Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Poverty and the Eroding American Dream

Several events and encounters have prompted me to write on the subject of poverty and the eroding attainability of the "American Dream." (And hopefully I can do this with a minimum of bloviation . . . Yes, it's a word!)

Although our country has a well-documented history of poverty (even in the best of times), boom and bust economic cycles, and inequitably dispersed wealth, since the end of World War II we've come to expect certain "basic" commodities that define the American Dream. Indeed, in a society that from its genesis eschewed the hereditary aristocracies of our European forbears, we've taken pride in the presumed ability of any person to become successful and comfortable with a modicum of intelligence, hard work, and luck. Ask Americans where they "fit" in the national social structure and a majority would no doubt declare "middle class."

To most of us, "middle class" has come to mean certain things: a modest house and yard, at least one and usually two cars, a couple of weeks or more for vacation each year, access to affordable health care, adequate food on the table, enough money remaining in our bank accounts to enjoy some of the myriad leisure activities available, and the promise of job stability and a comfortable retirement. And for a long time, we could realize these goals with no more than a high school diploma. A college diploma, which in the immediate aftermath of World War II was earned by a minority of Americans, offered the possibility of an even higher standard of living. Recently reading Bill Bryson's wonderful memoir on growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, during the 1950s, I was struck by a photograph used for the book's endpapers. Featured in a 1951 issue of Life magazine, the photo shows a "typical" family of four from Cleveland, Ohio, surrounded by the two and a half tons of food that an average blue-collar family ate in a year. The father, earning $1.96 an hour, was a shipping clerk in a DuPont factory, and his well-scrubbed, happy-looking family enjoyed this cornucopia of commodities on a budget of $25 a week. Amazing!

And today? Obviously much has changed in the 50+ years since that photo was taken. Perhaps most significant is the growing inability of "middle class" Americans to realize the basics of the American Dream enjoyed by their parents. Job security is clearly a thing of the past. Moreover, we're all painfully aware of the rising cost of decent healthcare - even with insurance. A college degree no longer assures access to adequate employment. (I have a Ph.D. and found myself unemployed for 18 months in 2005-06.) Retirement with sufficient income to survive one's "golden years" is a more tenuous goal than ever. Minimum wage - a hard reality for a rapidly expanding part of our workforce in a service-based economy - is no longer a minimum. Just look at Barbara Ehrenreich's books, Nickle and Dimed and Bait and Switch, which touch on these issues with excruciatingly real examples. Indeed, the single-income family in that Life photo would not be able to survive today without some kind of public assistance.

In New York City these disparities in wealth and opportunity seem all the more visible, particularly in terms of the massive homeless population. The place of my employment runs a homeless shelter on Friday and Saturday evenings. It is always full. Walking the streets, one sees everywhere the casualties of socio-economic change - as well as the casualties of a mental health system that has turned out most of its institutionalized patients in the last 25 years).

Clearly something is amiss in our society. And unfortunately we have neither a charitable infrastructure vast enough to tackle the problem, nor the political wherewithal to address the more fundamental causes of these problems. The romantic side of my personality favors socialism as a response to the crisis. However, the more realistic side understands that the rosy promise of socialism simply will not work in a nation so large and heterogenous.

Tangentially, I'll note that my art has rarely addressed these problems. As a photographer I've had countless chances to document the face of poverty in New York City, but have been reluctant to invade the privacy of the homeless. Only once as a painter have I tried to capture one of these moments. The image at left is of the swollen ankles and bloody feet of a homeless woman who often sits - or in this case, stands - in the Lincoln Center neighborhood. Walking appears to be an arduous undertaking. I was also struck by the contrast between the red of her dress, the obvious dirt and grime which defined its hem, and the bloody bandages on her heels. Painted almost a year ago, I vacillate in my opinion of this painting. At present, I'm pleased with it, hence its inclusion on the blog. Perhaps it's a subject I'll revisit.


One Wink at a Time said...

I earnestly hope that no one asks me to give an opinion regarding which impressed me more; the text on this all-important and too-rarely addressed subject or the accompaning painting which accurately depicts all that you've written here.

I'm rapt.

Isabel said...

Almost every morning, I have visited your blog and continued where I left off. A few days back was January, and today I landed on February 28 and there is where I will stay all day.
There is a lot to think about here-our role as enablers and possive bystanders of our own destiny as a human race.
My son and I volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and Salvation Army, and I always feel we don't do enough, in the face of how much needs to be done.
You should revisit this subject through your art-I see it less as an invasion of privacy of the homeless and more a testimony of their existence.
You should definitely do more of these!