On the New ‘Okies: Essay for February 18, 2012

In a very visceral manner, there is something deeply troubling to me about the country these days. The dismal economy is taking a toll on Americans in a way unseen since perhaps the days of the Dustbowl. I recently flipped through John Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” Is it me or is there a resurgence of Okies in America? Far too many people remain out of work. Far too many people fear for their jobs. Far too many people have lost hope and lost confidence. They no longer can look in a mirror without questioning the meaning of their entire lives. They sense judgment in other people’s eyes as they are forced to swallow their pride and put out their hand. First it is from their friends, then their community and finally, their government. In the words of John Steinbeck, “Okie means you’re scum. Don’t mean nothing itself, it’s the way they say it.”

A recent front-page story in the New York Times recounted tales of once proud conservative Americans in Minnesota. They were the type who never would support taking entitlements. They do now. The affect such charity on their souls is palpable. These are the same sort of Midwesterners of which Steinbeck wrote. They were guilt ridden and unsure if they would ever get off the dole. They qualify for Earned Income Tax Credits. Their pride is crushed as they accept school lunches for their children. Said the Times article, “…they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it.”

Some might call these entitlements a gravy train. In many cases, that is true. In the very same article a man described people who paid for their $400 tattoos with government disability checks. Ironically, the sister of that very tattoo artist was receiving disability payments and living in an assisted living facility.

Governor Romney had to remove his foot from his mouth when he said that he did not worry about the poor in America because they had an effective safety net. Crude as the remark sounded; there is a good deal of truth in that statement. There are many comprehensive programs to deal with the poorest among us. Here is the interesting fact, however: the poorest in America, the lower quintile, are receiving a far smaller share of entitlement spending than they did in 1980 when they received more than one half of entitlement spending. It is down to about one third. The middle quintile, those proud members of blue collar America, has actually seen their share grow by fifty percent.

What that tells me is that the poor remain so but are being joined by middle class families sliding down the scale to meet them in despair.

Ironically, statistics show that support for conservative Republican runs higher in States where government benefits outweigh taxes. The opposite also runs true. Liberal Democrats are favored where the outflow of taxes exceeds payout. Nobody can fully explain this phenomenon. What is clear, however, is that the majority of people who are forced to accept these payments would rather be working for what they need rather than extending their hand for a government check. They recognize the paradox of taking for themselves today while burdening their children with debt.

This brings us back to the subject of many of our conversations over the past year. The economy, job growth and the role that the Federal government can or should play in creating an environment that supports growth. Whether one loves or hates the corporation, business will drive growth for its own survival. It will do so wherever the environment for that growth is fertile.

The government cannot stop business from trying to remain in business. Government must lead, follow or get out of the way. While small business is the “canary in the cave,” so to speak, large business is the tail that wags the dog of small business. They control the vast majority of manufacturing jobs in America and drive small businesses to produce. They have the capacity, given the proper incentive, for determining the fate of those remaining jobs and the fate of those offshored already. Some indicators are leaning towards relocating some more highly technical manufacturing out of China. Given a proper environment many of them can come back to the United States.

Lack of talent in the American workforce will prove to be our Achilles Heel if we do not start getting the right people into technical pipelines. There is a group of manufacturers in Massachusetts who are taking matters into their own hands. They are Manufacturing Vigilantes. They see their future vitality directly connected to a steady influx of machinists, tool and die makers, CAD programmers and technicians. The vocational schools have not been successful in promoting manufacturing careers. These careers have an average pay in Massachusetts of $1500 -$2500 per week. That is a nice piece of change. These businesses have realized that they cannot afford to wait for government to solve their problems so they are willing to go it alone.

Nationwide, there are 600,000 open positions in manufacturing. Last count, some 19 million people are under or unemployed. The multiplier effect of filling those jobs would be to create perhaps additional 2 million more. In short order, there will be a steady influx of veterans either returning home from war or being involuntarily discharged under new budget guidance. This fresh crop of dedicated and intelligent people should be the ones targeted for placement in our manufacturing positions.

The New ‘Okies are everywhere. The economic dustbowl is very real. It is forcing contrarian behavior in our middle class ethos.

Steinbeck also said, “I know this… a man got to do what he got to do.”

Press on.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “On the New ‘Okies: Essay for February 18, 2012

  1. Diane Mandile

    Well said Tom. I read the Times article myself and felt the frustration of these people. Government is not the way out of this mess – but you know that.

  2. Judy Tuttle

    Whe e are those 600,000 manufacturing jobs located that you mentioned? Suggesting the returning veterans take up these positions is a grand slam answer to filling needs in both directions. How can we help with this goal? Would love a specific suggestion answer! Thanks!

    • The 600,000 jobs are all around us. This State is in desperate need of machinists and assemblers who can read blueprints and follow work instructions. The vo-tech schools need to offer their classes after the normal school day to those who are willing to learn a new trade. That is where the vets come in. They need funding for instructors and for state of the art equipment. The community colleges can play a role but do not assume they can replace the need for artisans. The Patrick Administration talks about community college actions but I see them as pandering to the “everyone needs a college education to compete” crowd. What we need is an incentive in the form of a qualified workforce to keep manufacturing jobs her in Massachusetts and in the country. This is a low dollar initiative with an excellent return on investment. Stay tuned. I will speak about this more frequently.

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