Looks like the Econolypse has cut deep, deep, deep into the lives of the average American family, and Judith Warner debunks the new myth that somehow all this suffering is redemptive: that families are coming together, that we are finding new meaning in simplicity and macaroni-and-cheese for dinner.
Judith Warner, What the Great Recession Has Done to Family Life
A Pew Research poll published last month indicated that more than half of all adults in the U.S. labor force had experienced some “work-related hardship” — a period of unemployment, a pay cut, a reduction in work hours or an involuntary move to part-time employment — since the recession began in December 2007. A report in March from the Population Reference Bureau showed that more than 70 percent of Americans age 40 and over felt they had been affected by the economic crisis. Government data indicate that the net worth of the average American household has shrunk by about 20 percent — the greatest such decline since the end of World War II. Long-term unemployment — joblessness lasting six months or more — is also at its highest level since the mid-1940s. According to recent data from the Rockefeller Institute, 20 percent of Americans have seen their available household income decline by 25 percent or more.
And yet, despite this bleak reality, some talk persists of silver linings: less cash to spend means less materialism, a real change to “the definition of living well,” as Jim Taylor, a vice president of Harrison Group, a market research firm in Waterbury, Conn., told The Times as the big banks melted down in the fall of 2008. At that time, unemployed Wall Street dads were said to be discovering the unexpected joys of domesticity. Minivan moms in the summertime learned that days at the public beach were just as rewarding as playing tennis while the kids improved themselves at foreign-language camp. The glue of all this new happiness was meant to be togetherness — a belief that still sustains reports that people are volunteering more, pulling together and even replacing their propensity to compete with their neighbors with a new spirit of cooperation and solidarity. “There’s a new level of social coordination,” says Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University, relating to me how parents of his acquaintance recently agreed to a multilateral halt in the escalation of kid-birthday-party madness in favor of back-to-basics cake and balloons. “In some areas of our life we’re resetting. Over time, we may get de-escalation.”
A craving for a simpler, slower, more centered life, one less consumed by the soul-emptying crush of getting and spending, runs deep within our culture right now. It was born of the boom, and not just because of the materialism of that era but also because of the work it took then to keep a family afloat, at a time of rising home prices and health care costs, frozen real wages and the pressures of an ever-widening income gap. As the recent Rockefeller report showed, for most families the miseries of the Great Recession don’t represent a break from the recent past, just a significant worsening of the stresses they’ve been under for years and years.
The poor are getting poorer, and the rich, despite stock-market setbacks, are still comparatively rich. The most devastating losses in household wealth over the past two years have been suffered by the middle class. And families are fraying at the seams. The Pew poll showed nearly half of people who had been unemployed for more than six months saying their family relationships had become strained, and a New York Times/CBS poll of unemployed adults last winter found about 40 percent saying they believed their joblessness was causing behavioral change in their children.
Parents who have jobs are working longer hours than ever. Mothers are taking shorter maternity leaves. The birth rate is on the decline. The divorce rate is declining, too — it’s too expensive for people to break up their households — but that’s not necessarily a family-friendly thing, as a report from the Council on Contemporary Families noted in April: “We know from the experience of the Great Depression of the 1930s that divorce rates can fall while family conflict and domestic violence rates rise.”
What came out of the combined experience of the Great Depression and World War II — broad measures of quality-of-life equalization like a sharply progressive tax policy with rates on the wealthy unimaginable today, the G.I. Bill, government-subsidized home mortgages for veterans — permitted the easier, less-frenzied middle class family life that older Americans remember from the 1950s and ’60s and that younger Americans dream of. In other words, it wasn’t individual families that reformed themselves after the crucible of the Depression. It was our society.
So this myth of the sliver lining is actually a holdover from the go-go days before the crash, and the hard, grim truth is that mostly, families are being stressed by financial downdrafts. There isn’t much sunshine and flowers involved.
And there seems to be no unifying thread to pull the nation together, no charismatic leader who could assail the evils of a rigged market economy in the hands of those best positioned to benefit from chaos, no cataclysm that makes us feel we are all in it together and we need to pull together to make a better world. Without that, we are just sinking.