Thursday, December 15, 2005

The New Insecurity

There was a disturbing news report just before Thanksgiving; the report was about “food insecurity,” i.e. those families and individuals in the United States who do not have reliable access to food. One would think, with food prices being one of the few vital consumer or service needs that has actually decreased in cost over the past generation, and with the United States’ former reputation as being the “bread basket of the world,” that food insecurity would be least of our problems. Apparently that’s not the case.

The problem is not so much the cost of food, as it is the loss of jobs, and health insurance coupled with the rise in housing and energy costs. This is putting a squeeze on the remaining resources available to many Americans to actually spend on food.

Sometimes hardship is due to forces beyond our control. The report cited an example where a couple relied on a bread winner who worked in software engineering but was suddenly laid off because the software he was working on was discontinued. Following the lay-off, he contracted a digestive disease, but (being unemployed) lacked health insurance to pay for the necessary treatment.

The couple received too much income from disability, $1600 a month, to qualify for food stamps, but too little to reasonably pay all the other bills. They are unable to move to cheaper housing because nobody will rent to them. Their credit rating is shot to hell due to all the expenses racked up related to the man's disability. They live from day-to-day relying on cans of food the husband can bring home as a result of his volunteer work at a food pantry.

The problem is not so much that people fall on hard times, such things may be unavoidable. The problem is that we are dismantling our safety nets to support such people when they do fall on hard times, and we are assuming that people should be able to rely on private charity, family and fend for themselves in such situations. The problem is social indifference toward those who are falling through the cracks in the so-called "New Economy," which is breeding a new level of financial insecurity.

Food insecurity goes hand-in-hand with all of those other insecurities we are subject to in the post-industrial economy: housing insecurity, job insecurity, pension insecurity, and health care insecurity to name a few.

The eerie thing about the report was the sense that if people fall on hard times in our society they will be more and more likely to be left twisting in the wind. The new laws that make it harder for families and individuals to file for bankruptcy is just one example in a series of measures that will make it harder for people to pick themselves up after they fall down. When G.W. Bush said that he intended to preside over an “ownership society,” he wasn’t kidding. Under the current rules of the game, “ownership society” means you are on your own. Good luck.

Coupled with growing deterioration of social safety nets is a political and social ideology of social Darwinism. Those who think they are secure right now try to comfort themselves with the belief that they will always be “smart enough” to avoid falling on hard times, and that those who go under are merely being “sorted out” because they are expendable. This may give such people a false sense of being in control of their destiny, and that our rewards system credits those who are "deserving" and penalizes the "undeserving." We are now firmly in the age where we believe in expendable people. There is a certain hard-heartedness to all of this, and it does not bode well for the future.

To be sure, some people in positions of power thrive off of insecurity. The media promote insecurity in order to sell advertising space. Employers promote insecurity in order to hold wages and benefits down. Politicians promote insecurity in order to herd the public to support draconian policies, ill-advised wars, and a roll-back of civil liberties.

It is one thing to enter a new age of insecurity, as we seem to be doing – it is quite something else to believe that such insecurity is inevitable or necessary – something else still, to embrace such insecurity as “desirable.”

Some people use insecurity to trigger a journey to spiritual enlightenment; this is a good thing. The uplifting part of the report on the couple mentioned earlier is that, despite the fact that this man had lost so much weight he only weighs 100 pounds and has very little energy; despite the fact that he can’t enjoy a single meal due to severe stomach cramps and constant diarrhea, despite the fact that he is up to his eyeballs in debt he can never pay off, he still wants to go on living and he still believes he has something to live for. His new wife, whom he married just one month before the onset of all of these problems, is standing by him. This is the resilience of the human spirit.

Most people, however, do desperate things when they become insecure. This should concern us, especially in terms of its implications for social instability. We should also keep in mind that most of us are only a twist and a turn away from change of fate that could destroy the best of our plans and everything we thought we were working for.

In any event, financial insecurity does not seem to be the kind of emotional and economic state we should want to promote in our society. Nobody should have to fear for their job (if they are willing to work), their health care, their housing, their retirement, or their food.

Nobody should be looked at through the lens of social Darwinism, making them “expendable.”

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