American Culture

Inequality in America: can we find ourselves after losing our way?

If you believe that America’s infrastructure is in good shape, that the American middle class is thriving, that our nation supports our troops by providing them with top-notch care after they return home, that the American education system needs more standardized testing and fewer schools, and that the economic gap between the rich and the poor is nothing to worry about, then Bob Herbert’s book Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America is not for you, and you can stop reading now.

Herbert wrote for the New York Times before he left in 2001 to join Demos, which the book jacket defines as “a public policy think tank” in New York. To get an idea of Herbert’s take on life in America, consider the beginning of “The Fire This Time,” which he posted in August on HuffPost:

I remember the stunned reaction of so many Americans back in the summer of 2005 when legions of poor black people in desperate circumstances seemed to have suddenly and inexplicably materialized in New Orleans during the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina.

Expressions of disbelief poured in from around the nation: “How can this be happening?” “I had no idea conditions were that bad.” “My God, is this America?”

People found themselves staring at the kind of poverty they thought had been largely wiped out decades earlier.

That theme and similar ones, all related to social injustice, thread throughout Losing Our Way. The threads use the stories of ordinary Americans to show how the middle class is endangered, along with things that make a thriving middle class possible: jobs that provide enough wages to allow people to live above the poverty level, and public education, to name just two. And the book’s stories never stray from the overarching theme of the pervasiveness—indeed, the spreading—of poverty.

The root cause of poverty, Herbert writes, is that America has two castes: the very rich, and the rest of us:

The economy seem[s] to work only for the very wealthy. By 2013 the richest 1 percent in America was hauling in nearly a quarter of the nation’s entire annual income and owned 40 percent of its wealth. The bottom 80 percent of Americans, 250 million people, were struggling to hold onto just 7 percent of the nation’s wealth.

The high rollers continued to thrive despite the recession and its widespread suffering. The head of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, was compensated to the tune of $13.2 million in 2010 as salaries and bonuses on Wall Street roared back from the economic debacle set in motion by the recklessness of those very same bankers and their acolytes in government.

There’s almost a numbing quality to Herbert’s incisive observations on topics like slashed government spending on programs to benefit people and society, and, to quote again from the book, additional topics like “job cuts, falling wages, vanishing pensions and diminished expectations.” Toward the end of the book, I began to develop a sense that it was all too much, that there was nothing I could do. Then I realized apathy, above anything else, brought our country to the state it’s in.

Herbert isn’t content to merely point his finger at what’s wrong. In the final chapter, he writes about how the actions of four black college students taking seats at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960 ignited a movement that spread throughout the South and then the nation:

Within months, the sit-ins spread to dozens of American cities. Many of the protesters were beaten and thousands were arrested, but they would not give in. Some cities desegregated their lunch counters; others resisted. But by the mid-1960s the civil rights movement, with its freedom rides, court fights and other initiatives, had achieved a critical mass. The era of legal segregation of America was brought to a close.

He continues: What had happened was astonishing. Ordinary citizens far from the traditional centers of power had profoundly changed American society. Through sustained, thoughtful and courageous efforts, they had shifted the nation onto a better path.

In the end, Losing Our Way left me with two questions. The first is general: Why can’t this happen today? And the second one was to myself:

What are you going to do about it?

2 replies »

  1. Thanks for reviewing, Patrick. I’m a huge Bob Herbert fan. He was the voice of sanity when he wrote for the NY Times’ op-ed page (and before that in the NY Daily News). Oddly the clarity he demonstrated in tackling issues like poverty head on was derided as boring by some. But to me, along with Krugman at times, his was the only voice on the Times op-ed page that mattered. May read this book.

  2. Love your closing, Pat. Questions I’ve been asking myself lately having arrived there via various avenues similar to the ones Herbert explores. I’m with Russ – looks like a book I need to find…. Thanks for a great review.