Politicians and governments love words. Words can be powerful. They can motivate, inspire and promote. But they can also deceive. And it is primarily a level of deception, employed by a whole host of words, that is leading a major disconnect. It is the big lie that is right in front of us, and it can be summed up in a simple question: if the recession is apparently over (statistically speaking), why is the majority of New Jersey’s population suffering on a level unprecedented in living memory?
To tackle this important question, we have to take a two-pronged approach. First, we must see how we’re being deceived into thinking that life is improving when it is absolutely not. Secondly, we need to look at real, working models of how to bring the unemployed and underemployed genuine relief and a measure of security.
First, let’s tackle the deception. There was no “Great Recession.” It never began and it never ended. Recessions are typtically temporary economic phenomena, witnessed in cyclical fashion in all industrialized economies. We had one in the 1970’s. We had one in the early 80’s. It was a situation characterized by stagnant economic growth and a degree of unemployment. In every instance, the economy contracted, then within two or three years expanded again. Sometimes state and federal authorities helped things along; at other times it was simply the dynamics of our terrifying yet dynamic capitalist system that moved mountains. The economic situation that we’re experiencing now is approaching a decade in duration. So again, there was no “Great Recession.”
What is happening, what began as early as the first term of President George W. Bush, was a Second Great Depression. And it’s not over yet, not by a long shot. In fact, unless government steps in at all levels, this current, regressive economic state will become the “new normal.” In other words, America will become a Third World Nation, with an advanced developed lifestyle enjoyed by only a fraction of the population. Pictures of this way of life are available on the web; just go to Google Images and type in “Guatemala City” or “Karachi, Pakistan.”
The deception isn’t conspiratorial, its roots lie in traditional government methods. Its primary source is our current method of detecting key economic statistics, namely, the rates of unemployment and poverty. Current state and federal measurements of these two vital indicators are now so off the mark that even those of us who aren’t economists suspect that something’s wrong.
First, consider our ‘official’ unemployment rate. It doesn’t measure those people who have either dropped out of or been shut out of the workforce. It doesn’t take the underemployed into account. According to the Federal Government, the current rate hovers around 6.2 percent. From the point of view of any modern industrialized nation, that’s not too bad. Think about what this number means. For every 100 workers out there, this statistic stipulates that only 6 or 7 are out of a job. Yet to adults on the ground, we know that this number might as well apply to alien abductions in Nevada. Out of all the people I know, it would be safe to say that half if not more are either underemployed or not working. I turn on my television and see mostly ads for payday loans and access to black lung lawsuit settlements. So who is correct, my unscientific assumptions based on my own personal observations, or that of the government with its army of bureaucrats, statisticians and economists? I’m starting to think mine are.
And then there is the national poverty rate. Again, the government’s numbers are the stuff of pure fantasy. According to today’s Star-Ledger, for a family of four (!) the level hovers around $23,000 annually. Yet I have many neighbors, friends and family who make close to double that and are teetering on the edge of disaster after paying their monthly rent and utilities. I’ve got neighbors who tell me to be careful when pulling into my parking lot, not just because their kids are playing in the area, but because they haven’t been able to pay their auto insurance for the past four months. Again, when it comes to determining our economic state, who is accurate? Who is being deceived?
This week, New Jersey got its answer. The United Way, one of the state’s most respected and experienced charitable organizations, released a major report providing a more straightforward and accurate rendition of current conditions. The report said that 38 percent of households – which is almost half of the state – are “struggling to meet basic needs.” What are these needs? Medical care. Dental care. Child care. Transportation. Housing. You know, the basic features of life that make America a First World Nation. These struggling families – and their numbers are growing – are called “ALICE households,” the name standing for: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.
Once this new standard is applied, the results conform “mysteriously” to what so many of us already see in the Garden State. For example, in urban Trenton, 76 percent of all households are at ALICE levels or below. In suburban seaside Wildwood, the number stands at 71 percent. In troubled Newark the number is 68 percent. These monumentally high indicators tell us that Third World conditions have already arrived, more or less, for an overwhelming majority of families in these diverse, radically different locales. But the Check Engine light is even on, and steadily so, in Princeton. A wealthy town filled with secure families, right? It’s got a 30 percent ALICE rate; 11 percent of households in that leafy university town are solidly below the poverty line.
As the ALICE rate increases, it sends an even more ominous message. America, and New Jersey in particular, is still a land of social mobility, but today, the direction of this mobility is moving inexorably downward.
This is the rate that we, as a political polity, should be using to correctly and accurately gauge our current economic and social state.
So what do we do about it? What can we do about it? We can’t wait for the economy to turn around this time, because this isn’t a recession, it’s a Depression. We have experienced this for almost a decade now, and it continues in New Jersey. If current trends continue for, say, the next ten years, we’ll lose an entire generation to debt, despair, illness and dysfunction. This slide is still in its early stages, and it doesn’t seem to be reversing due to the magic of the market.
What we need is comprehensive welfare reform and a complete reordering of our state’s political and economic priorities. We need to stop hating each other and reacting to the woes of our neighbors with glee or advice characteristic of the days of Western Expansion. We need to stop our war on our schools and teachers because they’re not the problem. We need to get our kids off the street. We need to increase access to job training and technology. No, I’m not calling for a communist revolution. Communism doesn’t work. I’m not calling for an oligarchic state, as it exists in Mainland China. That won’t work in the long-term either. What seems to work, what seems to keep societies from completely going off the deep end, can be found on a pleasant, green Island in the North Atlantic. Known for its experience with tidal waves of poverty, occupation and injustice, it seems to have developed a comprehensive, yet modest system to keep its people afloat in good times and bad. I’m talking about Ireland.
More on this in my next post.