A RECENT FEATURE that ran in the Los Angeles Times told the story of the increase in street vendors who have set up shop selling soaps and perfumes, flowers or hot dogs. No longer is this the territory of recent immigrants but rather the increasing domain of America’s former middle classes – you know, those people with stable jobs and steady incomes.
But it wasn’t the story that shocked me as much as the photo. It could have been anywhere in South Africa: a modest table lined with goods, the vendor waiting for her next customer.
The image stood in stark contrast to a video I saw via a friend’s Facebook post. In it, a young man boasts about fancy cars and pool parties and how Johannesburg is where it’s at. What was unnerving was that, while sitting on a street corner in the northern suburbs, what he was really talking about was the kind of hope that fuels the American Dream, the promise that things can only get better. And he was sure that time had arrived in South Africa.
The video took me back to a visit I made to Los Angeles earlier this year. As I drove the broad streets and eight-lane highways that ran through my childhood neighbourhoods, a worrying low-level hum, the faint sense of fingernails running down a chalkboard, ran through my body. Things were falling apart. The centre could not hold.
It was then I learned about a homeless man living in his car on the street where my parents’ dental office has been situated since 1967, the year before I was born, and was told how this is quite common these days. Increasing numbers of formerly middle-class people, now homeless, are living in their cars on LA’s suburban streets, moving around to keep from being harassed by police.
It was the paint peeling on a friend’s once picture-perfect upmarket suburban home, the grass wilting in the searing San Fernando Valley heat; I was there when he, nearly 50, got the call to tell him he had been laid off.
Another high school friend, who owns part of a small winery further north, was unsure how he would support himself if his business, which was new and struggling, had to shut down.
It was my mother, 75 and still working a couple of days a week in the dental office she sold a few years ago, because she can’t sit still but also because she worries, since my father’s death 15 years ago, about how to pay for things like the exploded geyser or the fridge that just went kaput.
My mother is healthy in body and mind and, at this rate, will live well into her nineties. To retire now, when she can still turn over a decent pay cheque, seems irrational to her. And it probably is.
Buying into the dream
Americans have cellphones, televisions, running water and electricity in their homes, and many of them have cars. The employed go on the one- or two-week holiday that is the company standard. Though, maternity leave is not mandatory. A United Nations report recently found that of the 185 countries and territories surveyed, all but three provided cash benefits to women during maternity leave: the United States was right there with Oman and Papua New Guinea as non-providers for their nations’ mothers.
In the Eighties, globalisation was positioned as democracy just as communism began to fall: a way for the corporates to get their way with the developing world. The West sold it as “the dream”, and many bought into what was beaming from their TV screens.
In South Africa, so much has changed in the past 20 years: the black middle class is rising, urban landscapes have shifted dramatically, new cars pack the highways, shopping malls are ubiquitous.
At a glance, you could mistake parts of the country for suburban America: immaculate, expansive homes with swimming pools, lush green lawns, industrial-size kitchens and three hulking cars in three-car garages – like the ones on reality shows that are nothing like reality.
Many aspiring middle-class South Africans dream – like Americans dream – of places like Agrestic in Weeds, which was partially shot in Calabasas, a neighbourhood not far from where I grew up.
But those aren’t America’s middle classes. That’s upper middle-class America you’re seeing on your TV screens. Calabasas is home to people like Justin Bieber and Will and Jada Smith, part of the ever-increasing wealth of the One Percent, or at least those hanging high in the top five. But the glory days of the American Dream are over.
Upsetting the American apple-pie cart
When I was growing up, my parents were both dentists with their own practice. I had three siblings. For most of our education we went to public school, and we took summer vacations on my mother’s parents’ farm, where she grew up poor, in the Midwest. We did not go to Italy or Algeria or Tunisia, where my father grew up. Taking four children on holiday anywhere that required plane fares wasn’t an option, even if you were in the upper middle class.
We did not get the latest toys and my parents drove used cars, but we all went to university and three of us went on to get postgraduate degrees.
If you take a glimpse at the modest incomes of me and my siblings, we sit firmly in the middle class, with the exception of my eldest sister, who married better than the rest of us. Educated as a dentist, she was mostly a stay-at-home mom, owing to her position in the top five percent; she has a house in one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in California and, with a group of friends, owns a cabin in a top ski resort as well as a prime beachfront home. They have a healthy retirement account, plenty of investments and money saved for their children’s college educations.
But of my parents’ four children, my eldest sister is the only one, at 50-something, who is living the American Dream. Barring World War III, the Great, Great Depression of 2021 or the “Big One” – the earthquake that has been threatening to shake California into the sea – she will retire very comfortably.
