My life of crime began when I was twelve. I was roaming around my suburban neighborhood with a BB gun when a police car passed by and then stopped, paused, and started backing up. I ditched my air gun in the weeds and did my best impression of a nonchalant walk. No sale. Dad had to come to the police station to retrieve my Daisy Red Ryder, and me. He’d delivered the baby of one of the policemen, so I dodged a BB, so to speak.
That was the first time he saved my bacon, but certainly not the last. I feared his interminable lectures, but nothing else. It was like being under the protection of the mob: there was a cost in terms of personal dignity, but no one outside the family could hurt me.
We weren’t rich. We were solidly middle class. Maybe upper middle class. Middle class had levels in those days. We had enough that Dad often delivered babies for country hams. He told those proud families who were down on their luck that he liked country ham better than money anyway.
I didn’t think our family was special. I thought anyone could be like us if he worked hard enough. I was a punk, but I worked hard. I had a newspaper route when I was eleven. My friend up the street had two. He was upwardly mobile.
Today, upward mobility has gone the way of my friend’s ducktail haircut. The middle class is, as President Obama puts it, being hollowed out. According to an Associated Press report last month, four out of five Americans live in danger of falling into poverty or joblessness. Four out of five! That’s not just bad for people who, no matter how hard they try, have little prospect of getting ahead, it’s bad for our nation’s long-term prosperity. The middle class buys the most stuff, and consumption is two-thirds of our economy.
My father died in 1974. I miss him, but by the time I lost him he’d picked me up and dusted me off often enough that I’d learned to stand on my own two feet. Looking back at that time, the early seventies, and the decades since, it seems to me that something besides my father died then too: the notion that the government could help us the way a parent does. The Great Society had been shelved. We’d come home from Vietnam with a national case of PTSD. Nixon’s secret tapes destroyed whatever remaining trust we had in government.
For a boy and for a nation, growing up is tough. When I think of all the twists and turns that led to the me I am now, all the one-on-one support I had, I realize how easily I could have failed. I see now that that my father’s steady belief in me, even at times when I did not believe in myself, was likely the most important gift of my birth.
But what about the millions among us who don’t have that support? Maybe they’re from broken homes, or from families in which both parents have to work all the time just to scrape by. Maybe they’re on the streets when they are eleven, but not to deliver newspapers. It’s unlikely that their father or mother delivered the child of the patrolman who busts them for doing what adolescents have been doing forever: testing the limits.
I had ups and downs, but I was shooting a BB gun, not a Glock; I was high on adrenaline, not crack; I had a paper route, not a drug route. If you’re in the wrong environment, not only is it easy to slip off track, it’s a long way down when you do.
We can’t bring back the post WW II manufacturing boom that created the middle class of my youth. We’re moving toward becoming principally a service economy. Instead of Detroit’s assembly lines and Pittsburgh’s steel mills, workers are needed now in the information economy, in health care, in technology, in distribution, in services for the aging population.
Government can’t be our parent, but it can help us in many of the same ways a good parent does. It can extend a hand to aid rather than punish. It can give kids a better start in life with good preschool and elementary and high school education. It can, as Attorney General Holder recommends, stop filling our prisons with minor offenders. It can retrain workers and give them the public transportation systems they need to get to their new jobs. It can give second chances.
We risk becoming a nation of two classes: those who are born into families that can support them, and those who are not. We don’t get to choose to whom we are born, but if we did is there any question which class you would want to be in? If you are one of the lucky ones, is the privilege and opportunity that comes with your accident of birth just your good luck, or does it carry with it some obligation to seek a way to help those who weren’t so lucky?
Many engage in private charity. They deserve our admiration and respect. But they are too few. Only through collective action, administered by local, state and federal governments--by our democratically elected representatives--can we extend our hands to the millions in need. We need to quit bitching about government and try to make it better. We need to quit talking about drowning it a bathtub and focus on making it a more responsive and efficient servant for our needs. Like a biological parent, government can be loutish, vain and wasteful, but for many, it’s the only dad they have.