Politics & Prose September 2006

The Insecure American

Most Americans today are on an unstable financial footing. Could this become the next hotbutton political issue?

Laudably, former Senator John Edwards has been spotlighting poverty in America while New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has been documenting the widening gap between the rich and the rest. Politically, poverty and inequality are non-starters. As an "issue," poverty asks white voters to extend compassion to urban blacks and single mothers, people with whom they do not identify and who are easily blamed for their own poverty. Class politics has had less traction here than in any other industrialized country. In People of Plenty (1957), historian David Potter explained why: "[S]ocial barriers in this country are a violation of our national ideals, and therefore the mere awareness of them impairs public morale." Moreover, economic inequality is an abstract problem; it does not come up in daily life.

By contrast, economic insecurity—a structure of feeling built on fears about "Risky Jobs," “Risky Families," "Risky Health Care," and "Risky Retirement," to use chapter titles from Jacob Hacker's new book, The Great Risk Shift (Oxford University Press)—pervades the lives of most Americans. Hacker characterizes economic insecurity as "the defining feature of the contemporary American economy," and his book provides a fresh diagnosis of a familiar complex of problems from structural unemployment to the erosion of retirement plans you can retire on.

Perhaps the leading symptom of the "new economic insecurity" is the increasing volatility of family incomes—the swings in income between best and worst years of earnings. In 1970, families earned an average of 50 percent less in their worst years than in their best. So a person making $60,000 in her best made $30,000 in her worst. Today she'd earn $15,000 in her worst. In 1970, the chances of a family experiencing a 50 percent drop in income over a two year span was 7 percent; today it is 16 percent and rising. In the 1970s, a man in his forties had a 13 percent chance of experiencing a year in poverty before he turned fifty; by the 1990s he had a 36 percent chance. Poverty is practically a stage of growth for children. "More than half of American kids spend at least a year in poverty by the time they're eighteen, compared with less than a quarter of German children," Hacker reports.

What happened? Pressured by foreign competition and impatient domestic investors, Hacker says, employers broke the post-war "work contract" with employees under which they had shared the gains and risks of the post-war economy. As a result, more of the risks were shifted onto employees. Under the old contract, explains Hacker, "workers received job security, guaranteed benefits, and good pay,” while "employers got loyal, productive workers who invested in skills specific to their jobs and didn't jump ship when times were tough." Under the new contract, set unilaterally by employers in a labor market in which private-sector unions are about as weak as they were in 1906, workers have no job security, they pay more for their health insurance, and they face lean retirements on 401(k)s. A 1980s memo from the CEO of General Electric stated the new contract's terms: "The only job security is a successful business. If loyalty means that this company will ignore poor performance, then loyalty is off the table." Peter Drucker expressed the underlying dynamic in a chilling image: "Companies built to last like pyramids are now more like tents."

Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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