The classic American Dream is has become nearly unachievable in the modern U.S. With the dismantling of labor groups and unions, the idea that someone can work hard and live a comfortable life while supporting a family after learning a trade is far-fetched. Even those who obtain a college education and enter the workforce with a degree are saddled with unprecedented debt, crippling their long-term earning potential.
Because of this, folks are being pushed further and further out of the cities that they have called home for their entire lives. People capitalizing on lower cost of living are moving to smaller cities where the economy can’t support their working class due to the influx of wealthy individuals. New housing that is built in these cities caters to this new class, making even the least expensive apartments unaffordable to those making minimum wage, even with multiple roommates.
So, what are we to do? Have we abandoned the core American values that promise a fair shake for everyone who has the drive for success? Is it a shift in ideology, changing economic policy, or a conspicuous lack of empathy that is to blame for this forced, nationwide epidemic of displacement due to gentrification?
What Happened to the Middle Class?
Labor unions have done wonderful things for the American public. It isn’t just the two-day weekend, paid vacations, inclusivity for those with disabilities, and an overhaul of workplace safety regulations that those who came before us fought and died for. It was the true pursuit of one of the central tenets our nation was built upon: the pursuit of happiness.
They fought for the ability for you to live comfortably without having to worry about putting food on your family’s plate. Labor unions have also provided workers with a safety net in the event that they become injured and cannot continue to work. This is an idea worth fighting tooth-and-nail for, yet more and more we see our neighbors struggling to pay rent and participating in the internet equivalent of begging on the street by using crowdfunding sites to try and pay for medical procedures. This is unacceptable for a country that views itself as a beacon of light and an inspiration for others.
Wages have remained stagnant while living costs continue to rise every year. Policies put in place as far back as the 80s still funnel money to the top of the heap with the spurious claim that it will trickle back down to the rest of us. As families get pushed out of cities and into rural areas, even more problems arise. Though they may experience some relief from lower rent costs, their travel time increases, and viable public transport for the people that need it sits miles away in city centers they used to call home.
There is a severe lack of social workers in the rural areas that need them most. Rural communities lack access to adequate health care, are less likely to have access to employer-provided health care, and have reduced access to supermarkets where they can purchase food. While rural communities face these problems, they have also bought the biggest lie ever told, that the policies put in place that caused all of these problems are in their best interest. Endless scapegoats are lined up with fingers pointed at them, all while rural communities often happily vote against their best interests, assuaged by a shift in blame.
Too Few of the Jobs That Built the Country
When we were forced to watch labor unions die off, we watched the most accessible form of democracy in America go with it. The ability to directly communicate with your employer to negotiate wages, hours, and terms of employment. Now, we hear stories about Amazon, an American company, forcing employees to urinate in bottles to save time over fears of termination. We’ve traded in iron shackles for name tags and polo shirts.
Modern Americans are held hostage by how our current economy operates. Where labor unions allowed for the middle class to flourish by allowing workers to earn disposable income to then reinvest into the economy, now we are faced with an economy in which climbing above the poverty line is nearly impossible. We’re told that we need to save our money for the future, but saving any significant amount of money is nearly impossible due to rising costs across the board.
Fortunately, there are a few institutions that have somehow skirted past this situation, and provide a decent living wage. For example, postal workers are not only paid a good wage, but they have access to benefits and due to the nature of the mail system, also have solid job security. This, however, is an exception to the norm. For the majority of working-class professions, you are lucky to get one of those three guarantees.
What is Left When Your Job Becomes Automated?
Though it is true that automation can wipe out loads of skilled labor jobs in the U.S., placing blame for dying industries square on automation’s shoulders is short-sighted. Instead, we should look to change the system itself, so that when one loses their skilled labor job they don’t have to be worried about finding new work in a different field. Affordable access to better education is one way to accomplish this, as we need to collectively gain new skills in order to thrive in a changing technological world.
While it is a shame that true craftsmen can be replaced so easily these days, that is the price we pay for convenience. Yes, a hand-built shed is fantastic, but a prefabricated shed is far more convenient for the majority of society, and tends to last just as long, if not longer. We should not fear progress in industry, as it is inevitable and we have managed time and time again when new technology comes to replace hard work.
What truly needs to be done is an entire restructuring of the system, wherein old money does not continue to absorb more capital, existing with a moat around it preventing it from ever “trickling down” again. There is a reason for the right-wing rhetoric crying wolf over a supposed class war. The 99% has always existed in America, and the last time we the people put up a good fight against them was the development of labor unions. It isn’t that the masses are crying for a redistribution of wealth. We are crying for the opportunity America has long promised us.
All of these factors have led to the urbanization and gentrification of the American landscape. It is a hidden problem left out in plain sight, a well-known secret among the public, and yet we continue down the path that led to this outrageous pushing out of American citizens from their cities.
Yes, urbanization and gentrification have gone and will continue to go, too far. The real question is, how do we correct this? Your ability to effect change might feel inconsequential, but these movements always start from the bottom up. Go out and vote in your local elections, and you will begin to turn the wheel on the ship, leading us to smoother waters.
Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.