American Insecurity: A Repeat of History?
Bahati Louis is a senior at Hofstra University. She is earning a Bachelors degree in Political Science with a minor in Civic Engagement. During her three years at Hofstra, Bahati has managed to intern for the New York City Mayors office, work as a fellow for the Center for Civic Engagement, and volunteer with the HerStory Writers Workshop. Bahati spent an interim semester abroad in Cuba, where she learned the importance of getting involved in your community effectively and efficiently. In her free time she likes to visit museums, read comic books, and blog.
Author Framing Statement:
I originally wrote this essay in my freshman year of college for my writing composition class that had a focus on economic inequality, but I have since revised it for my Process Journal submission. For this piece I decided to combine secondary sources with my personal anecdote because I think the topic of economic inequality is a nuanced conversation; it’s a subject that can be talked about in the academic realm as well as in the home. My audience for this piece is future politicians and young adults; I’d like to invigorate them into action and expose them to varying points of view. I think wealth inequality is a grave concern for the younger generation and this essay not only address that but provides readers with the language to bring this conversation into their own communities.
During his 1944 State of the Union Address, Franklin Roosevelt said, “Necessitous men are not free men.” In his earlier terms of office, Franklin Roosevelt enacted a series of domestic programs referred to as the New Deal, which served as an attempt to offer people the security they didn’t have when the Great Depression hit. The Great Depression was so damaging to American society that Roosevelt called for a Second Bill of Rights, articulated in the 1944 State of the Union address, to ensure that the economic disparity people were experiencing would never happen again. However, history has a way of repeating itself. Today, the economic disparity in American rivals that of the 1930s. The security Roosevelt believed Americans were entitled to is almost nonexistent in modern America. In the book Economic Apartheid in America, authors Chuck Collins and Felice Yeskel describe the growing economic gap between the rich and the poor and middle classes.
I have lived in a middle-class neighborhood all my life. When the stock market crashed in 2008 I didn’t understand the significance of it until my friends and neighbors started moving elsewhere because they could no longer afford the cost of living in our neighborhood. When I asked my father, a Haitian immigrant, what our neighbors could do to continue living in our town he simply stated, “They’ll have to work harder if they want to stay.” Similarly, at a town-hall meeting in 2005, when a woman told President Bush that she worked three jobs, he responded that this was “uniquely American” of her (Terkel 1). My father and President Bush have a shared belief that working hard at whatever you do will eventually pay off in America. Collins and Yeskel disagree; they argue that working hard doesn’t show for much these days. If Roosevelt were still alive, he would probably also disagree and argue that everybody needs a little help every once in a while, and when a citizen stumbles the government should be there to help. Unfortunately, the appreciation in American society for “go-getters” has eclipsed a concern for social welfare. The harder you work, the more “uniquely American” you shall be.
The belief in hard work propelling your career and lifestyle is one version of the shifting and contested “American dream.” The very birth of our nation, for example, came to be through the pursuit of happiness. The Constitution would not be ratified by the states without the incorporation of the Bill of Rights because, “the best way to ensure national progress is to protect citizens’ right to improve their lives” (Amadeo). This idea was so compelling that shunned members of society wanted in on it; minorities and women campaigned for their right to also attain their American dreams. At times the dream became a fantasy; in the early 1900s Americans became enamored with material wealth, as described in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby (Amadeo). Eventually this greed lead to the Great Depression and the economy took years to recover with the guidance of President Roosevelt. The unequal distribution of wealth is just as dangerous now as it was in the 1920s, but for many Americans, the belief that everyone has equal access to prosperity blinds them to the reality of income inequality (Covert). Roosevelt saw firsthand how the gluttony of the 1920s led to the worst financial crisis America has ever seen. His Second Bill of Rights was meant to protect future Americans from the same situation, but because he died before these provisions were put in place it seems we are now at a similar crossroads.
The 1980s ushered in President Ronald Reagan and his strong brand of fiscal and social conservatism. During his 1986 State of the Union Address, Reagan referenced the myth of the Welfare Queen, a woman who collects money from welfare and uses it for her own gain, in order to garner public support for his dismantling of the welfare system (Kilgore 33). Reagan used this imagery to warn the country of lazy Americans misusing tax dollars for personal gain; his rhetoric was effective and got Congress to deplete government social safety nets. Reagan is often referenced as the pioneer of the modern Republican Party, but in my opinion, he was a pioneer of wage inequality and a gateway to unchecked private sector greed. His policies created more “necessitous men," which is the exact opposite of what Roosevelt advocated for. Furthermore, the wealth gap between the 1% and the rest of us has grown steadily since the 1970s and only festered under Reagan’s rule (Covert). Reagan’s “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” message still rings true in the ears of many American citizens, including my father, and we could use a reminder of Roosevelt’s vision of a secure society for all Americans. Roosevelt’s ambitions rival those of Bernie Sanders and it’s a vision that has garnered significant support in recent years. Conservative values revitalized under Reagan need to be adjusted in the support of those who cannot help themselves.
