American History is full of defining moments, key junctures and historical forks in the road where either by political will, military fortune, divine providence, or apparent luck the future success of the country and peace and prosperity for its citizens is either saved or assured. This has been evident from every event from the American Revolution, through the Civil War; from the Great Depression to the Great Recession; from the Civil Rights Movement to Occupy Wall Street. Through challenges foreign or domestic America and its leaders and citizens have found ways to arrive at solutions to our most pressing social, financial, and political problems.
For millions of Americans however, this moment in time feels different. Perhaps it feels different because it is different. Unemployment and poverty levels have hit new record levels for many across the country. For certain segments of the country, the challenges are even more pronounced. According to the 2010 U.S. Census poverty among the Hispanic population is nearly 25 percent while that figure nears 30 percent for the African-American community. Unemployment has been hovering over 9 percent for the past couple of years the second highest rate of unemployment since the World War II era. Further escalating the frustration of many Americans is the widening wealth gap. While the comparisons between the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans and the remaining 99 percent are widespread, the wealth gap also has intergenerational impacts. A recent study which analyzed the 2010 Census found that the net worth of 65-year-old is 47 times that of a 35-year-old. This discrepancy is 10 times what it was a century ago and 5 times what it was in 2005.
At a time when belt-tightening is being required on Main street and to a lesser, but still noticeable degree on Wall Street, it now is being required on State Street. Government Federal, state and local levels is being faced with all kinds of budget cuts to services. This has been most prominent in the most recent Federal Debt discussions and debate with the recent Congressional “Super Committee”, a bi-partisan group of 12 members of Congress who were tasked with the responsibility to arrive at a plan that could obtain Congressional and Executive approval. Unfortunately the group was not able to even able to produce a plan to be taken under consideration by the Congress. Perhaps this is an example of the inability of Congress to act which has earned it such low approval ratings. A recent Gallup poll placed the public’s disapproval rating at a whopping 82 percent.
Now, Washington’s political leaders face the challenge of addressing the automatic cuts totaling $1.2 trillion in 2012. Otherwise these across the board cuts go in to effect in January 2013. These cuts would affect both military and domestic spending an equal 50-50 split and while many programs are “safe” from the axe such as Social Security and Medicare benefits others such as educational grants, transportation and medicare payments to providers among many others are not. The key question over the next few months will be whether or not the government will be able to reach consensus on these contentious issues and what value will Congressional leaders place on which programs in an effort to reach agreement.
At this defining moment in the nation’s history with so much at stake socially, economically and politically, its most important to pause before the next significant actions are taken and reflect upon a few key questions:
How did we get here? What should be done about it? What are the responsibilities of the younger generation? What should we value now?
All of these questions can be summarized by paraphrasing one over-arching question posed by Francis Schaeffer, How Shall We Live? For the decisions made collectively right now by leaders and citizens alike will determine how Americans will live for generations to come.
I would suggest a focus on a few key points for political leaders and citizens moving forward. First in this era of incessant partisan bickering a balanced perspective is more important than ever in considering the social and economic realities and needs of the country What balance can be struck between the public good and corporate or government interests?
Second, as needs increase around the country due to economic distress and the strains on our medical and other systems increase due to the aging Baby Boomer generation, boosting the nation’s nonprofit sector is imperative. This sector which employs over 13 million Americans, more than the finance, real estate and insurance industries combined, will be called upon increasingly to address the needs of our communities. Innovative and strategic partnerships with the corporate and philanthropic sector could serve as a boom to this industry and bolster employment.
Third, as economic times become difficult it is important individuals to receive as much assistance as possible regarding financial literacy and making the most wise decisions with their finances with regards to savings, home ownership and retirement. By enhancing the ability of Americans to live financially secure lifestyles we can ensure a more stable future for ourselves and for future generations.