The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

December 1, 2013

Basically, still Americans

The Daily Item

— A few months ago, Shikellamy school administrators were suggesting positive story ideas about the district that serves Sunbury, Northumberland and neighboring communities, when they mentioned a weekend meal program at Chief Shikellamy Elementary School.

It seems that administrators, teachers and students at the school were packing lunches for kids who were going home weekends to “food insecurity” and returning Monday mornings too hungry to concentrate.

Reporter Francis Scarcella did the story in mid October. Funded by local foundation grants, with some food donated by ConAgra’s plant near Milton, school volunteers were assembling meals. Hungry kids were taking them home for themselves and siblings. By then, the little support program had grown from preparing a few dozen meals to packing up 212 in that little neighborhood elementary school with 375 students.

It was the kind of story that reinforced fundamental faith we have in each other, the kind of story that is still possible in this Valley despite considerable odds.

This is the weekend in America when we think about the poor and hungry. Those thoughts inspire through the holidays an outpouring of generosity and charity that is deeply ingrained in the American character.

Sophisticated, skeptical people sniff at the idea of American exceptionalism. They are wrong. For all our tribal loyalties and cliquish habits, there is no nation so large and so generous, no people so conditioned by civic allegiance to care for and share with others.

Americans believe it is possible for people freely working together to liberate themselves from want, fear and oppression.

But there is a profound change sweeping through society right now — a resource shift — that tests how well we sustain that faith. Wealth is no longer distributed as equitably as it has been in the recent past, causing greater need and a weakened ability to broadly respond. It is bigger than many had imagined.

In 1976, the top, 1 percent of the income scale possessed 9 percent of the nation’s wealth. Today, that top 1 percent has 24 percent of the wealth. The 80 percent of Americans who used to be the middle and working class share only 7 percent of the wealth.

These numbers come from a video by a YouTube user named “Politizane”  who took an academic study done in 2011 by Dan Ariely and Michael Norton on wealth inequality and broke it into visuals that shows how the nation’s $54 trillion in 2009 has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Job security and financial security no longer exist for a huge percentage of our population, probably in the neighborhood of 40 percent. Many of us in the working and middle classes now need “nutrition assistance” and are one major medical event or accident from crushing poverty.

We are broadly and generally familiar with the roots of the Wall Street driven financial crisis of 2007-2008. The size of that event is more difficult to grasp as the consequences reverberate today all along Main Street USA.

Millions of smart, talented citizens have neither the personal resources, nor the opportunities they once had to acquire resources that equated to the optimism, generosity and exceptionalism of a can-do American character.

Many average Americans, for example, still count job-creation as the number one priority, yet discussion of economic development and revival seems to be waning.  

According to the Sunlight Foundation’s Capitol Words tool, talk of jobs peaked in 2011 when it the word appeared on average more than 2,000 times a month. This year, the pace so far is under 500 times a month. As reported by Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post, “Mentions of the economy took a similar dip, from an average 926 per month in 2011 to 399 per month so far this year.”

Realistically, we are experiencing diminished capacity to be the people we once were and probably still wish to be. Our leaders — at 9 percent approval — couldn’t seem to care less.

That is reversible.

When political bases forming Tea Party America and Occupy Wall Street America see through the divisive propaganda from the 1 percent and realize we are all simply Americans, we still have the electoral heft needed to save ourselves.

That would be exceptional.

Gary Grossman is the publisher of The Daily Item and The Danville News.