s we wandered past the $5 discount T-shirts on the first floor at the East Northport store, I was reminded of the role of Sears in the American middle class and the evolving U.S. economy: It was long a source of decently compensated jobs, quality tools and reliable appliances, but is now high on some retail analysts' list of retailers likely to file for bankruptcy protection.
Tomorrow will mark three weeks since the Newtown, Conn., school massacre. The wretchedness of that day has touched off a national debate about preventing mass murders -- as it should. But lately the conversation has narrowed to gun control.
In a year-end interview, responding to a question about the political fights ahead, President Barack Obama voiced his support for banning assault rifles and high-capacity clips, and for better background checks for gun buyers. What I didn't hear from the president was a vow to strengthen our mental health system to treat people like Adam Lanza before they descend into madness. Whatever Lanza's technical diagnosis -- schizophrenia? -- executing two classrooms of first-graders is by definition mad.
Gun control is easier to discuss, because there is an identifiable, organized opposition in the National Rifle Association. But mental illness is harder to recognize, reach and heal.
Consider the divergent responses I received to a column that ran right after the Sandy Hook killings. I wrote that in New York, as in most states, the law allows for involuntary commitments of those who are mentally ill. What's more, New York permits someone to alert the authorities to dangerous behavior while remaining anonymous.
Some readers wondered about the potential for abuse of involuntary commitment -- also called civil commitment. "How do [the authorities] know that you are just not furthering a neighborly feud or personal vendetta?" one man emailed.
Others said that even though such laws exist, they are almost unenforceable in practice. A mental-health group home administrator said he has often been frustrated when calling for help: "There is no mechanism for involuntary admission unless the person is either violent or expresses violent ideas in front of a psychiatrist or police."
And so there is the conundrum. The problem isn't the law, exactly, but the judgment, resources and political will to enforce it.
We have yet to find the place where the pendulum should rest since deinstitutionalization began in the 1960s. The idea was to wipe out the abuse of mentally ill people, to respect their civil rights by closing psychiatric hospitals and moving toward community-based care, such as group homes and outpatient treatment. But the system that was supposed to take the place of psychiatric hospitals has never been adequately funded or built out.
The results are cruelly inadequate. Twenty percent of prison inmates, and at least one-third of the homeless, are seriously mentally ill, according to the national Treatment Advocacy Center. Mostly, they are not receiving the care they need to heal, stabilize and lead full lives.
And, as appears to be the case with Lanza, responsibility for care falls to individual families -- sometimes with disastrous results. In two other recent mass murders -- the killing of 12 people and injuring 58 at a Colorado movie theater in July, and the wounding of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killing of six others in Tucson two years ago -- family, acquaintances and school officials had been alarmed about the behavior of the two men who became suspects. Yet no one stopped them.
Most mentally ill people are not violent, but statistics favor stronger civil commitment laws. According to a 2011 study by the University of California, Berkeley, states with stronger laws have homicide rates about one-third lower.
Vice President Joe Biden is preparing a report on preventing mass shootings. If he wants a place to start, he might consider our patchwork of state civil commitment laws -- both how they are written and how they work in practice.
This essay was first published in Newsday.
It's been a Scrooge of a year, wouldn't you say? Ebenezer Scrooge - whom I caught on television the other night looking a lot like the actor George C. Scott - was a man who refused to share any of his wealth with the world around him. The year 2012 bears a resemblance.
This year, we endured a divisive battle for the presidency, which was fought at times as though the only thing that mattered was how much money either side could raise. That's a sad statement for a country that stands for democracy.
Thousands were wiped out financially and emotionally by superstorm Sandy. Many innocents were lost to deranged gunmen in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn.
The economy refused to rebound, and Washington wouldn't come to agreement over anything.
And so the year 2012 was stingy like Scrooge. But in "A Christmas Carol," Charles Dickens thankfully gives us examples of two people who don't lose faith in the old miser: his long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit and his nephew, Fred.
Cratchit raises a glass to Scrooge over the family's meager Christmas dinner - and over Mrs. Cratchit's objections. And Fred continues to invite his uncle to dine, year after year, even though the old man riddles him with insults.
We all know the end of the story. After his ghostly visitations, Scrooge accepts dinner with Fred and becomes a generous benefactor to the Cratchits. And so, neither should we close our hearts to hope for the 21st century.
Taking a wide look around, here are a few silver linings that emerged in 2012.
*Apple announced that it is bringing back some of its manufacturing to the United States. In interviews, Apple's chief executive, Tim Cook, said the company would spend about $100 million on U.S. manufacturing operations in 2013.
