeless shelters includes at least one working adult. In the absence of a living wage and an ethical pay structure, the work ethic, on which the American dream is founded, doesn't work. [Abridged]