Labor Day was once about more than picnics; it was a time to reflect on where we were going as a nation and hear from our leaders how we were going to get there.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt of Hyde Park, who led the nation through the greatest financial and employment crisis of all, famously said in his second inaugural address, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”
But he did not stop there. We need to consider the next sentence:
“It is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope — because the nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out.”
And we need to pay even more attention to his conclusion:
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
As we celebrate Labor Day 2018, we face the same tests. That might sound wrong considering a stock market setting record highs by the day and an unemployment rate at a half-century low. But such measures can be misleading, especially when we have leaders eager to mislead us.
About half of the nation is not in the stock market and those in the top 10 percent own 85 to 90 percent of all stocks. That rising tide is lifting yachts.
Just in time for this Labor Day, the Urban Institute conducted a survey to find out how the nation is doing with so many people working and the results, while not as dismal as those that faced FDR, are still cause for concern.
The survey found that 23 percent of American households suffered from what is known as “food insecurity,” the occasional inability to afford enough to eat. About 18 percent said they had trouble paying medical bills and the same number said they had decided not to seek treatment because they could not afford it.
There is a lot of speculation about the causes of this imbalance, the seeming contradiction between rising investments, almost full unemployment and the economic trauma that affects so many. One clear cause is stagnant wages which have not risen with other measures. Another is the disappearance of pensions, illustrated by a Northwestern Mutual survey finding that 21 percent of Americans had nothing saved for retirement and a third of the nation had only $5,000 saved, leaving most to rely on Social Security. This means more older Americans are working longer, leaving fewer opportunities for younger people who are leaving college tens of thousands of dollars in debt and the default rate on those loans continues to rise.
Now more than ever, when we get back from the picnic we need to turn our attention toward those we will be electing in the fall, demand that they demonstrate an understanding of the plight of the American worker and tell us their plans for the state and federal governments to meet these needs.
We’ve done it before under more duress, so we should be able to do it now.