*Several cities, including New York, are reporting declines in childhood obesity - perhaps showing that public health campaigns can be effective. Obesity is a significant factor in health care costs.
*The years-long deployment of soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in an unexpected gain for quality child care in this country. When parents began shipping out, the Department of Defense realized that there weren't enough approved, private child care slots. So the military worked with a national organization, Child Care Aware, to train and certify child care providers, greatly expanding the supply of quality programs.
*Here's another unexpected gain. During the economic downturn that began in 2008, even as people are hurting financially, they are demonstrating more compassion. The Corporation for National and Community Service reports a rise in volunteerism - exactly the opposite of what happened during hard economic times in the past.
There are many more bright spots; we see them in our personal lives every day. Let's hold a hope in our hearts for rebirth in our public life as well.
This essay was first published in Newsday.
It seems likely that we will be hearing about the tortuous dramas of the "fiscal cliff" until the calendar closes on 2012. The president took his case to business leaders this week and will speak tomorrow to workers at a Pennsylvania toy factory, in an effort to ratchet up pressure on Republicans in Congress.
Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), is threatening to push the country into default unless there are drastic spending cuts. And so the wrestling match continues, teetering as close to the Jan. 1 "cliff" edge as possible.
Many Long Islanders, I suspect, will be watching how the debate settles over who is wealthy and who is middle class. President Barack Obama has drawn the line at earnings of $200,000 for an individual, and $250,000 for a household. He wants to extend tax cuts for everyone below those annual incomes.
However, this income cutoff is unfair to high-cost areas like Long Island, as some Democrats have acknowledged. In 2010, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) floated the idea of raising taxes only on $1-million-plus incomes. A year earlier, Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) was one of eight co-sponsors of a bill, the Tax Equity Act, that would have adjusted federal income tax brackets to account for regional differences in the cost of living.
The bill was popular in the Northeast: Seven co-sponsors were from New York, and the eighth, Rep. Jim Himes, represents Fairfield County, Conn. But the bill went nowhere.
This year during election season, many more Democrats saw the light and began publicly questioning whether $250,000 was the right cutoff. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who represents pricey San Francisco, in May called for a vote to make the tax cuts permanent for anyone making less than $1 million a year. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and North Dakota Sen.-elect Heidi Heitkamp also supported extending tax cuts for those making less than $1 million. Candidates from Missouri to Nevada to Virginia said $250,000 was perhaps too low. Some floated figures of $400,000 or $500,000 instead.
This campaign-trail flirtation with a compromise obligates Democrats to at least consider a higher-income cutoff.
There are two reasons this is important to Long Island - and, indeed, to high-cost regions around the country. First, many Long Islanders would be affected by the higher tax rate. The IRS doesn't publish data for the $250,000 income level, but about 100,000 Long Island households made more than $200,000 in 2009, according to census figures.
People making $250,000 a year don't necessarily feel wealthy. Their household could consist of a teacher and a police officer - in other words, middle class occupations. At that income, it's not always possible to fund what most Americans would agree is a middle-class life: the ability to save for retirement, afford a home and educate one's children.
More income taxes - on top of high-priced homes, local taxes, transportation, recreation and education - would make this area even less affordable. We are already bleeding retirees to North Carolina, and graduates to everywhere else.
To be sure, it may be hard to muster sympathy for a $250,000-earner when the median family income nationwide is $62,300. And bumping the cutoff from $250,000 to $1 million would lose the government $366 billion in revenue over 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
But fairness dictates a second look for high-cost regions. For many people, another few thousand dollars in taxes just isn't affordable.
This essay was first published in Newsday.
There's nothing like a life-shaking storm to make people appreciate normal. Usually, normal is ho-hum. But when life is turned upside down, normal is the most welcome feeling.
Normal didn't return for me, after superstorm Sandy, when we got our power back or refilled the refrigerator. It was when I saw faces I hadn't seen since before the storm - about two weeks after it knocked our Island around. There we were, smiling, most of us showered, and whole. Normal returned when I realized that people in my community were, for the most part, going to be OK.
That's not the same as saying life will be the same as it was before the storm, or before this long recession. Instead, we're living with a "new normal" - a sense that we must permanently lower our material expectations. Maybe the new normal will define our moment in history.
Some day, years from now, we may think of these times the way people recall the Great Depression. People who lived through it went on to stash away money - sometimes in places far away from banks they no longer trusted. They hoarded food; waste became a sin. Our recollections of 2012 may be that this was the year we acknowledged how much we depend on each other.
