On Friday I had the privilege of attending a talk by Van Jones at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC and wanted to report back on what Van Jones said about achieving economic justice. While the talk was designed to promote Jones’ new book, Rebuild the Dream, many topics were covered and there was a question and answer session at the end.
Jones started out by talking about the destruction of the American Dream and the creation of the “new poor” as he termed it; the people who have fallen from the middle class and entered poverty. He discussed how traditionally poverty and the need for economic justice was associated with rural poor in Appalachia and minority communities in the inner cities, and how that picture of poverty is changing to include caucasian communities and young people saddled with large amounts of student loan debt and faced with the worst job market since the Great Depression.
The arguments about how student loan debt is hurting the American Dream particularly compelling. Van Jones pointed out that the path to the middle class used to be pretty simple: go to college, get a good job, buy a house. Now, that path is in jeopardy as student loan debt will hit the 1 trillion mark on April 25th, officially surpassing credit card debt in the US. As a recent college graduate, I can attest to the fact that this path no longer exists. I graduated at the top of my class from a well-ranked public liberal arts school with a substantial student debt load and make an annual gross salary that is just over half that of my total outstanding student loan debt — and that’s in Washington, DC, which has one of the highest costs of living in the United States. It’s going to be a long time before I am able to pay off my debt, let alone buy a home (something that I would very much like to do). Something needs to be done about the cost of education in this country, as Van Jones pointed out that we’re the only country in the world making it more difficult to get educated (did you know that college is free in many countries?).
Another argument Jones made that I found to be spot on was that America needs living wage jobs and that public sector employment and high skilled manufacturing jobs need to be brought back to the United States if we hope to revive the American Dream. He pointed out correctly that while jobs numbers may be improving, the jobs are not. Most of the job growth in the past year has been in the service industry, which tends to be minimum wage or low paying and without benefits. Certainly not jobs that will allow citizens to join the middle class.
Let’s take stock of where we are in America: we have the traditionally poor still in poverty, ever increasing numbers of people falling out of the middle class into poverty, the worst job market since the Great Depression and citizens buried under student loans and mortgages that are under water.
Clearly something needs to be done, which is why Van Jones and Rebuild the Dream are focusing on a few things. First, voting in record numbers in November and leaving the polls marching and ready to organize. Second, remembering that we need to push President Obama to take action because while he was once a social movement leader, he is now head of state and needs to feel the pressure from the grassroots.