Precarious Lives

The promises on which many of us have based our entire economic lives are no longer being honored.

| Fri Dec. 2, 2005 3:00 AM EST

"Advice to Retirees: Embrace the future," syndicated columnist Tad Bartimus recently wrote in my local Seattle paper. Sounds good, but for Bartimus the future was a layoff, in a corporate cutback, from a 25-year career at the Associated Press news service. Faced with the Hobson's choice of agreeing to it or losing all health care access and pension benefits, she suddenly had to find ways to reinvent herself and survive, with less than half of her previously promised pension. She explores how her situation echoes the predicament of more and more Americans, like those who took middle-class futures for granted at companies such as General Motors, Delta Airlines, and Ford, but who now scramble to get by at jobs paying a fraction of the wages they were used to. America's social contract is being ripped apart, she writes-then she backs off to counsel individual adaptation and seeing life as "a banquet," where we need to savor even the unexpected courses.

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I know lots of people like Bartimus's friend Sue. Sue worked for United Airlines for 23 years, lost her savings when the company's stock crashed, may lose her pension in the current bankruptcy, and has to supplement her now part-time wages with a second job cleaning houses. I recently spoke in Kokomo, Indiana, where a major Delphi plant is likely to be closed, devastating a once-secure community of decent blue-collar jobs. My brother-in-law, now eking out a living as a substitute teacher, has been out of full time work for almost a decade now, in part because of a heart condition which would saddle any but the largest employers with prohibitively unaffordable insurance costs. Everywhere I go, I encounter people with once-comfortable lives who are borrowing on their houses, running up their credit cards, losing their health insurance, and generally running faster and faster to avoid the economic abyss.

Bartimus highlights a real and urgent problem. The promises on which many of us have based our entire economic lives are no longer being honored. We're increasingly a winner-take-all society, where those at the top gorge on luxury consumption to an extent that makes the Robber Barons look like paupers, while those at the bottom scramble for crumbs. But the solutions Bartimus counsels are exclusively individual. "The trick," she writes, "it so figure out what comes next," and to focus "on possibilities, not regrets." Maybe, she writes, she'll forge a new future in woodworking, or open a gardening shop.

I hope Bartimus keeps landing on her feet, and I bet that she will. Of course people should, like her, be optimistic and muster all their resourcefulness, creativity, and tenacity to deal with the cards they're dealt. But we should also work together to help insure a future where everyone gets dealt a decent hand.

The problems Bartimus describes can't be solved by quietly accepting the global corporate mantra: "It's here. It's the future. Get used to it." It's not our individual decisions that are gutting our pensions, raising medical costs sky high, and making our lives on this rich and fruitful earth increasingly precarious. The economic squeeze faced by everyone except a handful of individuals at the top comes from thirty years of deliberate political choices--union-busting, regressive tax and trade policies, an eroding minimum wage, and a collapse of moral and political restraints on destructive greed. These pressures have been accelerated vastly since Bush took office. Think of the moral obscenity of funding the rebuilding of New Orleans by cutting food stamps, Medicaid, and low-income energy assistance. They'll only be reversed by common effort.

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