The Oprah Society

It's inspiring to watch someone beat the odds.  If you see the deck is stacked, their triumph is especially sweet.  Day after day, in our made-for-TV society, that's what we're shown: inspiring exceptions--women and men who, by some miracle, overcome insurmountable barriers.  They often weep as we do when we hear their tales of woe.  Indeed, whether it's addiction or affliction, layoffs or payoffs, their stories are meant to convince us "Hey, they made it, why can't we?"

From yesterday's daytime gabfests to today's reality shows, somehow in America, the insurmountable became the inevitable. We went from counting on a family-sustaining job to expecting a pink slip. We've seen whole towns rust and millions lose decent jobs. We've seen still others trapped in jobs that fail to provide the basics of a decent life.  Meanwhile, there aren't enough reality show makeovers to transform whole blocks--let alone entire towns--or get us all college diplomas or decent jobs. 

So a few are chosen, and the rest of us are made to feel like we failed. If only we had tried harder, worked smarter, learned more, invested better, we'd be on TV for all to envy. It's one thing to admire those who beat the odds, quite another to create a society which makes the odds nearly impossible to overcome.

Whatever happened to the Land of Opportunity? To the melting pot that pulled millions from every corner of the world? Drawn by the American Dream, we were told that if you just worked hard, you could support yourself and raise a family, send your children to college, take family vacations, build a nest egg and retire? 

Today, one in four workers--30 million Americans--hold jobs that pay below $9.00 an hour, putting them and their families below the federal poverty line. The work is often grueling, dangerous or humiliating. Most low-wage jobs lack health care, vacation pay, sick leave or pension plans. They provide little flexibility or training.  These jobs sentence child caregivers, janitors and pharmacy techs to a lifetime of poverty, and mock those who work in nursing homes, clean our hotel rooms and offices and process our food.  Most of these workers are adults with at least a high school education who have families to take care of just like the rest of us.

More and more middle-class jobs are taking on the characteristics of low-wage jobs, with little job security, stagnant wages and decreasing health and retirement benefits. In 1987, employers provided health coverage to 70 percent of workers, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, yet today that number has declined by 10 percent. At the same time, employees are picking up more and more of their health premium costs. Fewer than one-fifth of large and medium-sized companies now pay the full cost of employees' health premiums. A similar shift has occurred with pensions. Nearly half of full-time workers were covered by traditional pensions 30 years ago.  Today, that number has plummeted to below 20 percent. Then there's job security: the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that today a middle-aged man is likely to be in his job for 71/2 years, down from 11 years just 25 years ago.

These conditions are not an act of nature.  We can make different choices.  We could offer quality child care to give all our kids a fair start.  We could insist our jobs provide at least a week of paid sick leave.  We could raise the federal minimum wage--as a start to $7.25 an hour, an option our Congress just turned down last month.  We could insist every American have affordable health care.  We could ensure that every qualified young man and woman can afford to attend college and graduate without mortgaging their future. And at the end of one's work life, we could make sure that all Americans have enough to support themselves.

So what will it be? Will we remain content with a society that rewards the few and continues to erect roadblocks for most Americans, or are we going to live up to the ideals of the American Dream--that if you work hard, you will be able to take care of yourself and your family? The choice is ours.

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