Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

America, the Less Resilient

I think we all have been heartened by the spirit displayed by our friends affected by Hurricane Sandy. Indeed, the press has almost continually praised their resilience. But “resilience” is not an absolute – it waxes and wanes depending on the place, the people and the circumstances they face. As I pointed out in a previous post, there are sobering indications that our country is becoming less resilient.

Infrastructure. As has been pointed out in many places, much of our infrastructure was built in the middle of the 20th century. It is near, at, or past its service life. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers developed a “Report Card” for our nation’s infrastructure. The highest grade was a C+ for solid waste; five categories received D-’s (drinking water, roads, levees, wastewater, and inland waterways). The overall grade was a D. The ASCE estimated that we would need to invest $2.2 trillion to bring all of our infrastructure into an acceptable condition. If we don’t make these investments, we can expect to see more incidents like the 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis.

Macro-economy. But can we afford to make these investments? Over the last seven years, the federal government’s debt has grown by an amount equal in value to all of the gold ever mined. According to Ed Easterling (Crestmont Research), over the next 10 years states will need to find $4.6 trillion just to pay their pension shortfalls. We can’t increase taxes and contributions enough to cover the shortfalls. We need economic growth. And yet, the rate of under- and un-employment has stagnated. In fact, since 1990, the recovery from each economic crisis has become depressingly weaker, esp. in terms of employment.

Micro-economy. These macro-economic facts have real impacts on individuals and families. Many small businesses have capped their employees’ work week at 30 hours, to avoid the costs of the Affordable Care Act. And while we’re at it, it should be inarguable that the increased government intrusion into health care makes us less resilient because it increases the impacts of other crises on health care, and vice versa. While it is not true that the real income of the middle class has declined over the last decade (as is often claimed), the Brookings Institution has shown that all of the increase is due to government spending on things like health care. Real wages have dropped by about 10% and continue to do so. The Brookings team concludes that the middle class is not shrinking, but its resilience is dropping fast. And for those at the bottom, greater reliance on a financially weakened government does not inspire confidence in their resilience.

Society. Many studies have shown that connectedness is a key to resilience, particularly for those with limited resources. And yet we see increasing disconnectedness in our society. In the last fifty years, we have gone from 3/4ths of Americans married, to less than half. In our schools, we’re seeing behavioral problems for both boys and girls increasing (with those of boys increasing faster). It may be politically incorrect to point it out, but there is a strong correlation between children’s behavioral problems and single motherhood. And in the last half-century, unmarried mothers’ fraction of total births has increased by a factor of 8, to 41%.

If we dig a little deeper, we find that our society is developing an educational divide that bodes ill for the poor. 75% of college-educated adults are married; less than half of everyone else is. That means that single motherhood (and its complex of problems) is becoming concentrated in the least-educated segment of our society. And if we look at the educational trajectory of the least educated, they are falling farther and farther behind the rest of the world, and more and more disconnected from their communities (as well-documented in Murray’s book).

One has to ask how effective our assistance programs have been in helping to raise people out of poverty? After all, according to the Congressional Research Service, if we converted all of our federal means-tested spending to cash, it would provide $167 per day to every household in America. Compare this to the median household income of $137 per day. One has to ask – how much of this is handout, how little is creating opportunity?

I didn’t write this as a diatribe against any individual, or any political party. There is plenty of blame to go around. In fact, the blame rests with all of us. We have allowed our governments to substitute programs for connectedness within our communities. We have not demanded that government – at all levels – invest in our infrastructure. We have burdened our businesses with regulations and erected barriers to their competitiveness. Most seriously, we have become unwilling to see that in growth – better education, more connected communities, thriving businesses – lies the foundation of our greatness; and our resilience.