Which America will we choose today?

100 highest counties by median household income
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?

34 thoughts on “Which America will we choose today?

      1. I’m not watching it. I think the results won’t be in and done for many days yet due to the hurricane and all the problems it’s caused for voters. I think it might be a real roller coaster emotionally.

  1. And yes, the 1% simply don’t get it. I’d love to see them try to subsist on a retail job’s salary. The Romneys exemplify these attitudes. I could make a long list of things they’ve said during the campaign–Ann, too, with her bland let them eat cake attitudes–that are the cavalier attitudes of the entitled plutocrats. And the Europeans watch with horror because their destinies are bound up with ours, and with the incredible nuttiness and ignorance that has taken root and festered in American political life. Very sad.

  2. i’m curious about the speaking event. what was the reason for the gathering? what brought these people out of their warehouse-sized homes? theme of the speaking event?

  3. I do a lot of public speaking about Malled, my goal to keep selling books and raising awareness of low-wage labor and its consequences. So this was a library event I arranged to talk about my book and low-wage labor.

  4. Nemesis

    “Which America do you want?”…

    Well… The EisenhowerPlenitude one would be fun, Ms. Malled… but, realistically, I don’t think that’s going to happen.

    Kennedy’sCamelot? Bar the ‘MissileGap’ and Dallas… it certainly had it’s moments.

    Johnson’s GreatSociety? What’s not to like about an ElderStatesman who used to intimidate foreign heads of state by swimming in the nude and brandishing his… well.. it was reputedly bigger than Texas.

    But truth be told – if I had to settle for the recent past – Carter’s America wasn’t so bad… as strange as that may sound. An America chastened… a less ‘hasty’ nation… a time when the President could still earnestly address a national TV audience with the “M” word [malaise]… He still teaches SundaySchool you know.

    “Which America will we get?”…

    Alas… I’ll go with Greg on that one [Palast]. “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy”

    Speakin’ O’Authors/Titles… here’s a CutN’Paste from my AmazonInvoice of 5 minutes ago…

    Items Ordered Price

    1 of: Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail [Paperback]
    By: Caitlin Kelly
    Condition: New
    Sold by: Amazon.com.ca, Inc.

    1 of: Blown Away: American Women and Guns [Paperback]
    By: Caitlin Kelly
    Condition: New
    Sold by: Amazon.com.ca, Inc.

    So, even if I can’t get the America I’d like… I can at least glimpse the lived reality of the one I’m gonna get… from a voice I trust.

  5. moonlighttrain

    I’m not an American and so what shocks me most about the Romney-Obama battle is how Romney has even manged to get so far. Such an incompetent, scheming, right-wing fanatic whose policies and principles would be more at home in the 1930s would never last long enough in European politics to be taken seriously, let alone to rise to the platform of potential president! How do the Americans not see through his facade? I don’t understand why people are at all moved by this foolish and extreme patriot. In England, where I live, though our system is not perfect, it enables people like Romney, to be granted freedom of speech, but also to be exposed for what they are so that their influence is reduced to next to nothing. America needs to learn from their mistakes, you can’t afford to get swept in by flowery words, else you will have another Iraq and Afghanistan on your hands before long. Take heed from the Europeans.

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment.

      Why is Romney so popular? 1) Some people loathe Obama for his race; 2) some loathe Obamacare as socialism; 3) some feel that Obama has done a terrible job managing the economy; 4) many people are extremely poorly educated and have no sense of political sophistication…when Romney makes grandiose promises, it’s as though Santa has shown up with his sack full of goodies. Who cares if it’s all BS? It sounds so great and people are so fed up with this terrible economy.

      They don’t seem to understand that it’s the 1% crowd of his own set that refuse to create decent jobs while reaping record corporate profits and enormous salaries. They do not connect the dots. They don’t even see the dots.

      1. moonlighttrain

        It’s just sad that in this day and age people are so easily swayed. I will never be able to understand how Americans can accept their politics being turned into popularity contests when their whole futures and their lovelihoods are being bartered with. Still, I hope Obama wins even if it will make some Americans unhappy. Obama is good for America but I fear most people will realise it only in retrospect. Good luck to you, to all of us in fact. Judging from the history of US foreign policy, especially under unpredictable and popular presidents, it looks like more than just America’s future might be determined by the result of this vote.

  6. I think Romney will win the popular vote and President Obama the electoral college and the election. I read a sobering article on CNN today, though, that made me feel a bit grim. The nation is so polarized and this election likely to be so close, that neither man will have the support of about half of the county. And I wonder how anything will get done in the gridlock that will follow I suspect will only get more partisan. I was galvanized by the 2008 election, this time round I feel like I’m mostly hunkering down and preparing for a long siege.

      1. Oops, I didn’t mean to imply we don’t have gridlock, I only meant it will get worse than it already is. Which is an exhausting and frightening prospect… Politics have always been nasty, but this election feels like an actual cage match to me. And I’m horribly afraid that once it’s over people will just start gearing up for 2016.

  7. Oh, this is such a wonderful post. Thank you.

    I am an Australian, but I feel more like a citizen of the world these days, with the internet bringing all corners of it closer together than ever before.

    I have had my concerns over the US election – the same concerns I have about the government in my own country. Unfortunately, it feels that no matter what we choose, we are getting some kind of raw deal… but I simply cannot see anyone besides the 1% benefiting from Romney’s election.

    My thoughts are with your country, both for the election and the struggle that life seems to have become for so many of you.

    1. The struggle is very much ongoing…the country is divided now into those who are doing great and those who can’t even imagine getting there. Last night I watched two films on TV, both classics, and such great programming the night before the election…if you have never seen either, you must: The Grapes of Wrath, (1940) about the Okies and the Great Depression and The Great Gatsby (1974) about the uber-wealthy on Long Island. Both are still totally resonant today.

      I especially fear for the poor, whose names have barely been mentioned in this election. You cannot get ahead (as Grapes of Wrath made so clear) on pennies in pay, yet that’s what millions of Americans are being offered now in these new “jobs”. The fight here is also local as the NY City Council refused to even pass a living wage bill recently. Only 7 percent of Americans in the private sector, and 12% in the public, are unionized.

      The battle is to the strong. God help the weak(er.)

      1. It is a terrifying prospect to realise that we, as humans, have the capacity to not only close our eyes to the struggles of others, but to deliberately make those struggles all the more difficult and all the more permanent.

        I see revolution happening, with the Occupy movement and some of the work Anonymous does to at least bring these atrocities to light where mainstream media twists or buries them, depending on their political allegiance.

        I just don’t have any answers whatsoever on how to fix any of these problems. All I can do is the work of one person – to offer aid where I see it is needed, but it is never enough. Conversing and sharing ideas is definitely where to start, but soon, the talking will have to become action, or our very lives will be forfeit.

        Thank you for the film recommendations. I feel a little embarrassed that I’ve never bothered to watch them as I’ve heard so many wonderful things about both of them.

        I now know what I will be doing tomorrow evening.

  8. We all have to do whatever we can…it is just after 6 a.m. here and my husband has just returned from voting. Yay! Our 80 yr old widowed neighbor is working the precinct, he tells me. This is what we need.

    Please come back and tell us what you think of the films. They are very powerful viewed (as I saw them) back to back.

  9. I’m disgusted, terrified, and holding my breath. Though I might pass out before we have results–I’m fairly certain there will be disputes over the counts and votes. I am still shaking my head bc there are people complaining that those in NJ with no power (and no homes!) from Hurricane Sandy are being allowed to fax and email their votes.

    I can only say what I’ve been saying for months, how can so many fight AGAINST their own interests?

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