Roosevelt believed that all Americans are entitled to “the right to a useful and remunerative job”; however, it is difficult to obtain a job in modern America. College graduates struggle to find work with their new degrees and “the greatest percentage of new jobs in the work force are filled by temporary and part-time work” that don’t pay as much as a full-time position would (Collins and Yeskel 19). About 4.3% of the population work minimum wage jobs, which barely provide enough for a worker to live off of let alone to help support their families (Desilver 1). Most minimum wage jobs do not provide 401Ks or cover for sick days which leave workers venerable to exploitation. In recent years there has been a movement called “the Fight for Fifteen” that demands fast food businesses and other corporations increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Paying minimum wage workers at least $15 an hour could gravely impact their overall quality of life since the cost of living has gone up but wages have remained stagnant (Shambaugh). Furthermore, the continuing need for labor unions demonstrates that workers’ rights are routinely infringed upon in America. The middle and lower classes create grassroots organizations, like the Fight for Fifteen, to force the government to hear their concerns; however, corporations try to drown them out by creating Astroturf organizations to rival the grassroots ones (Collins and Yeskel 84). Even when Americans stick together to protect their rights, change is hard to come by because some of the population believes in self achievement without government assistance.
Not every family has “the right to a decent home” or a “good education,” which were among the rights Roosevelt championed in 1944. Roosevelt’s insistence on the importance of both of these rights led him to urge Congress to pass the G.I. Bill, a law that provided benefits for returning World War II veterans, including access to affordable housing and education. In recent years the homeless have become a huge problem in America. There are about 610,042 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in the United States (National Alliance to End Homelessness). Many people show little to no concern for the homeless or those who live in housing projects. This attitude can also be seen in our government’s lack of consensus on how to improve the lives of these Americans. Despite the negative connotations attributed to them, a majority of homeless people currently have jobs but were still evicted from their homes (National Alliance to End Homelessness). A homeless shelter is not the home Roosevelt pictured for hard working Americans. Even those who are not homeless still struggle to live in a decent home. Violence is common in housing projects, endangering the lives of its residents.
Educational prospects are just as depressing. Many rich people are taking their children out of public schools and putting them in private schools, and because public school funding is linked to property taxes, America’s education system is profoundly unequal. Furthermore, although our society claims to value higher education, the government has deemed it an individual’s responsibility to pay for college. Higher education is becoming harder to afford, and student debt is rising; as Collins and Yeskel point out, “federal college loans have now replaced college grants, rising from 41.4% of student financing in 1982 to 58.9% in 2001” (Collins and Yeskel 20). If this trend continues, the next economic bubble to burst may be student loans. Our government bailed out big businesses in the 2008 financial crisis, but it’s doubtful that it would bail out ordinary citizens, as this hasn’t been done since Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Roosevelt is probably rolling over in his grave knowing that his vision of a Second Bill of Rights turned out to be a wasted effort. In today’s political climate, in which deregulation and the dissolution of social services have advanced unchecked, the Second Bill of Rights seems the norm, Second Bill of Rights seems unattainable. Collins and Yeskel believe that changes should occur to improve the protection and security of the American people’s money, homes, and care; in other words, Americans need to start valuing other Americans. The American dream can still be saved from turning into a nightmare. Although I am getting a college education I am fearful of my future prospects based on the widening inequality. I try to remain hopeful that a politician with Roosevelt’s inspiration is right around the corner to save our country from itself.
Despite the stark differences in opinion between my dad and Roosevelt on what exactly should be specified as government entitlements, Roosevelt is still my father’s favorite president. They both suffer(ed) from polio, though the disease impacted them very differently. My father looks at Roosevelt as an example as to why he should never settle for failure while, on the other hand, Roosevelt empathized with those worse off than him and attempted to remedy their plight. I try to remind myself of Roosevelt’s words that “necessitous men are not free men,” and I think whether Americans become self-sufficient by their own means or through government assistance, we should support and encourage their success. Instead of encouraging Americans to behave like crabs in a barrel, we should instead support the upward mobility of those less fortunate. After World War II, America had the opportunity to continue to support the middle class; however, many popular books, films, and TV shows of our time (The Hunger Games for example) portray a dystopian near-future, which says a lot about how we view our current circumstances.
Amadeo, Kimberly. "What Is the American Dream? The History That Made It Possible." The
Balance. September 15, 2017.
Collins, Chuck and Felice Yeskel. Economic Apartheid in America. New York: The New Press, 2005.
Covert, Bryce. "Wealth Inequality Is Now As Bad As It Was During The 1920s." Think Progress.
March 31, 2014.
Desilver, Drew. "Who Makes Minimum Wage?" Pew Research Center. September 8, 2014.
Kilgore, James. Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of our
Time. New York: The New Press, 2015.
Roosevelt, Franklin D. "State of the Union Message to Congress." Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and
Museum. Speech delivered January 11, 1944.
Shambaugh, Jay and Nunn, Ryan. "Why Wages Aren’t Growing in America." Harvard Business
Review. October 24, 2017.
Terkel, Amanda. "Mitt Romney Speech Reminiscent of George W. Bush." Huffington Post. March 15, 2013.