100 highest counties by median household income (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In 2008, I went with Jose to vote.
We went to a nearby local synagogue where the voting machines were set up, and a neighbor was overseeing it. I went into the voting booth with Jose and watched him vote for Obama, and I burst into tears of excitement and, yes, hope.
I was still working my retail job then, at a suburban mall, for The North Face, and all day long there was a tremendous, palpable sense of excitement. We asked every customer: “Have you voted yet?” Our managers kept checking the internet all day long to see the results.
This year, with the race neck-and-neck, I fear mightily for the result…and with the after-effects of Hurricane Sandy, voting is physically impossible for many residents of New York and New Jersey.
On Sunday, The New York Times wrote a light-hearted story about how Americans always threaten to move to more-liberal Canada if the Republican candidate wins.
As a Canadian, I have another country I could move to only a 90-minute flight away, one filled with family and old friends and which, if we really tried hard, we could probably both find jobs. But it’s never that simple.
And Europeans are watching this election cycle with some dismay as well.
Columnist Simon Kuper, writing in the Financial Times:
In politics and economics, we diverged spectacularly. George W. Bush introduced a peculiarly non-European evangelical Christianity into presidential politics. He landed Europeans in two wars that we ended up regretting. He shattered the belief that western countries stood together for human rights. Our mutual trade waned: in the decade to 2007, even before the economic crisis, the share of the European Union’s imports coming from the US halved to just 12 per cent.
Meanwhile, as money flooded American politics like never before, US elections came to provide Europeans with an alien spectacle of plutocrats fighting aristocrats. Here’s a typical line from The Economist, about Pennsylvania’s senate race: “Though Mr Casey is the son of a popular former governor, Mr Smith has vowed to spend millions of dollars of his own fortune on the campaign, lashing Mr Casey …”About $5.8bn will be spent nationwide in these elections, says the Center for Responsive Politics. By contrast, as David Cameron noted recently on the Late Show with David Letterman, British political parties cannot even advertise on TV.
One of the issues that Hurricane Sandy laid bare is the extraordinary and growing divide between rich and poor in the United States. Note: I’ve added the boldface.
From The New York Times:
The rich got richer and the poor got poorer in New York City last year as the poverty rate reached its highest point in more than a decade, and the income gap in Manhattan, already wider than almost anywhere else in the country, rivaled disparities in sub-Saharan Africa…
“To see the poverty rate jump almost a full percentage point is not a good sign,” said David R. Jones, the president of the Community Service Society of New York, an antipoverty advocacy and research group. “We’re still seeing really high rates of unemployment, while jobs have been growing in an anemic way and the jobs that have been created are really low-wage.”
“These poverty numbers reflect a national challenge: the U.S. economy has shifted and too many people are getting left behind without the skills they need to compete and succeed,” Samantha Levine, the mayor’s deputy press secretary, said on Wednesday. “As President Clinton recently said, ‘The old economy is not coming back,’ and that’s why the mayor believes we need a new national approach to job creation and education, one that gives everyone a chance to rise up the economic ladder.”
Median household income in the city last year was $49,461, just below the national median and down $821 from the year before (compared with a national decline of $642). Median earnings for workers fell sharply to $32,210 from $33,287 — much more than the national decline.)
New Yorkers at the bottom end of the income spectrum lost ground, while those at the top gained.
Median income for the lowest fifth was $8,844, down $463 from 2010. For the highest, it was $223,285, up $1,919.
In Manhattan, the disparity was even starker. The lowest fifth made $9,681, while the highest took home $391,022. The wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites made more than 40 times what the lowest fifth reported, a widening gap (it was 38 times, the year before) surpassed by only a few developing countries, including Namibia and Sierra Leone.
Reading The New York Times, (Jose’s employer of 29 years, and for whom I write freelance), is a dizzying example of this split nation. On the news pages are horror stories of long-term unemployment and, now, a $50 billion economic loss from Hurricane Sandy — with a major cold front and storm due to arrive here in two days’ time, when thousands still have no light, heat or power in their homes.
Those who even have homes.
Yet, in the Sunday Times was a Macy’s ad for a $23,000 engagement ring and an editorial page offering second homes in Palm Springs, California, the cheapest of which (!) is over $1 million.
So, voters can choose Romney’s world, in which he knows people who own Nascar teams and, if you need money for college, you just borrow it from your parents.
Or you can re-choose Obama, whose performance could have been a lot better, but who, at least, has some clear understanding of, and compassion for, the weak and poor, the old and struggling.
When I hear Romney, with that weird, fake tight smile and his Mom jeans, tell us he’ll create millions of jobs, all I can think is — what a liar. He won’t have that kind of unadulterated power, no matter how sexy and comforting that sounds. He’ll kill Obamacare and, with it, plunge millions of desperate and terrified Americans back into the vicious maelstrom of trying to buy full-price healthcare on the open market.
There are two Americas now.
One is weak and very frightened: old, ill, poor, poorly educated, unable to afford re-training, who can’t afford the childcare to get to school or don’t have computers to train from home or don’t even speak English well enough or don’t have the right skills to do the higher-wage work they need to leave poverty behind. A quarter of American homes are “underwater”, worth less than their mortgages, un-sellable.
The middle class is sliding into poverty. Wages are stagnant and costs skyrocketing, especially food and gasoline, in a nation largely built for people who travel by private automobile. Millions, especially those over the age of 50, have been seeking a new job for more than a year.
The rich are set. They glide past us in their gleaming Escalades and Mercedes and Maseratis and Ferraris. They live in 20,000 square foot mansions and send their children to private schools — so who cares if the public schools are lousy? Not their problem! Their kids and grand-kids have trust funds and powerful connections with which to access the best jobs, tutored by $125/hour experts so their test scores will beat those of the kids who can’t possibly afford that sort of help, assuring them entry into the schools of their choice.
The poor, the middle class, the struggles of others — an annoying abstraction!
I spoke recently to a 1% crowd, at a library in Scarsdale, New York — where the median income is $250,000 and the median house price is $1.2 million. It’s a 30-minute drive from our town, in the same county, where the median income is about $80,000, double what it was when I moved here in 1989.
I spoke, with my usual passion, about my personal experience of moving from a highly-paid newspaper job, at 50, to $11/hr. selling overpriced clothing, part-time, in an upscale mall. I wrote a book about it. I also speak for millions of other low-wage workers in this economy, most of whom struggle mightily on pitiful wages.
And the two largest sources of new jobs in this divided United States? Retail and foodservice: low wages, part-time, no benefits, no raises, physically grueling and intellectually deadening.
“Even at $11/hour, they’re still jobs,” said one Scarsdale woman. Yes, they are.
Do you want one?
I didn’t ask her.
Which America do you want?
Which America will we get?