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Jobs: What Will It Take?

The middle-class way of life is in trouble. How can we build strong local economies that sustain us in challenging times?

Save the American Dream Photo by Lisa Norwood

New York City, 2011.

Photo by Giovanni Savino.

Michael Jannenga is a sheet metal worker who’s often out of work, and his unemployment benefits will soon expire. Gene Bullock, a retiree, and his wife have remortgaged their house to keep their son, an unemployed computer engineer, and daughter, a divorced mother of two, from homelessness. May Sperder works in the cafeteria of a public elementary school, and she sometimes slips extra food to the teachers whose hours have been cut and who just aren’t getting by.

I met these three in Poulsbo, Washington, at an American Dream House Party—one of more than 1,500 organized in July to begin building the agenda for the new American Dream movement. Attendees shared stories of economic insecurity—stories that have largely disappeared from the headlines.

American Dream Reloaded
Video: The American
Dream, Reloaded:

Listen to Michael, Gene,
and May tell their stories.

We focus this issue of YES! on jobs because we believe joblessness is still a crisis, and that there are solutions. But solutions won’t be found in the Republican austerity budgets, nor in the Democrats’ endless compromises. Instead of offering large corporations and the super-rich huge tax breaks while slashing services and investments in public goods, we believe there are alternatives that are far more likely to rebuild the economy.

Here’s how we see it. The middle-class way of life is in trouble. In part, that’s because transnational corporations and Wall Street banks have extracted for themselves the wealth of our nation and our communities while sending jobs elsewhere. In part it’s because of protracted wars. And in part, it’s because our consumer economy is exhausting the Earth’s ability to supply us with cheap energy and to sustain life. It’s these factors—not generous pensions or Social Security, unions, or taxes—that explain why 25 million Americans are un- or under-employed, and why the usual monetary responses aren’t helping.

If we want a real recovery, we need to rebuild our battered local and regional economies, reclaim our national wealth, and create ways of life that can thrive in today’s era of limits. We are not going back to a time of suburban McMansions, endless supplies of consumer goods, and cheap energy. So we need locally rooted businesses that can meet our needs without depleting the Earth’s capacity to sustain life.

The job market isn’t coming back to what it was, either. Many people know that and are creating hybrid livelihoods by growing food, making and fixing things themselves, and starting small businesses. They work less—out of choice or necessity—but they are making up for it by sharing and exchanging with neighbors, and creating micro-economies that help fill the gaps between paying work.

Focusing on local economies doesn’t mean turning our back on government. Policies friendly to families and to local economies could redirect our tax dollars from corporate giveaways and bloated military budgets to infrastructure repair, clean energy development, and education. These would create sustainable jobs in our communities, doing things that are sorely needed.

These are not the priorities of the corporate interests who have so much sway in Washington, D.C. So it will take people’s movements, like Rebuild the Dream, to get government operating on our behalf.

The house meeting I attended boosted people’s spirits, and not just because of the hot dogs and potato salad. After feeling rolled over by powerful corporations and compliant politicians, people were excited to be taking a stand together for a just and green economy.


Sarah van Gelder newSarah van Gelder wrote this article for New Livelihoods, the Fall 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is executive editor of YES!

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