During his State of the Union address, President Obama heralded our nation’s economy:
We’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years.
Those are indeed impressive statistics, especially if your well-being is determined by your stock portfolio. But as I listened, I wondered if I was missing something. Are we all doing so much better since the President took office?
Many economists and the President are almost giddy when spouting other current statistics: unemployment at its lowest point since 2008; consumer confidence doubled; and low gas prices expected to help consumer spending. Makes me want to go out and buy a car, how about you? The State of the Union was packed with references to how things have turned around, how it was time to concentrate efforts toward the middle class. Apparently it’s also time to leave “mindless austerity” and build more warships.
Not once during Obama’s speech did I hear reference to the fact that, in 2014, one in five children in America lived in poverty and food stamps. Or since then, come to think of it. But that number has also doubled during the Obama years and it is inconsistent with the idea that the economy has “recovered.” Indeed, in 2008, one in eight children was on food stamps; today’s percentage of children in poverty is a staggering 23.1 percent — only Romania’s figures are higher, according to UNICEF. In all, nearly 47 million Americans receive the food stamps that keep them one step away from starvation, yet Congress considers starvation to be a “spending problem,” not a moral disgrace, one they solved by cutting $8 billion from the food stamp program. And the President must agree: he signed those cuts into law.
Am I on a different planet? Since when do you solve the problem of hunger by withholding food? The President just proposed increasing the military budget by another $40 billion even though the 12-year war in Afghanistan is supposed to be winding down. How do you turn toward the middle class by denying children scraps from our bountiful table? It’s in that term — “middle class” — that we find an answer. Writer Ellen Cushing once said:
The vast majority of Americans, at all coordinates of the economic spectrum consider themselves middle-class…
Isn’t that true? How many of us — lawyers, doctors, nurses, plumbers, actors or dockworkers — wouldn’t say we’re “middle class”? Very few, even if we’re wealthy or poor, would admit otherwise. It’s American as apple pie to consider ourselves “middle class.” When President Obama suggests turning to the middle class, he is thus appealing to everyone.
But in the rest of that sentence, Cushing warned that the fiction of all of us being middle class is dangerous:
…this is deeply ingrained, distinctly cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance, as defined by the dictionary: “the anxiety that results from simultaneously holding contradictory or otherwise incompatible attitudes, beliefs, or the like.” More deeply, it’s thetheory that all humans strive for consistency, and when inconsistency — i.e., dissonance — is experienced, we respond by striving to reduce that dissonance.
So it’s natural for the President, economists and the media to focus on what they want to believe about our economy and to ignore information that conflicts with those beliefs, even if it means ignoring deeper signs of trouble out there on the periphery. When economists say that reliance on food stamps will lessen as things improve, and when data indicates that the number of children on food stamps since 2008 has almost doubled, that’s cognitive dissonance. Maybe, just maybe, something is missing in this great recovery?
Actually, cognitive dissonance dominates our economic news. We celebrate lower unemployment numbers, but know that the majority of the drop is caused by people exiting the workforce. (Interestingly, the head of Gallup, Jim Clifton, called our government’s unemployment numbers “A Big Lie.”) Obama calls the meager attempts to rein in federal spending “mindless austerity” while the government spent more than $3.45 trillion last year — 18% more than when he took office. “Austerity” is not 18% more spending.
Great societies are defined by how we treat the least of our own, not by how big a military we build. Clearly there is a large segment of our population that has not benefited from our economic success. If it is time to turn toward the middle class, to offer them breaks and “freebies,” then it is time to address the issues of our poorest. President Obama, let’s feed children before we wage more war, before build more planes and build more battleships or otherwise declare the economy “recovered.” I am not an economist, and it may not make economic sense, but it’s the right thing to do.