In Philadelphia we are doing better at helping the homeless move into permanent housing, but there are signs the past 10 years have decreased opportunity for economic mobility.
Economic mobility, according to Wikipedia, is “the ability of an individual or family to improve their economic status.” In short, the ease with which a person can climb from poverty to lower middle class. From lower middle class to middle class. From middle class to upper middle class. From upper middle class to wealthy.
A point I should have emphasized in my last post on homelessness is my journey to self-sufficiency took place in the 90s. We’re a long way from then.
The 90s were an interesting time. Good music, movies, TV in the early 90s devolved towards its end. I think art and entertainment get better during hard times. The end of the 90s there was a sense in America that we were on the upswing. Hence the bad art. We started with Nirvana and ended up with Limp Bizkit – that says it all.
American confidence was reflected in ways beyond art. Consider how unconcerned we were with the Presidential election. Many didn’t care about the election because the choice of Gore or Bush seemed too narrow. It seemed inconsequential who would be President. Generation-X lived up to our slacker stereotype in 2000. Things changed in 2004 and 2008. My generation woke up. But I’m talking about the 90s remember.
In many looks back the 90s gets defined by the dot-com bubble. The idea being that any growth during the 90s was due to and then eliminated in that bubble. I think you can make an argument that belief is incorrect. I believe the dot-com bubble was an artifact of the late 90s. Pushed on and encouraged by the irrational exuberance that had built up over that decade. Right along with bad music and unconcerned political participation. Fact of the matter was the 90s laid the technological foundation for what we have today at mass scale.
Income inequality continued to grow from the 80s to the 90s and at an accelerating rate. Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele published a book sourced from their Philadelphia Inquirer series that argued that the American Dream was already stolen. But the 90s featured such job and personal income growth that many were too distracted to notice. In fact, according to FactCheck.org, the last eight years of Clinton’s presidency stand as the longest economic boon in American history to that date.
It was in this generally optimistic environment that me and millions of others were part of a “dramatic decline” in the decrease of concentrated poverty. Some attribute this to record keeping, that Welfare rolls were trimmed due to President Clinton’s mislabeled ‘Welfare Reform’ effort. But I believe that I am proof that the the decade’s optimism was reflected in greater opportunities for me and others. People were more willing to take a chance.
The ‘Aughts’ eliminated many gains made during the 90s. According to the Washington Post the “Aughts were a lost decade for U.S. economy and workers”. Add to this the fact that the safety net was shredded by efforts such as Welfare Reform and now you have a growing population of America living on nothing more than food stamps. Take a dip in a Metafilter thread discussion for more.
Those without jobs have very hard roads to walk. Those that do, well many are working 2 or 3 jobs just to make sure they don’t fall.
Eventually it will lead to an environment where chances are less likely to be offered to potential risks like what I was in the 90s. Less opportunity. Less upward mobility.
Ironically, I hear from a surprising number that those not doing well are ‘lazy’. That they don’t have ‘vision’. They aren’t ‘motivated’. That they need ‘to hustle’. To ‘get a job’. That we are on our own – freelancing agents and personal brands. Social contracts, like those that existed between employers and employees, between government and its citizens, between seller and buyer, aren’t to be expected or trusted anyway – right? Aren’t these some of the lessons of the ‘Aughts’?
Well no. I heard these things in the 90s. And why couldn’t counter lessons become conventional wisdom? That more empathy towards one another will help us get through challenging times?
That yes – the world isn’t fair – but that we should work hard to be fair to one another other?
It does look more difficult to repeat my story now. It saddens and frightens me. A complete lack of progress since the 90s. You have a dysfunctional safety net simultaneous with less work opportunity.
We all want so many of the same things. Health. Friends. Understanding. Acceptance. Self-sufficiency. Dignity.
People will do amazing things when given the tools to succeed and given the opportunity to succeed (and fail a few times on the way). It is in such environments that you find real innovation. Real forward thinking. Because you are not simply fighting to survive.
NYTimes series from 2005: Class in America
Barbara Ehrenreich: “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America”