You’ve probably seen at least one local TV newscast where a camera pans a long line of weary, desperate people waiting outside a big arena to be tended by volunteer doctors, dentists and other medical professionals. Perhaps you’ve known a kid who got a random shot at college and a chunk of tuition assistance because some enterprising nonprofit just happened to offer an intensive afterschool college prep program at his or her particular high school. Or maybe you caught the Steve Lopez column this summer about a fortunate handful of low-income folks, their names plucked at random from a list of nearly 2,000, who won the right to rent affordable apartments in a tony new Playa Vista development.
Even as stories like these are intended to warm our souls at good fortune and big-hearted humanity, do you ever feel just a little embarrassed that so much of consequence to some of the most-challenged among us comes down to a lucky lottery draw, a chance encounter, or a wait in some god-awful long line? I do, too.
But isn’t happenstance just the way the world works? Aren’t societies like a game of Texas Hold ‘em where the rules are set, randomness reigns and you’re only option is to get what you can by playing the hand you’re dealt, be it lousy, middling or a premium pair? Well, in a word, no. We need not normalize happenstance.
Enshrined in the civil trinity of tradition, public policy and law, the social rules – at least in functioning democracies – can change. Congress admirably reformed the social rules by passing landmark legislation like Medicare, the Affordable Care Act and Social Security at least in part because those policies protected the vulnerable elderly, people making low incomes, young children and widows. Some nations go much further.
If you’re a kid growing up in Germany, for instance, a good portion of the taxes your parents pay guarantee lifetime family access to health care, and assure every capable person a free or very low-cost pathway to education. Certain workers even have access to subsidized, affordable housing because company heads and local government leaders know that a secure, nearby place to live encourages worker loyalty, lowers stress and increases productivity. And everyone benefits from the strengthened overall economy that results from investing bigtime and across the board in citizen prosperity.
Insightful Germans will readily admit their system is nowhere near perfect. Ask them, however, where the caring impulse comes from that provides people comprehensive education, health care and worker housing subsidies. They’ll point directly to cherished government policy enacted by the will of the people. And they will assure you, at least when it comes to a robust citizen springboard, every German knows in their bones that from the nation’s top leadership to local city councils, public officials have their back. Germans look at systems like ours, so dependent on chance and presently hateful of an assertive federal government, as bizarrely quaint or just plain primitive. They shake their heads – as we often fail to do as Americans – in disbelief that such a prosperous country would consign legions to line up for charity healthcare and millions more to languish in mires of student debt while throngs struggle to find a decent place to live and often commute absurd distances to hold down jobs.
Why do individual Americans tolerate shouldering so much insecurity? What insidious culture of unfairness has seized our society, leaving the most vulnerable exposed to medical, economic and household calamity way out of proportion to our nation’s resources, formative ideals and world stature? Why do we demote social cohesion by promoting a theocracy of disparity that leaves too many people damaged, distrustful and demoralized?
I’d recommend two books, one recent, the other a few years old, that can provide scaffolding for possible answers. Political scientist Jacob Hacker, in his 2008 work The Great Risk Shift: The New Economic Insecurity and the Decline of the American Dream, named the new threat to American prosperity “the risk bind” that has been thrust increasingly onto the backs of families. The other book is Arlie Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.
While each comes from radically different perspectives, the authors address fundamental questions around the ways in which ordinary citizens become mired in marginal economic conditions, leaving them unable to address, or even see, the political realities effecting. We who work in civic and community-building organizations often have just enough elevation and information to see the effects on people. We take things a step further by crafting and agitating in favor of fair and equitable solutions. But Hacker and Hochschild would likely agree that the measure of our effectiveness lies not in the political mandate or the economic power of our sector, for we are comparatively small in comparison to business markets and government. Rather, we must shy away from tolerating any condition that leaves ordinary people in danger of being swept up by the whims of happenstance and ending up in charity lines, crossing their fingers in lotteries, or living life at the drawing end of luck.
We must declare intolerable in a society as wealthy as ours any condition that renders any part of life nasty, brutish and short unless it's absolutely by choice that a person elects that path. That's what people do whose empathy for others refuses to leave anyone at the mercy of random chance.
"I Feel Like A Winner" by elizaIO