Corbyn Hightower was doing everything right. She worked long hours selling natural skin care products, flying between cities to meet customers, staying in posh hotels. She pulled down a salary that provided her family of five with a comfortable home in a planned community, a Honda SUV, health insurance, and regular shopping trips for the best natural foods, clothes, shoes, and toys.
Then the recession hit. Her commissions dried up, and the layoff soon followed. Life for Corbyn, her stay-at-home husband, and three children changed quickly.
First the family moved to a low-rent house down the street from a homeless shelter. They dropped cable TV, Wi-Fi, gym membership, and most of the shopping. Giving up health insurance was the most difficult step—it seemed to Corbyn that she was failing to provide for her young daughters. Giving up the car was nearly as difficult.
As our economy goes through tectonic shifts, this sort of adaptation is becoming the new normal. Security for our families will increasingly depend on rebuilding our local and regional economies and on our own adaptability and skills at working together. At the same time, we need government to work on behalf of struggling families and to make the investments that create jobs now and opportunities for coming generations. That will require popular movements of ordinary people, willing to push back against powerful moneyed interests.
How did we get to an economy in which millions are struggling?
Officially, the “Great Recession” ended in the second quarter of 2009. For some people, the recovery is well under way. Corporate profits are at or above pre-recession levels, and the CEOs of the 200 biggest corporations averaged over $10 million in compensation in 2010—a 23 percent increase over 2009.
But for most Americans, there’s no recovery, and some are confronting homelessness and hunger. Twenty-five million are unemployed, under-employed, or have given up looking for work. Forty-five percent of unemployed people have been without a job for more than 27 weeks, the highest percentage since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started keeping track in 1948. There’s a growing army of “99ers,” people who have been unemployed for more than 99 weeks and have exhausted all unemployment benefits.
Fifty-three percent of Americans say jobs and the economy are the most important issues facing the country; just 7 percent say the deficit is the most important. Yet budget cuts and austerity have replaced job creation in the national dialogue.
American workers have become expendable to many of the corporations that run the economy; NAFTA and other trade laws opened the floodgates of outsourcing to low-wage countries. Many of the jobs that can’t be outsourced are being eliminated, or hours, pay, and benefits are being cut.