Preface to the Paperback Edition
When I sat down to write “Third World America” in the spring of last year, my goal, as I put it in the Preface, was “to sound the alarm” so the United States could course-correct while there was still time.
In the year since, much has happened in America, including a midterm election in which the still-struggling economy was front and center – and which resulted in what President Obama called a “shellacking” of the Democrats… and of the status quo.
So, has the alarm been heeded?
Any honest observer would have to say no – not with the urgency the ongoing decline of the middle class demands.
At the same time, the fact that the American Dream has turned into a nightmare for millions of middle-class families has finally entered the national conversation. Indeed, as I write this, the cover story of Time Magazine is a debate between the competing claims that "Yes, America Is in Decline,” and "No, America Is Still No. 1."
And in his State of the Union address in January, it was clear that the future of America's middle class was foremost in President Obama's mind. "At stake," he said, “is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else. It’s whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded...whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world." We can chart our progress, he continued, "by the opportunities for a better life that we pass on to our children."
He also acknowledged that something profound has changed. "For many, the change has been painful," he said. "I've seen it in the shuttered windows of once booming factories, and the vacant storefronts on once busy Main Streets."
He ended by calling for a new "Sputnik moment," in which we "out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world." And we will do this, he said, because "we do big things."
It is certainly true that America has done big things, but if we're going to continue to do big things, we will have to have a much bigger debate than the one our leaders are currently engaging in.
Despite the suffering of the middle class, the terms of the current debate about how to, as the president put it during the State of the Union, "win the future" are fatally limited.
With 25 million people unemployed or underemployed, the economic debate in Washington – on both sides of the aisle – has focused almost entirely on spending cuts.
Time and time again we hear talk of the "hard sacrifices" and "tough choices" the American people are going to have to accept. And yet in December 2010 Congress passed and the president signed a tax cut for the richest Americans that will cost us $60 billion a year -- it was, once again, only the middle class and working families that had to make all these "tough choices."
Somehow, the conventional wisdom in Washington has shrunk the debate to a choice between disastrous cuts that would cripple the middle class and slow the long-term growth of the U.S. economy, and slightly less disastrous cuts that would cripple the middle class and slow the long-term growth of the U.S. economy. We desperately need to enlarge that debate.
At the moving memorial service held in Tucson in the wake of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the president called on us to "use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations" and "sharpen our instincts for empathy." And he went further still and defined the challenge ahead: "to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American Dream to future generations."
But that dream will be harder to bequeath when so many of our children are able to get a good education only if their number pops up in a school entry lottery. It will be harder to bequeath when millions of families are being forced out of their homes because of foreclosures that could have been avoided. It will be harder to bequeath when children are left with mothers or fathers thrown into deep depression because they’ve lost their job and can’t get another one.
A look at the statistics tells a depressing tale:
According to the Casey Foundation, over 20 percent of children in America -- that's more than 14.5 million kids -- are living in poverty, facing conditions that undermine their health, their school performance, and their chances for the future.
More than 16.7 million children live in households that struggle to put food on the table -- and kids who are "food insecure" do worse in reading and math and have higher rates of anxiety and depression.
More than a million and a half American children are homeless, forcing them to endure, in the words of the National Center on Family Homelessness, "a lack of safety, comfort, privacy, reassuring routines, adequate health care, uninterrupted schooling, sustaining relationships, and a sense of community." And the problems are getting worse.
The percentage of children living in low-income families went from 37 percent in 2000 to 42 percent in 2009.
Using the president’s yardstick of charting our progress by the opportunities we pass on to our children, we’re certainly not winning the present. Not with 2.2 million homes in the process of foreclosure. Not with consumer bankruptcies expected to exceed 1.5 million in 2011. Not with a crumbling infrastructure that will require $2.2 trillion over 5 years to fix. And not while we’re still spending $2.5 billion a week on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that are not essential to our national security.
But despite all this, the experience of writing this book – and then traveling around the country talking about it -- ultimately left me feeling hopeful. It’s because I was again and again struck by the resilience, creativity, and acts of compassion that I discovered taking place all across America.
They convinced me that we can turn things around, as long as we demand more from our political and business leaders -- and more, much more, from ourselves.
And that’s why, since the book was published, in speeches and on HuffPost, I’ve focused much of my attention on the specific steps we – as individuals, as families, and as a country -- need to take to stop our free-fall.
I’ve met so many people who have gone beyond their own struggles and found ways to help others. One of the surprising twists has been people discovering that by reaching out to help others – even when they themselves are suffering – they end up improving their own lives.
People like lawyer Cheryl Jacobs who, along with her work as a torts lawyer at a big firm, had been doing pro bono work as part of the highly successful Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program in Philadelphia that helps homeowners facing foreclosure through the legal process. After being laid-off, Jacobs took on even more foreclosure cases, eventually opening her own practice dedicated to helping people keep their homes.
"I charge my clients very little or nothing at all," she says. "They can't afford to pay me. If you can't afford your mortgage, you probably can't afford a lawyer." Although she is working harder and earning much less, she says that she's never felt happier. "When I know I've kept somebody in their home, the feeling is so amazing. I know how I'd feel if I was in danger of losing my home and someone helped me stay in it."
Although a deep-seated cynicism is not an unreasonable response to the failure of Washington to address the problems we face, hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country are choosing to react by taking action. As a result, a parallel economy is being created by people who, finding there are no jobs, have decided to create their own. Of course, this burgeoning parallel economy doesn't mean the government is off the hook. But while millions of Americans are waiting for the government to do the right thing, many are taking matters into their own hands. And through the creative use of technology, social media, and a focus on community, this new wave of small businesses is making its mark in a true convergence of left and right. Our government may be can't-do, but more and more of our citizens are solidly can-do – and irrepressibly American.
At the moment, real solutions are less likely to come from politicians than from the thousands of people in thousands of communities taking the initiative to connect, share, and create. This movement is fueled by technology, but at its core is a real person connecting with another person. As Twitter co-founder Biz Stone has said: “Twitter is not a triumph of tech. It’s a triumph of humanity.”
As we gear up for the long march leading to the 2012 election, I hope that this book will both turn a spotlight on that humanity and remind us of the very real consequences of not taking action.
We stand at a crossroads in our nation’s history. We can choose connection rather than division. Understanding rather than fear. Reaching out rather than turning away.
The anger we should all feel when looking at what is happening in America today can either lead us to tap into our baser instincts or into the better angels of our nature. Nothing less than the future of our country rides on that choice.