The rest of us, lily-white with all the opportunities that were afforded us, with our American passports, our university educations, we’re getting by and holding thumbs for the best as we stare down the increasing inequality gap that promises to upset the American apple-pie cart.
One thing seems certain: we are part of the first generation of Americans to do worse than our parents. We have been outclassed. And it’s going to get much, much worse than most Americans could ever imagine before it gets better – if it ever does.
Consider this. An August 2014 study, paid for by the US Conference of Mayors, showed that while the country had recovered all the jobs lost during the “recession”, the replacement jobs pay an average of 23% less than those lost.
“The long-term problem isn’t unemployment; it’s poverty,” Stephen Levy, director of the Centre for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto, told the LA Times recently. “It’s not jobs; it’s wages.”
Earnings for low- and mid-wage Americans continue to erode. The Times reported on a study out of the University of California, Berkeley which revealed that real hourly wages are 6.7% lower than they were 35 years ago for the bottom half of the workforce; since 2003, median wages went down by 7.2%. It was only the top 20% of earners who saw real wage gains; economist Edward Wolff found in 2010 that it was this group of Americans that held 88.9% of the country’s wealth.
A Pew Research Centre report found that student debt rates have soared in young households from 16% in 1989 to a record 37%, severely stunting their capacity to get ahead. But they are faring far better than their non-college educated peers.
My parents supported me through undergraduate school – it was the no fancy car or vacation policy that allowed them to do that. But unfortunately for me, I decided to get my MA in writing in my mid-thirties. I will be paying off my student loan until well into my sixties, thanks, in part, to the ever-declining rand. By which time, if we can afford it, my child will be out of university and we will likely be helping her to pay off her student loan.
Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are rich. And I love America. But I yearn for what America was.
“Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the inscription on the Statue of Liberty reads.
It was that which led my father and his entire family from Tunisia, selling everything they had, to New York. When they arrived in the Fifties, public college education was virtually free. America worked for my father – despite his Italian heritage, which placed him among the dirty WOPs (without papers) – and for his siblings, who, it gives me an enormous peace of mind to say, have all retired well. Times have changed.
Lou Reed eloquently translated Lady Liberty’s inscription for modern times in Dirty Boulevard: “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on ’em. That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says. Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death.”
Middle class problems
I’ve seen enough dire poverty to know that despite our #middleclassproblems, my siblings and I will end up far better than most. My eldest sister will continue her life in Agrestic. My other sister, after an atrocious divorce from an ex-Google executive, is managing to get by, renting out the front of her well-placed home just outside San Francisco while living in a small space in the back and working as a physician assistant in a public hospital.
My brother’s former corporate computer security job had him save well for his retirement. With a second child on the way, he’s moved his family in with his in-laws to get help with the new baby but also to save some money as they rent out their townhouse while his business gets off the ground.
As for us? My husband is a serial restaurant and bar owner, which has been a rocky road. I’m a journalist. Not the highest paying of careers. We rent our two-bedroomed flat in the same neighbourhood where my husband grew up and our daughter goes to public school. I don’t imagine I will be able to retire, though I do worry a lot about what a 65-year-old editor might be doing for work in 20-odd years’ time.
But right now, in South Africa, we live a better middle-class existence than we would in the US. In South Africa, I have a domestic worker twice a week, I drive a nice car and in the beautiful neighbourhood where I live, the public schools are great – better than many of California’s public schools, which are ranked among the worst in the nation.
By virtue of swapping countries eight years ago, we have moved toward the top end of the economic scale as opposed to existing in the bottom half, though I say all that knowing quite well – and with an aching, persistent guilt – how completely unsustainable South Africa’s inequality is, with its massive, unacceptable levels of poverty that support our comfortable middle-class lives.
The truth is, I fear for my future and that of my child. Will she, like me, do worse than her parents and continue the spiral downward? The American Dream is on its last gasp and without intervention, the country will devolve. Already the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says that, next to Chile, the US is the most unequal society in the developed world.
The failure of capitalism just 20 years after the failure of communism does not bode well for the rest of us. After all, what happens in the US tends to spread like a virus around the world.
In his “memo to my fellow zillionaires”, which ran in Politico in July, wealthy entrepreneur Nick Hanauer, who puts himself at the top .01%, captured the essence of the dangerous One Percenter game.
“If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counter-examples. None. It’s not if; it’s when.”
Call them pitchforks or burning tyres, the end point of massive inequality is the same for all of us.
Published in the Mail&Guardian October 26, 2014