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How to impoverish a society

A couple of years ago one of my colleagues wrote a piece about how some families establish a “family night” at which parents and children have the evening meal together.

After proofreading her report, I asked her, “Don’t most families have dinner together every night?” No, she told me.

In subsequent days, talking to others, I heard the same thing. Even if families dine together, they’re likely to be engaged in things other than conversation — working on laptops, studying, whatever.

I was astonished. When I was little, every night our family had dinner together. We chattered like crazy, learning what each other’s days were like.

Of course, our upbringings in the 1950s and 1960s were different in other ways, too. I often think of how fortunate we were that we were able to have one parent — almost always the mother, in those days — at home. Our home was supported by my father’s income. All of our friends had a parent at home during the day, too.

After the revival of the women’s movement in the late 1960s and during the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, anti-feminist activists accused the movement of trying to force women out of the home and into jobs. Feminists replied that they just wanted women to be able to choose whether to stay at home.

In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that what was happening was not just that women were choosing to work, but that they were being forced out of the home not by the women’s movement but by economic necessity. As the years passed, it gradually became less and less possible to support a family on one income until we reached the situation that exists today. It is virtually impossible to raise a middle-class family on one income — and the middle class is dying. The spouse of one Nevada legislator recently suggested to me that if middle-class families are to survive, in 10 or 20 years, at least one of those working parents will have to hold down two jobs.

How long, then, until both parents will have to do so? Is that what the future holds for today’s children and adolescents? And will it then be possible to still call it a middle class? I certainly see no evidence that the economic squeeze will end anytime soon.

All of this happened gradually. There’s a cliché about a frog in a pan of water on a stove. If a frog is placed in hot water, it will jump right out, the story goes. But if it is placed in cold water that is then warmed gradually, it will not realize the threat and will be slowly cooked.

Imagine if, in the early 1960s, middle-class families had suddenly been told that both parents in every family would have to start working at full-time jobs to survive and support their children.

The reaction would have been explosive. Elected officeholders would have found themselves out of work. Fundamental questions would have been asked about what was happening to our economic system.

But it didn’t happen that way. The economic hammer fell slowly. Democrats didn’t abandon workers for corporate money all at once. It happened over a period of years.

Legislatures and Congress didn’t take us into another Gilded Age suddenly. And it wasn’t partisan — it happened under both major political parties.

There were warnings. Ralph Nader, Morton Mintz and Jerry Cohen, Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele told us what was happening, but they mostly had to tell it outside of major forums or outside the allowable circle of discourse.

During the 1980s when a temporary prosperity was bought at the price of the historically high Reagan deficit, there were many who expressed concern that the members of the next generation would have to pay the price.

Today the members of the next generation face an ever tighter economic squeeze. Where in the political system are their champions?

Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.

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