Jobs & Economy11 March 2015

Notes from Norm: A War for Opportunity

Two stories in the Washington Post caught my attention.

The first is a story about a report by Economist Rob Shapiro for the Brookings Institution and the state of American workers in the 21st Century.

The second is a story about a paper written by Robert Putnam, a Harvard Political Scientist, that underscores the growing disconnect between children of parents with means, education and upward mobility – and those without.

Both stories speak to a pending collapse of the American Dream.  Perhaps not in this generation, or the next, but certainly in the generation after that.  

According to Shapiro, nearly two-thirds of American households earn less money today than they did thirteen years ago.

The Washington Post review of Shapiro’s report states “Shapiro's analysis shows young people who entered the workforce in 1991 and 2001 aren't seeing the same pattern of lifetime wage gains that workers who joined the job market in the 1970s and 80s experienced. He also shows that those older workers are now losing income at a much faster pace than they gained it.”

Shapiro points to a number of factors that are leading to not just an erosion of the economic gains of American workers, but to a rollback of those gains, particularly among minorities and women.

Shapiro, a former economic advisor to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, believes, like many in a recent Pew Research Center, as reported by the Post,  that two-thirds of voters said “…government policies since the recession have done little to help the middle class.”

In the Post story, Shapiro is quoted to say, “If we have another 10 years in which the incomes of two-thirds of Americans decline, you won't recognize the politics in this country…This is the source of the Tea Party, of substantial anger at the government. Give it another 10 years and see what happens.”

Which then leads to the story and the report by Robert Putnam.

Putnam doesn’t focus on the political soup du jour – income inequality – to draw attention to the growing threat to future generations of Americans.  

In fact, while embracing the notion that income inequality does indeed exist, Putnam underscores that the greatest threat to children has more to do with deprivation caused by poverty.  That deprivation are those things which wealthy and middle-income families children are likely to have – that poor children do not.

Putnam’s “manifesto”, as the Washington Post calls it, “Our Kids:  The American Dream in Crisis”, boldly trumpets the clarion call to address, not income equality, but opportunity inequality.

That is, addressing the fact that more and more American children are not even getting the chance to achieve, much less touch, the American Dream.

The Post points to Putnam’s work as explaining that “The poor children in “Our Kids” are missing so much more than material wealth. They have few mentors. They’re half as likely as wealthy kids to trust their neighbors. The schools they attend offer fewer sports, and they’re less likely to participate in after-school activities. Even their parents have smaller social networks. Their lives reflect the misfortune of the working-class adults around them, who have lost job prospects and financial stability.”

As American careens to the 2016 Presidential Election, and as GOP and Democratic candidate’s posture to gain the best traction for their respective party nominations, it is clear that the economic uncertainty of our nation’s future must still be the prominent issue of the next national campaign.

Both political parties need to move past the simple rhetoric to their base and begin truly addressing the lost generations that are being manufactured before us today.
This is not a crisis in front of us – this is a crisis in full bloom around us.

When children have no access to a sustainable support system – a compromised family environment, poor quality schools, a lack of adequate nutrition, non-existent mentors, role models or advocates – they are not just poor in the material sense.
They are, as Congressman Paul Ryan stated after reviewing Putnam’s work, alone “Poverty isn’t just a form of deprivation; it’s a form of isolation, too.”

Every American heart should not just ache at the notion that millions of today’s children are not just poor, but that their future is even bleaker.

Our national conscience and resolve must stiffen to do something about it.

As Mayor of St. Paul, I often said, “The best welfare reform is a job.  The best health care plan is a job.  The best way to strengthen families is a job.”

Parents without jobs or hopes of getting one – parents with jobs that pay them less and less – and a workforce that is getting older, smaller and more challenged by globalization and technology – requires a War for Opportunity as urgent as any War on Poverty or War on Drugs we have ever devised.

What’s at stake for America is not simply the lives of millions of our fellow citizens – but the very existence of our country as each successive generation has come to experience it.

No matter one’s political affiliation or ideology, there ought to be a consensus in America that leaving America’s children behind means America has no future.