My kids like to watch a show called “Clarence” on Cartoon Network. To be honest, I like it, too.
This oddball kid Clarence lives in Aberdale, a suburb of a large city in the American Southwest. His mom is a hair stylist and her boyfriend Chad, Clarence’s father figure, is unemployed. All but one or two of the kids come from families without much money. One of Clarence’s friends, Sumo, lives on a junkyard remarkably similar to the one I grew up on in Northern Minnesota.
The whole show seems to take place in a suburb that was supposed to be a hub of affluence, but that has long since fallen into disrepair. The kids have fun playing in empty, dilapidated swimming pools, but their parents go through life wondering why their economic condition seems so hard.
It seems to portray a feeling shared by many Americans. Some never fully recovered from the 2008-09 recession, and others find their whole careers swallowed up by technological progress or global trade. The economic numbers are great and many are doing well, but the economy also leaves many others behind.
Charles Marohn at Strong Towns wrote about the hidden world of suburban poverty on his blog recently. You might remember Chuck’s visit to the Iron Range earlier this year, where he explored the pitfalls and potential awaiting Iron Range communities. He said what’s happening to the suburbs is the same effect happening in small towns and big cities. Inflated real estate values and overbuilding along the edges of cities is consuming valuable resources, and driving up the expenses.
“As we see the Growth Ponzi Scheme unwinding and the first decades of what journalist Alan Ehrenhalt has called “The Great Inversion,” Americans are experiencing a return to normal living conditions,” writes Marohn. “In many ways, it’s a traumatic transition; who-moved-my-cheese on a continental economic scale.”
Many families bought big houses and assumed their income and the home’s value would soon improve ten years ago, assumptions that proved wrong. Coupled with that, an entire generation of Americans has entered the workforce with historically high college debt and a job market still dominated by people 40 years older unable to retire. Many young adults end up taking many small jobs in an effort to replicate one full time position. I see this with my younger cousins and students all the time.
Why does it feel like so many are working hard, but not getting ahead? Simply, our wallets are full of gravity. Generations of rising economic inequality and the lack of desire to change that, or much else, now consumes victims, from weakest to strongest.
Jason Furman, an economist who heads the President’s Council on Economic Advisors, penned an interesting article this year about the concept of how economic “rents” have driven down productivity while increasing inequality.
In this sense “rent” is not what you pay for your apartment, but an economics term for costs that arise from economic activity unrelated to the exchange of production, goods and services. Some of those costs come from government regulation, while other come from the monopolistic practices of powerful companies. One of the reasons they’re so tricky is that addressing them involves shedding the political dogma of either major party.
“The good news is that to the degree that the “rents” interpretation is correct, it suggests that it is possible to reduce inequality and promote productivity growth without hurting efficiency by changing how rents are divided,” writes Furman.
He suggests encouraging collective bargaining to improve the workers’ standing in negotiations with their employers, which suggests a back end way to improve workers’ buying power and encourage more competition. That might sound pleasing to Democrats, but he also suggests cutting regulations and licensing requirements for many jobs to allow certain service oriented jobs more freedom to operate in a capitalist economy. Republicans might like that better.
Regardless, the shared enemy is inequality, which affects not only workers, but business people and entrepreneurs trying to compete.
One of my favorite things about the show “Clarence” is how the friendly, optimistic outlook of the show’s protagonist shows the way for kids and adults alike. Life is better when you welcome others and remain open to new ideas. When you look out for your community, and the people who live there, you will find ways to prosper in ways that matter.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.