The cover story in the current Atlantic magazine asks, “Can the Middle Class be Saved?” and tells the sad story of the economic and social pain being felt by those who once thought themselves “safe.” It is the latest chapter in the chronicle of the fraying social contract that many Americans took for granted.
I have been thinking for some time about the gradual disappearance of what I call the “rich-poor” life. This is the life once lived by my grade school teachers who didn’t have a lot of money but who managed to be culturally rich. They traveled and brought their slides to school. They read books and saw films. They visited museums. They were educated, sophisticated, and adventurous without being slaves to a job or worrying about health care. This was a life I always felt that I could live as a fall-back should I find myself in hard times. Now, I’m not so sure.
The rich-poor life depends upon public libraries, free nights at museums, public lectures, open rehearsals at the symphony, theater in the park, the parks themselves, and so much more. It needs quality public spaces and those “third places” where one can find a reasonably priced cup of coffee or glass of wine and spend an hour conversing. At a more fundamental level, it requires quality public schools so that people cultivate a taste for cultural exploration, an appreciation of nature, and a thirst to learn. Each of these is under threat by our current economic downturn with funds dwindling and, more significant, a turning away from viewing social spending as necessary.
I may have a romantic view of the rich-poor life, thinking that I could survive happily in a small garret with my books, tea (OK, wine), and a subway pass. For many, however, these resources are critical for social mobility. It was for my parents and many other people of their generation. The library, the arboretum, the museum opened a view on the world that inspired them to study. They saw a better life and a way to get there. They saved and worked and strove.
Instead we have been sold, and to be fair have happily bought, a poor-rich life full of easy credit and the mountains of stuff it makes possible: a new car leased every two years, acres of granite counter tops, and useless gee-gaws that give us a momentary purchase high. We can’t live without 200 cable channels so that we can track every movement of the Kardashians (who are they and what do they actually do?). We have failed to address the decline in public education in a meaningful way for more than a generation. Household debt is up; social mobility is down. Unemployment is up and so is income inequality. Our public infrastructure is a shambles. We’ve quite willingly sold our collective soul to the company store.
This is not about the “nanny state.” This is about how much of our common wealth should be hidden behind a pay wall. Is there a certain amount of life that should be free or is it all going to be pay-to-play? I believe that making it possible to have an intellectually and culturally rich life at low or no cost is critical to the fabric of a healthy democracy and vibrant economy.
Is it that important, this rich-poor life? We have reached a point where it seems we cannot afford to be us. Or at least us as we’ve defined it over the past 20 years. We’ve just witnessed widespread rioting in London. When people at every economic strata cannot live satisfying lives, pressure builds and eventually bursts. When we hollow out life so that it is defined only in economic terms, it becomes expensive at best and impossible at worst for many people to find that satisfaction. That is a tragedy for individuals and society as a whole if we wish them both to be sustainable and resilient.