How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Opinion: America's 'basic social contract is tattered, and fixing it is taboo'

The opening line of George Packer’s powerful new book, “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” is a real grabber: “No one can say when the unwinding began – when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way.” With this line and in this book, Packer explains the demise, at least for the time being, of the American dream — the sense past generations of Americans possessed that their kids would be able to improve themselves, to do better.

The book proceeds through a mixture of vignettes about regular Americans struggling to keep their heads above water and profiles of various prominent individuals, e.g. Newt Gingrich, Colin Powell, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Rubin and Sam Walton, to show why “If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape — the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.”

Packer shows how the American dream has come unwound for the majority of Americans, and he explains for all to understand why having a job that pays a living wage is “the connective tissue to everything surrounding us.”

In the book’s concluding chapter, Dean Price, one of the individuals whose life has been transformed by the dissolution of all the things that used to hold us together, laments as he watches an old episode of “The Andy Griffith Show”: “It was a better America back then. If he could have grown up at any time, it would have been in the ‘50s, which was the last great time in America. He hated to say it, but it was true.”

In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, Jennifer M. Silva, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, wrote the following about Diana, who had planned to attend college but recently dropped out after two years. She is saddled with an $80,000 student loan and is working at a low-wage job at Dunkin Donuts: “Young working-class men and women like Diana are trying to figure out what it means to be an adult in a world of disappearing jobs, soaring education costs and shrinking social support networks.”

Diana, like many ordinary Americans Packer writes about, is really hurting and nobody is doing anything to help her. If you are in a low-end job without a future, struggling to make ends meet, or you are unable to find employment because of the “Great Recession” and have used up your unemployment insurance, nobody in government is doing anything to help you.

Unfortunately, too many of our elected officials have bought into the notion made famous by President Reagan that “government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem.” This marked the beginning of the end of the process for our brand of capitalism and middle-class expansion to the extent that government until then had been used effectively as an instrument for maintaining the social safety net, regulating industry and promoting economic growth that was broadly shared.

Nowadays, there is no consensus to increase the minimum wage, to extend unemployment benefits to those who can’t find work because of the Great Recession, to provide SNAP benefits (formerly food stamps) to those who need them to feed their children, to provide health care for those with pre-existing health conditions, to cap interest payments on Stafford student loans, to reinstall the wall between commercial and investment banks that wreaked havoc with our financial system or to ask the top 1 percent that has more than tripled its share of national income in the last decade to pay a little more to help those who are struggling.

The basic social contract is tattered, and fixing it is taboo. As Packer writes, “More Americans than ever before live alone, but even a family can exist in isolation, just managing to survive in the shadow of a huge military base without a soul to lend a hand.”

No one, with the possible exceptions of economists Paul Krugman and Robert Reich, are calling for any type of federal stimulus, e.g. infrastructure improvement programs that would create desperately needed higher-paying blue-collar trade jobs and/or a targeted G.I. Bill type of government-funded retraining program.

Immigration reform, carbon emission standards, National Security Agency leaks and gay marriage are all very pressing issues, but the most important issue facing America is growing inequity and declining mobility beyond anything this country has seen since the 19th century — compounded by the dearth of decent-paying jobs for Americans who are under- or unemployed.

There is a fundamental disconnect between America’s most pressing problem and the lack of response of our leaders in Washington. Their continued passivity could destroy the American dream for many generations to come — as inequity continues to breed inequity.