Precarious Lives

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


“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.

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.