Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Downbeat in America.

Is there really any good news in the world right now? All the headlines are such a downer, from the state of our economy to the Taliban to the typhoons in Taiwan. Bob Herbert of the New York Times writes an especially upsetting editorial today: American unemployment is an even bigger issue than is being reported, and will ultimately lead to an unraveling of the domestic fabric. Apparently the unemployment statistics for young people are even higher than for older workers, meaning that

“When joblessness reaches these kinds of extremes, it doesn’t just damage individual families; it corrodes entire communities, fosters a sense of hopelessness and leads to disorder.”

How on earth can all of this be solved? What’s going to happen to the large number of young people who are losing traction in the job market? How are they going to establish careers or even steady jobs? Are people who do manage to get good jobs or even cling to crummy ones going to pass them by for the long term? How will they feed their families? How can this not result in higher levels of depression, of crime, of suicide?

God knows I don’t have an answer to any of this. It’s frightening. I know if I lost my job I’d be in a very scary place indeed, even though I tell myself that as a well-educated lawyer I’d certainly find something somewhere, sometime: “Hi, can I get you started with a venti sugar-free, fat-free, no-foam, extra-dry, extra-hot caramel latte?”

When we drove to Aspen a couple of weeks ago for our misguided stay in a lovely condo just off the slopes in Snowmass, we stopped for lunch in a little town called Fairplay. Fairplay is like lots of other rural towns across the country that haven’t been able to capitalize on any kind of charm; there’s not a lot of money there and it shows in the landscape and on the faces of the people who live there. The only place we could find to eat was a Pizza Hut, so in we went. The room was pretty dumpy, and there was only one young waitress tending to the two or three families who had stopped on their way to somewhere else.

Our waitress could not have been nicer, and she fawned over Ian and Alex. It turned out she had two children at home the same ages as they are. Once I learned that it was all I could think about even as I ordered diet Coke for me and milk for Ian; as I cut the tasteless, cardboard pizza into Ian-sized bites. Here we were, blowing through town on our way to Aspen, of all places, and here she was working for what couldn’t have been more than $50 a day in tips. We both had the same mouths to feed and needy, soft-skinned little bodies to clothe. Not for the first time, I marveled at how the luck of the draw affects us all. I had the good fortune to be born into a well-educated, reasonably financially secure family, which gave me the ability to create the same thing for myself (you know, until the downward spiral of the economy whips me into its vortex), and now hopefully to provide that same foundation for my own children.

If you start at an educational and financial disadvantage from birth, what are the odds you’re going to end up fulfilling your potential? Obviously, some people do, and conservatives like to make much of pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps, but overall I think it’s fair to say the deck is pretty well stacked.

No comments: