Monday, December 19, 2011

An American Christmas

As we celebrate this holiday season we might well contemplate some less than joyful facts. More than 46 million Americans are living in poverty. That was the official count by the U.S. Bureau of the Census for 2010, the most recent data available. Nearly half of all Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 are below the poverty line. One out of every two! That alone accounts for why so many have been forced to live at home with their parents or with roommates years beyond the time when my generation moved into our own homes. And here’s the most disturbing figure from the Census: One of every five children under 18 in this country lives in poverty.

What exactly does “living in poverty” mean? According to the Census, a family with two adults and two children earning less than $22,113 per year is in poverty. A single adult age 65 or older who makes more than $10,458 per year is not in poverty. Really? My rent alone is more than double that amount. Admittedly I live in New York which is notoriously expensive, but still. Can you imagine living anywhere in this country on less than 11 thousand dollars?

There are lots of theories floating around as to why poverty is at an all-time high and continues to rise. The recession obviously plays a major role. There is simultaneously a heightened awareness, largely due to the Occupy movement, of the increasing divergence between the wealthy and everyone else. Conspiracy theories abound to explain this trend. But as everyone knows, the real culprit is the lack of jobs. Good jobs. The kinds of jobs that pay the 50, 60, 70 thousand dollars a year or more that it really takes for a family of four to prosper. Those jobs have disappeared and barring something dramatic, they are not coming back.

Why aren’t they coming back? The answer is stamped or printed on just about every Christmas or Hanukah gift you bought this year. Made in China.

It’s almost cliché to bewail the export of jobs overseas and perhaps a little too easy. I’m not sure I believe some of the usual excuses. For example, are the high costs of transportation really offset by lower foreign labor costs for some three dollar piece of extruded plastic crap for sale at the Dollar Store?

American manufacturers are at a disadvantage for a variety of reasons. In this country we regulate pollution, worker safety, product safety, energy consumption, and much more. As we should. As a result, we close our plants and import products from countries which make no attempt to regulate industry and which seemingly have no regard for their people. This needs to stop.

At the risk of irritating free trade advocates, I ask a simple question. If it is defensible to regulate American industry, is it not reasonable to expect the same standards from industries we import from? Obviously it is. We can’t do it by legislation since the offending industries are not under our jurisdiction nor has it proven effective to try to persuade foreign governments to adopt tighter standards. We can, however, control what gets imported into this country.

It’s time to get serious about banning products which have not been manufactured under the same stringent standards that we apply within our borders. But won’t this drive up prices, further harming our beleaguered economy? To some extent it might, at least initially. But the impact can be softened by phasing controls in gradually, starting with those products that are still available from American manufacturers and adding additional products according to how quickly their production can be reintroduced in the U.S.

As to the impact on the economy, how bad could it be to add millions of high quality, high paying jobs at almost no additional cost to taxpayers? Would it not be a more joyful season to see “Made in the USA” on those gifts as you wrap them?

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