By David Duhalde
The Great Recession’s poverty is just as hidden from public view among the formerly rich as it is among the poor and working classes. Bob Herbert, the retired New York Times columnist, chronicles the façade of economic security in his latest book, Losing our Way.
Wealthy Hunterdon County in western New Jersey, known primarily for its horse farms and scenic rolling hillsides, had experienced a dramatic increase in families seeking federal food assistance during the recession and its aftermath. The director of a social service agency that found itself offering assistance to an entirely new constituency told Bloomberg News “Sometimes people will come in a Mercedes. Sometimes they come in [wearing] Ralph Lauren. But you never know. That may be all they have.” (page 41)
These stories make Herbert’s work as upsetting as it is uplifting. The self-proclaimed “intimate portrait of a troubled America” places summaries of academic work side-by-side with personal stories, including by my fiancé, about the four themes. The “way” was our willingness to spend heavily on public works, public education, and other social goods even if it means higher taxes and a long-term return on investment. Herbert walks the reader through 12 chapters about the themes of employment, war, education, and infrastructure.
He juxtaposes the seemingly separate, but interconnected, policies that our elected leaders enacted with deadly consequences. Herbert recalls the Bush administration’s unprecedented call for simultaneous tax cuts and war. Foreign conflict was paid for with our money that was needed at home. The president and politicians of both parties sent our young people to fight Iraqis and Afghanis, but were unwilling to battle our crumbling infrastructure.
Through profiles of wounded soldiers and workers, Herbert chronicles death, injury, and recovery on the international and domestic front. Soldiers continue to be killed and maimed long after many high-level government officials had concluded the wars had limited benefit. Congress and the president funnel billions into these conflicts while ignoring our outdated public works. Instead of terrorism, US residents are killed by broken levees or collapsing bridges, and are poisoned by compromised water systems.
Herbert also unmasks the corporate agenda behind much of “education reform.” He separates the proponents of education reform: the well-intentioned Bill Gates, the malicious Michelle Rhee, and the money-hungry Rupert Murdoch. Gates’ oversized wallet propelled his social experiment of small schools within one building into existence. The scheme, which was abandoned with little fanfare, is unable to build community or significantly increase graduation rates, while successfully pushing the most troubled students into other, failing, schools.
Rhee’s toxic mix of self-righteousness and an affinity for termination (she gleefully invites a news crew to watch her fire an educator) led to the downfalls of both her and the DC mayor she served. Murdoch and scores of others charter advocates cannot hide their interests in the profits from the privatization of public education. They work night and day to undermine the social support of school as a public good.
The chapters on the troubled job market cover both the young and old, and were deeply personal, especially to me. Herbert interviewed one of my own loved ones. He tells her story of frustration at the inability to break into a profession that she not only went to school for, but was promised would have jobs in abundance. Instead, she found herself both living in cramped space at home and experiencing glass ceilings at work. For her, many others, and myself things have slowly improved as the economic recovery moves along. But many young adults remember when the question was what job you would have after college, not if you’d be working.
Herbert knows hiding poverty and economic insecurity are not new, and neither are the solutions to ending them. He cites Michael Harrington’s 1962 classic, The Other America, which shocked many comfortable people at the time with the fact that poverty was not disappearing for millions of their fellow citizens. Thirty years after the first publication, Irving Howe asked: How can you allow such a scandal to fester in this country? Herbert writes “that question is no less relevant and the scandalous extent of poverty in America no less shameful.” To combat inequality and injustice, Herbert advocates a heavily used tool of the 1960’s: disruptive politics.
Bob Herbert’s book is an unequivocal reminder that well-organized and disruptive protest is a proven method of social change. Our country’s ideological extremes motivate much of the support for disruptive politics in the Obama era, such as the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and today’s Black Lives Matter movement. It is a refreshing call for collective action in a time when many liberals would rather embrace another messianic presidential run (substituting Elizabeth Warren for Barack Obama – because the first time worked so well) than question their own dismal track record.
In the epilogue, Herbert calls for new leadership — not of a president or a new party, but from grassroots leaders. As for how those people can make lasting change, Herbert opines:
The short answer is direct action. The legendary organizer Saul Alinksy taught that there were two main sources of power: money and people. As virtually all of the money is currently on the side of the entrenched power, the only viable option for ordinary Americans is the creative use of their own energy, intelligence, and superior numbers. Democracy might have taken a beating in the United States, but it is not dead. A tremendous amount of power still resides with the people. And history has shown again and again that direct action, when properly organized and sustained, can be remarkably effective. The abolitionists, civil rights activists, labor organizers, and feminists all understood that democracy was not meant to be a sporting event, a pastime for interested onlookers. Taking responsibility for one’s individual circumstance and the well-being of the country has always required much more than merely casting a ballot…Without that kind of increased citizen involvement no real change for the better can be expected.
After three decades of bipartisan neoliberalism, it is hard to disagree.
David Duhalde was the YDS national organizer from 2006 to 2008 and currently researches for a campaign finance reform group in Washington, D.C. He is a member of DSA’s National Political Committee.
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