“. . . So what went wrong with Mike?
“He didn’t want to work,” Stephanie told me. She is angry at Mike for abandoning his kids and failing to pay $68,000 in child support, but then the anger passes and she wistfully refers to him as “the love of my life.”
Perhaps Mike was lazy, but there’s more to the story. Everyone agrees that Mike had mental illnesses that were never treated, and in any case, this wasn’t one person’s stumble but a crisis for an entire generation of low-education workers. Mike and his cohort weren’t dumber or lazier than their parents or grandparents, but their outcomes worsened.
So, sure, we can have a conversation about personal responsibility. But let’s also talk about our collective responsibility: If the federal minimum wage of 1968 had kept pace with inflation and productivity, it would now be more than $22 an hour, rather than $7.25. We also underinvested in our human capital, so high school graduation rates stagnated beginning in the 1970s along with blue-collar incomes, even as substance abuse soared and family structure for low-education workers collapsed.
One consequence is that an American dies a “death of despair” — from drugs, alcohol or suicide — every two and a half minutes. Long after the coronavirus has retreated, we will still be grappling with a pandemic of despair.
The United States has a mental health crisis that is largely untreated and arises in part from high levels of inequality. Researchers find that poverty causes mental illness, and mental illness in turn exacerbates poverty. It’s a vicious cycle, and 20 million Americans, mostly poorly educated, describe every one of the last 30 days as “bad mental health days,” according to David G. Blanchflower, a Dartmouth economist.
I also know this: Taxpayers spent large sums jailing Mike, whose arrest record runs 14 pages (mostly for drug offenses). That money would have been better spent at the front end, with early childhood programs and mentoring to support Mike and help him finish high school and get a job.
Yet politicians have mostly been AWOL. In the 2020 Democratic primaries, the presidential candidates had healthy discussions about increasing college access but largely ignored the reality that one in seven American children don’t even graduate from high school. The term “working class” is rarely mentioned by politicians, who prefer to appeal to people a notch higher, in the middle class. And many government programs that are nominally for the benefit of the middle class — such as the mortgage interest deduction, 529 college savings plans, state and local tax deductions and “middle-class tax cuts” — actually primarily benefit the rich.
We fret about competitive challenges from China, but the best way to meet them is to elevate our capabilities at home. China built new universities at the rate of one a week, while the number of colleges in the United States is now shrinking — and as many Americans have criminal records as have college degrees. “Holding hands, Americans with arrest records could circle the earth three times,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
America cannot succeed when so many Americans are failing.
Credit…Nicholas Kristof/The New York Times
Joe Biden has a fighting chance to make progress on these issues. Partly that’s because he’s impossible to mock as a wild-eyed socialist, partly because he and his team understand that we have a better chance of making progress if we frame the issue less as one of “inequality” — a liberal word — and more as one of “opportunity” and “dignity.” “
Bravo, and thank you Nicholas Kristof. Here are two of many fabulous comments”
Thank you, Mr. Kristof, for telling the story of your old pal, Mike. Rest in peace, Mike. You earned that. And as sad as Mike’s story is, at the end of the day, he perhaps had a more successful life than most of us will by offering up lessons in humility, gratitude and kindness despite his station in life. As an alcoholic and addict approaching 35 years of continuous sobriety, I am Mike’s brother in addiction. My fate was very different than his. I too was once homeless and ate at the free soup kitchen at St. Vincent de Paul. Once sober, my life continued with perilous and almost insurmountable challenges, including crushing poverty that meant living in a skid row tenement while sober, full of alcoholics and drug addicts, because that is all I could afford and riding a bicycle everywhere for transportation for years. Giving up, to live a life like Mike’s, crossed my mind so many times I could not count them. By the grace of God and luck and a ridiculously stubborn perserverance and the help and encouragement of many in A.A., my life got better and then very much better. Eventually I became the CEO of a successful midsize company and have been happily married for a couple of decades now. Without the helping hand of a publicly funded 30 day treatment program for the indigent, I am absolutely certain I would have perished decades ago. On that subject I know, Mr. Kristof, that you are correct. Alcohol and drug treatment saves lives – it did mine.
I’m about the same age as Mr. Kristof, worked in the Cascades, and still do. It’s important to note that by the 1970s, 90% of the old growth was gone, and so were 90% of the jobs in logging; environmentalists didn’t cause that. Mill jobs left because of whole-log exports; environmentalists didn’t cause that. And capital in the timber industry moved to the southeast, where trees grow faster and unions don’t exists; environmentalists didn’t cause that. The spotted owl as a scapegoat doesn’t really play.