Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Affluenza Series, Part 2: The Eroding Middle Class

"The Peasant's Revolt, also called Wat Tyler's Rebellion, was a major uprising across large parts of England in 1381. The revolt had various causes, including the economic and political tensions generated by the Black Death in the 1340's, the high taxes resulting from the conflict with France during the Hundred Years War, and instability within the local leadership of London." (wikipedia) During this age in English history there were many such uprisings which were fueled not only by taxation, inflation, and declining incomes of the poor, but also because of the increasing gap between the wealthy nobility and the much poorer peasants. These protests by the poor did increase their living conditions to some degree, however, the economic gap still remained. It is here within the contexts of the Medieval revolts that the desire for upward mobility through social class began to take root. It is also here, in 14th century England, that the story of the eroding middle class begins.

A Better Life

"The American dream has long been held as a fundamental tenet of American life. So most of us would be surprised to find out that the idea behind the dream isn't actually American." -Edward Cahill, Ph.D., associate professor of English, Fordham University

Colonization of America in the 18th century did much to break down class boundaries and open up wealth to everyone. Back in England, citizens were caught up in "the striving for wealth acquisition and status transformation" which remained the prevalent social focus for many of the English since the 14th century. Now there was a huge opportunity to shatter this economic system by crossing the ocean and inspiring the new settlers to build a new life from scratch. After decades of struggle and hard work, it became very apparent that anyone could indeed establish a better life, all you had to do was pursue it.

It wasn't until the 19th century that the concept of the "American Dream" began to fully manifest itself in the minds of many Americans and begin to manifest itself as a reality within their lives. Leading figures "such as Benjamin Franklin, [a] soap maker's son turned American luminary and one of the nation's founding fathers...wrote extensively on the topic of wealth acquisition in his autobiography." (Cahill) His secret to financial success - save your money.

Clashing Values

Ben Franklin was wholeheartedly committed to public service and his attitude toward wealth was directly related to virtue. He believed that upward mobility involved focusing on getting yourself stable, and then once you've accomplished that, then focus on helping other people. Acquiring wealth was not some self-serving greed or "see how much money and stuff you can obtain" type of philosophy as it is today. In Franklin's day it was a blessing to have wealth and the duty of the upper class to pay it forward to less fortunate members of society. Sounds a lot like something Jesus did when he walked this earth.

"Unfortunately our culture has become obsessed with affluence. We now believe that it's our God-given right to live affluent lives." (Cahill) And so the American Dream has become obscured into an ideal that is meant only for some people, not everyone. Our deep narcissism drives us to achieve affluence at any cost, even trampling over people to get to the top. This is a direct side effect of affluenza and would have Franklin turning in his grave to know that the less fortunate have been cast aside.

Around the turn of the 21st century, with the advancement of technology and its availability to the public, "the culture of wealth acquisition began to alter the structure of American society. On the one hand you had a lot more people becoming fabulously wealthy - the number of millionaires grew exponentially. At the same time, the wealth gap between the rich and the poor grew exponentially, too....The rich were getting larger in number as the poor were getting larger in number." (Cahill) The American Dream now has many different meanings based on an individual person or family- from harvesting millions while working in a hedge fund to simply owning your own home or even just having a job. The deterioration or the huge amassing of wealth is driving a wedge between the upper and lower classes. The chart below shows this growing disparity of incomes.

 Affluenza's Greed

So what exactly is causing the middle class to slowly disappear? We know that the boon of the housing market revealed just how many millions of Americans were not living within their means. This revelation is essentially the core symptom of affluenza - using any resource available, whether yours or someone else's, to obtain wealth and social status at any cost and not worrying about the consequences. And, for many, the final cost was home foreclosure - the stripping of the American Dream.

Credit cards are crushing Americans at an alarming rate, so much so that it is assumed and accepted that everyone will accumulate this type of debt. I think it is safe to say that most Americans have more debt than savings because we have become a society of instant gratification. This lifestyle, riddled with massive spending, runs completely contrary to Ben Franklin's philosophy of save, save, save and is a strong contributor to the eroding middle class.

Yearly incomes for the middle class have declined around $3,000 - $5,000 since the turn of the century. Now Americans in this class have less money to work with but the cost of living still increasing. This increase can be seen with food and fuel costs nearly tripling since the turn of the century. To put it succinctly, there are more and more factors continuously arising that are stripping away the ability of middle class Americans to achieve and maintain the American Dream.

Government Intervention

"Most of our elected officials, whether Democrat or Republican, have been bought and paid for through campaign donations from corporate lobbyists and other special interest groups. We've reached a stage where lobbyists no longer merely influence legislation but write the actual language of what becomes law." - Lou Dobbs, War on the Middle Class

Legislation proposed by our "representatives" continues to punch holes in our eroding class system. During the Bush administration there were tax laws passed which eliminated the Estate Tax and implemented some tax breaks that only the wealthy 1% of our country could take advantage of. This kind of legislation benefits our corporations and millionaires by allowing them to keep more of the millions they possess. Legislators also followed suit during this administration by voting pay raises for themselves while the average income of the lower and middle classes consistently fell.

Another type of legislation aimed at eroding the middle class is the Affordable Care Act. This legislation, under the guise of "universal healthcare for every American", has really only affected the lower class society and those seeking to achieve the middle class American Dream. No one in the government sector, the upper class, any corporate manager or leader - essentially anyone making more than $70,000 a year is not adversely affected by the ACA because they get to keep the insurance they already possess and maintain the hours they've always worked. It is only the poor and middle class are suffering from this backwards legislation.

The welfare system and immigrants have always been blamed for the downfall of the middle class. It has been asserted that a large percentage of their income goes toward sustaining the lives of people who, for whatever reason, cannot get their lives straightened out enough to maintain a job. Is this really a factor for the struggling middle class or could it just be propaganda pushed by our corporate and political leaders? All hell didn't break loose when millionaires were given huge tax breaks. However, when a family comes upon hard times in a tough economy and needs a little bit of help to make it through day to day life, they are viewed as worthless bums soaking up money that they didn't earn. The system established by FDR in 1935 to help the poorer people of this country is now viewed as an evil that should be eradicated. And, through the lowering of government standards, it is being slowly phased out. Thousands who were eligible for benefits as little as two years ago cannot receive them today. WWBFD? What would Ben Franklin do?

What could possibly have motivated the healthcare industry, including insurance companies, to contribute over $17 million to Obama's campaign through PACs and superPACs? Hmm...I wonder. Or, couldn't it be more obvious that there is illicit money to be made when lawyers and their firms contributed nearly $47 million to the President's campaign knowing that there is a predicted $56 billion in medical malpractice lawsuits? Who can prove otherwise that the ACA wasn't actually written by health insurance companies themselves and the corporations who support them?

The direction this country is moving in regards to wealth and social status is alarming. The philosophies of Ben Franklin are still practiced by philanthropists who, God bless their souls, are still around. But paying forward the things we all are blessed with is a value of the past and the art of philanthropy is withering on the vine. In the 21st century we only look out for ourselves and what is in our best interests. Is it too much of a stretch of the imagination to see that this country could lose over 600 years of progress by returning to the nobility/peasant social classes that existed during Richard II's reign in England? Is it already too late to reverse the damage? Can the middle class be saved?

Sources Cited

Klimaski, Joanna. "English Scholar Uncovers Real Story Behind the American Dream." (Edward Cahill).       Inside Fordham. October 15, 2012. [Retrieved electronically on March 3, 2014]                                                                       

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