By Katrina Brekke-Miesner, St. Mary’s Center
Communities deluged by flooding are evidence that rain does not discriminate. Saturday’s rain here in the Bay Area rain reminded us of that. The air on Sunday morning smelled fresher, gardens looked more beautiful and even struggling plants showed promise. That’s an interesting observation the week after multiple studies report that the “Recovery” did discriminate.
Discrimination is a word we are accustomed to. It is most often associated with race, gender, disability, culture or religion. Now, we can add economics. The “land of opportunity” has been dying over the last three decades, and the Recovery put another nail in the coffin. People pushing hard to support their families have been on a slippery slope, stories of immigrants starting with nothing and moving into the middle class echoes as a fairytale. Many of us had a head start on the “American Dream.” Yet, as adults, we are living back at home with our parents and family in the same cramped bedroom we left some 20 years earlier.
Wondering what went wrong is an internal battle that fatigues the mind. What did our parents understand and practice that we missed? Or is there something else gnawing on our sense of possibility?
A new movie by former Labor Secretary and UC Economics Professor Robert Reich explains that in the last 35 years the “game” has changed but the rules haven’t. So, we are left glazed over on a topic we think is too big to understand, a position 400 Americans are banking on.
In his movie, “Inequality for All”, Reich helps us understand our lives—why we lost our home, why we are unemployed, why we can’t support our family even though we are both working, why we are worried our children won’t get the education we did and more.
The answers stack up like a domino game. He describes the decades after World War II as a time when all shared prosperity: the rich, poor and middle. All boats were rising, and people’s income was at a level where they could ensure basic needs and be a consumer, ensuring jobs for their local community. It was a prime example of a time when America’s ideals and values were on display. Hard work was rewarded and had a ripple that affected the entire community.
Then, there was a shift in the late 1970′s and early 1980s, and the game changed but the rules didn’t. Most of us kept playing our hand as if the land of opportunity that did well by our parents and grandparents would reward us as well. We got an education, had a family, purchased a house, went on vacation and worked hard. Yet, the lifestyle we were accustomed to meant there was little left for saving. With rising equity in our homes, we were encouraged not to short change our dreams and blindly we bought in to the notion. We used our equity to cope with expenses, as stagnant wages had not kept up with the cost of living. Banks used our deposits to gamble on people not being able to pay their mortgages. The burst in the bubble was more than the foreclosure of the American Dream; it was an economic collapse that would shudder the world.
Reich says these stark realities got put in play years earlier and changed the game, but as a nation we did not change our policy to protect our society, our economy or our democracy. Reich notes the game changers were Globalization and Technology. Globalization meant that the “land of opportunity” now reached across the world. Entry-level jobs became scarce as businesses went to countries where workers were hungry and pay was minimal. The ripple of “out sourcing” meant cheaper products but interrupted workers’ benefits in communities across America. The world was shifting, but no one considered the rip current and how many would get caught in the undertow.
Technology was also impacting our lives, and automation meant the pipeline in factory communities was no longer an indication of job security or middle-class income. Less people were needed on the assembly line, and soon even middle-management jobs were reduced, leaving people unaccustomed to unemployment knocking on doors.
CEO’s and big business had shifted a paradigm. The biggest employer in America, Wal-Mart, paid wages that needed to be subsidized by food stamps. CEO salaries had no relation to that of their employees. Next quarter’s profits and purchasing overseas companies got their attention and investment over paying a fair share of taxes at home.
The ramifications of this avoidance is visible in schools that are failing our children, infrastructure in need of repair and a growing number of people locked into poverty and millions at its door.
“Inequality for All” gives a framework for understanding our economy and the ripple effect it has in our communities and for our families. It further grounds what Executive Director Carol Johnson of Oakland’s St. Mary’s Center has witnessed, “a growing number of the seniors staying in our winter shelter have had homes and jobs and families prior to the collapse. Our seniors know exactly what Reich is talking about. They have experienced it first hand.”
Like Reich, Johnson remembers the 1970s, when housing for extremely low-income people was available and ample. But our housing policy, like so many issues in this country, did not keep pace with the need. This year, the federal housing policy has decided that emergency shelters are no longer needed. Instead, people who are homeless “will be placed in housing.” Johnson asks, “Where is this housing? How do you tell people who have lived under freeways that a safe place with hot showers, home-cooked meals, comprehensive services and sense of community is not a benefit? We will keep our shelter doors open even without the subsidy because as the only Winter Shelter specifically for seniors in Northern California we know it is the right thing to do.”
The right thing to do is often buried deep in excuses. Reich and others are hoping that will not be the case when so much is riding on our decisions to speak up and get involved. Giving historical context, Reich highlights tipping points in history when citizens decided not to endure a life where they were footing the tab for a handful of people. “Inequality for All” is a wake up call for an economy that works for a few at our expense. Our inattention undermines the steps we can take to change business as usual. The “Recovery” discriminated against every-day Americans, and lined the pockets of the wealthy. Rather than throw up your hands in disgust, go see a movie that might inspire a change in the rules so all of us prosper.
St. Mary’s Center is a nonprofit organization in Oakland, CA providing for the distinct needs of elders in our community who are homeless and isolated. The Center also provides a preschool for neighborhood children who otherwise would enter Kindergarten already left behind. To help supplement the cost of the only winter shelter for seniors in Northern California, St. Mary’s Center is hosting a 40th Anniversary Gala on October 12, 2013 at 5:30pm. The Silent and Live Auction and sit down dinner with dancing benefit programs addressing the most vulnerable in our community. Tickets are $100 and can be purchased online at http://www.stmaryscenter.org
Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland. See our guidelines.