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Shrinking Expectations in the New / Old America

The Great Restructuring

by DAVID ROSEN

A series of recent reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the Pew Foundation and Urban Institute detail how more and more Americans are adjusting to the new old America.

The BLS report for March 2013 was pretty bleak.  Nearly 12 million (11.7 million) Americans were unemployed, roughly the same as in February.  It distinguishes between a “broader” measure (at 13.8%) and a “standard” measure (at 7.6%) of unemployment.  The unemployment rates were as follows: for blacks, 13.3 percent; Hispanics, 9.2 percent; whites, 6.7 percent; and Asians, 5.0 percent; and for adult women, 7.0 percent;adult men, 6.9 percent; and teenagers, 24.2 percent.

More telling, it reported that the number of people classified as “long-term unemployed” (i.e., jobless for over 27 weeks) is 4.6 million, thus accounting for approximately 4 out of 10 ten unemployed persons.  Adding to this, it noted that 7.6 million people are underemployed.  These are people taking part-time positions because they can’t get full-time work.

Adding these three categories, 23.9 working-age Americans are less-than-full employed.  The BLS estimates the total U.S. workforce of those 16-years and older at 154 million.  These people illustrate how the Great Recession is becoming a way-of-life.

Much of the media discussion about the BLS findings focused on whether the current “economic revival” has stalled or reversed.  Stepping back from the immediacy of the findings suggests a more pessimistic caution, one that suggests that the U.S. may well be witness an historic restructuring.

A recent report from Pew Research, “A Rise in Wealth for the Wealthy; Declines for the Lower 93%: An Uneven Recovery, 2009-2011,” begins to place the BLS data in a larger context.  Its findings are pretty damning with regard to current “revival”: “During the first two years of the nation’s economic recovery, the mean net worth of households in the upper 7% of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28%, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93% dropped by 4%.”  Pew’s findings are based on recently released Census Bureau data.

Pew goes further and details the financial consequences of restructuring of “wealth distribution”: “the mean wealth of the 8 million households in the more affluent group rose to an estimated $3,173,895 from an estimated $2,476,244, while the mean wealth of the 111 million households in the less affluent group fell to an estimated $133,817 from an estimated $139,896.”

Making matters structurally worse, the wealth-gap divide is only getting greater.  Pew reports: “the 8 million households in the U.S. with a net worth above $836,033 saw their aggregate wealth rise by an estimated $5.6 trillion, while the 111 million households with a net worth at or below that level saw their aggregate wealth decline by an estimated $0.6 trillion.”  (Household wealth is calculated by adding up personal assets like a home, car, real property, a 401(k), stocks and other financial holdings and subtracting all debts, including mortgage, car loan, credit card debt and student loans.)

The Urban Institute’s study, “Less Than Equal: Racial Disparities in Wealth Accumulation,” adds further resonance to the Pew findings.  It warns, “in 2010, whites on average had two times the income of blacks and Hispanics, but six times the wealth.”  It found, “wealth disparities have worsened over the past 30 years.”  “High-wealth families (the top 20 percent by net worth) saw their average wealth increase by nearly 120 percent between 1983 and 2010, while middle-wealth families saw their average wealth go up by only 13 percent. The lowest-wealth families— those in the bottom 20 percent—saw their average wealth fall well below zero, meaning their average debts exceed their assets.”

In no uncertain terms, the Urban Institute’s argues, “there is extraordinary wealth inequality between the races.  In 2010, whites on average had six times the wealth of blacks and Hispanics.  So for every $6.00 whites had in wealth, blacks and Hispanics had $1.00 (or average wealth of $632,000 versus $103,000).”  Making matters worse, it point out “the racial wealth gap grows sharply with age.”  The older a person, the poorer s/he will likely be, especially a person of color.

And the big losers in the Great Recession?  “Between 2007 and 2010, Hispanic families saw their wealth cut by over 40 percent, and black families saw their wealth fall by 31 percent,” it reflects.  “By comparison, the wealth of white families fell by 11 percent.”

* * *

The Great Recession of 2008-2010 fulfilled its historic mission.  It legitimized the restructuring of social and economic relations, sanctioning the unquestioned rule of the corporate plutocrats.  In response, a sense of doom seeps through America not unlike that spreading through much of Europe.

The 2008 and 2012 elections of a corporatist moderate enshrined the tyranny of global financial capital and the militarist policies of a failing imperialist power.  Pres. Obama’s elections formally ended the American Century.

Over the last quarter-century, the U.S. has been witness to the systematic destruction of the grand liberal moment.  This was the half-century or so known as “the American Century,” from the New Deal thru the Great Society that shaped the U.S. during much of the mid-20th century.  Ironically, both saw domestic “progress” intimately linked to foreign military engagement.

This period shared a kind of quasi-utopian fervor not unlike that found during the Revolution and the Civil War eras.  For all their respective shortcomings, these were historical moments defined by a moral sensibility that defined the country as seeking to be a more egalitarian, more inclusive nation.  As Lincoln would have said, these moments demonstrated America’s better angles.  One can’t say that of Obama’s America.

Since Pres. Nixon, and with the collusion of both Republican and Democratic presidents, the utopian pendulum has steadily moved to the right, giving way to the increased tyranny of those with privilege.  Pres. Obama is putting the final nails in the coffin of the vision of an egalitarian America.  He is returning the nation to the worst impulses that characterized the Gilded Age, the last grand era of corporatist tyranny.  On one side is the gluttony and elitism regally displayed by the well-to-do and, on the other side, a deepening hopelessness among a growing number of Americans.

As the BLS, Pew and Urban Institute reports remind us, a growing proportion of the new underclass lives a furtive existence.  They can be broadly dubbed the lost souls of America, those who have essentially given up on the American dream.  Many are among the new dispossessed if not homeless and have essential lost all hope.  What keeps them going is one of the unasked questions of today.  Among them is the growing army of vets, throw-a-ways of the military-industrial complex.

But these lost souls of America also include a growing segment of the U.S. population.  A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found, for the third year in a row, only 1 in 4 Americans now expects his/her financial situation to improve over the next year.

The deeper, darker questions that these and similar reports fail to raise is: (i) what will it take to turn personal despair into political rage? and (ii) can Americans reclaim the once-inspired utopian legacy of its past for a better 21st century?

David Rosen writes the Media Current column for Filmmaker and regularly contributes to AlterNet, Huffington Post and the Brooklyn Rail.  Check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com; he can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.