Have you noticed how often politicians refer to kitchen table issues? It’s not as popular as claiming to speak on behalf of the “American people,” but it’s probably used for the same reason – that is to show a “real” understanding or kinship with us ordinary folk.
When I hear “kitchen table” issues, I picture a Norman Rockwell cover of Life Magazine. Dad in his overalls with pencil and paper in hand and mom in her apron holding the baby sitting around a WWII metal table like my parents had in our kitchen.
White dad and mom are dealing with “bread and butter” issues like rent, food, doctor bills and saving for a home or rainy day. Bread and butter on a kitchen table says it all when we or politicians want to refer to the basics of living – shelter, food, safety, security.
Yet, it says nothing about life 70 plus years beyond kitchen tables and women in aprons. White dads and moms have been joined by dads and moms of color. Kitchen tables have gone the way of breakfast bars in many homes and women have gone to work. Doctor bills have turned into insurance premiums and food has turned into convenience or fast food. Savings and pensions have turned into IRAs and SEPs. Internet connection and cell phones have become basic staples.
The American Promise
Very few of the people I graduated with from high school or college entered a “cushy” adulthood unless you count classmates who married doctors. I have great recall of the first years of my short-lived marriage of being broke for days before the next payday.
Once we became established in careers and received pay raises or promotions, paychecks lasted longer and opened new dreams of life better than our parents.
Most of my upward trajectory was due to my unending competition with my older brother. I was determined to go to college just like he, an ambition not encouraged by my parents, particularly my dad, or high school counselor. Had something to do with being a girl.
Still, I made it because I could work and earn enough money to pay for tuition and books and had the good fortune to live at home in a city with a university.
I entered the workforce during the social change imperative of the dynamic 60s that plowed new ground and created a fertile environment for economic growth. Women won the right to access birth control. Registered nurses earned more than file clerks. Workers began striking and received significant increases in wages and employee benefits such as health care insurance and pensions during the next two decades
Riots around demands for equal opportunity for black people in education, housing and jobs resulted in a deliberate effort to funnel resources into neighborhoods starving from lack of opportunity.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex and national origin. The 1965 Medicare Amendment to the Social Security Act established health insurance for people 65 and older and low-income Americans.
America was a country taking care of its own, productivity increased over the decades, but so did inflation and the entry of for-profit enterprises that thrived on following the money, now in healthcare thanks to Medicare.
Despite some pitfalls and worrisome trends, the American promise became the American dream spawned by a productive middle-class with enormous purchasing power. Not only could parents expect their children to do better than they, women and people of color could expect to join the middle-class on their own.
Highjacked American Dream
Fast forward to today and “kitchen table” issues discussed around the breakfast bar are the usual plus balancing health insurance costs as employee share increases take a significant percent of take-home pay and the high cost of sending a child to college. “Kitchen table issues” around the homeless shelter may be as basic as finding the shelter offering dinner that night.
Added to that is the cost of technology that improves our communication and access to entertainment and knowledge (including fake knowledge) at a relatively high cost in our daily lives.
Home ownership, the primary source of building equity for old age, is becoming more dream than reality. Young families with children are more likely than not to suffer the anxiety of locating reliable child daycare at a cost they can afford and may decide to trade the dreams of home and education to stay home with their children.
The irony for children in these families is the loss of the American dream as family income falls, perhaps never catching up.
And, let’s not forget there cannot be a Bertha Cooper today who works her way through college and becomes a successful professional. She will either not go or be in debt for decades to moneymaking, money lending institutions.
Nor should we forget that social security is not enough for old age; IRAs and other investments require infusions to support retirement living.
There are a myriad causes and confluences that led to the have, have-nots, lost-what-they-had and never-will-ge- in-our-country that I won’t attempt to explain, except to say hope has been hijacked in a system that rewards so few and promises so little to the rest.
Our skewed system of rewards is shortchanging our families, our youth and our future. I don’t think they will tolerate it for too long. Perhaps, it will be the 60s all over again. We are due, some say overdue. An entire group of people expressed their dissatisfaction in the last election – it was a resounding “Not working for me or my children.”
So far, the results tell us that the top 20 percent and corporations continue to be winners and still don’t sweep too many crumbs onto the kitchen table.
Bertha Cooper spent her career years as a health care organization and program administrator and consultant and is a featured columnist in Sequim Gazette. Cooper has lived in Sequim with her husband for nearly 20 years. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.