Our country has weathered a long series of blows. The banking crisis of 2008 diminished or zeroed out our home equity. High school graduates applied to cheaper colleges, and college graduates couldn't find jobs. Stretches of unemployment lengthened, people couldn't pay their mortgages, and then ... Sandy.
It's fair to say that many of us are feeling wiped out. Thousands of homes and more than a dozen people on Long Island were lost in the storm. It's the sort of thing that makes normal seem miraculous.
You probably think I'm going to say that we should be grateful for normal. It is Thanksgiving Day, after all. Children's smiles, purring kittens, dry basements and the smell of coffee. Yes, all of that.
But there is another point worth remembering, and that is that as the winds have receded, it's impossible to miss the compassion going around. We heard about the occasional tempers flaring as people waited in hours-long gasoline lines. But for the most part, we were patient with one another. Those with generators opened their homes. A friend cooked all the chicken from her neighbor's powerless freezer and fed the neighborhood. An out-of-state tree cutter returned to one woman's home, after his shift was over, to make sure she had lights and heat. Fire departments set up cots for utility workers who were far from home.
Everyone has storm stories like this.
During this recession, unlike those of the past, volunteerism has been on the rise, according to Wendy Spencer, chief executive of the federal Corporation for National and Community Service. What motivates volunteers, he says, is connection to community, and a sense that we are all going to have to contribute if we are going to achieve community and national goals.
This year's re-election of President Barack Obama seemed to me to be an affirmation of depending on each other, with a vision of prosperity for the broadest number.
I don't hear people talking now about what they can get out of the government. They are discussing buying generators when the price goes down and how long food will keep in a freezer if you leave it sealed. They're vowing to fill the gas tank at the next storm warning.
People aren't acting like victims. They're adjusting. They're finding a new normal. It's one of the things we as a people do best.
This essay was first published in Newsday.
It's dismaying that pay equity for women is the family issue that emerged most loudly from the recent round of presidential debates. Pay equity by itself is a simplistic measure that obscures more complex and urgent public policy reforms.
Judging how fair our workplaces are by whether men and women are paid equally is like judging a teenager based on an SAT score. That single number doesn't tell you anything about the kid's study habits -- not to mention character or passions.
Similarly, the oft-repeated assertion that women earn 77 cents to a man's dollar says very little. The number is an average of full-time workers, rather than a comparison of men and women in the same jobs with the same experience. A 2009 study by the economics consulting firm CONSAD Research Corporation showed that when the wage gap is analyzed by occupations, regional markets, job titles and more, women make about 94 percent of what men make.
Gender discrimination may exist in that last 6 cents -- and it's important to address that. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which fell two votes short of the filibuster-proof 60 in the U.S. Senate in June, would have required fuller disclosure of salaries. The bill had its flaws, but this disclosure would clear up inequity fast.
However, it's the bigger gap that concerns me -- the difference between women's 77 cents-to-a-dollar and the 94 cents. These numbers show that women are often making choices based on shouldering a greater caregiver burden, either for children or other family. They're choosing part-time jobs, predictable hours and less responsibility. They're staying home with babies -- which significantly discounts lifetime earnings -- or quitting when the work-family tightrope snaps.
Yes, it's true that American men are taking on caregiver roles -- and thank goodness. Having walked in each other's shoes, maybe men and women can fashion a broader agenda for needed public policy changes.
One need is for paid parental leave. Economist Christopher Ruhm examined 16 European countries and found that paid parental leave policies were associated with lower infant and child mortality. California funds parental leave through a payroll deduction -- everyone contributes. Spreading out this cost could pay California back in kids with fewer health problems and lower lifetime health care costs. Mothers could benefit from career continuity -- and steadier paychecks.
Leave for children's health problems or for parents to participate in schooling is another needed buttress. The Healthy Families Act, which has at times been championed by House Democrats, would guarantee seven paid sick days a year to care for ill family members.
Some say such policies would harm the United States' ability to compete economically. But the data tell a different story. Researchers from Princeton University and the Brookings Institution recently compiled a global database of national labor policies and economic data for all United Nations members. The collaboration, called The Future of Children, found that family support policies and a highly competitive economy are often compatible -- in Germany, Singapore, Sweden, Canada and 10 more.
What's more, employers who have adopted these kinds of family-friendly policies often have higher market value, lower turnover among employees, improved customer satisfaction, decreased health care costs, reduced absenteeism and a better esprit de corps.
Why aren't U.S. presidential candidates talking about policy supports for middle-class families? Certainly, they're a factor in pay equity for women. But they're harder to fit on a bumper sticker than "77 cents to a man's dollar."
This essay was first published in Newsday.
The parallels to the mortgage lending boom pre-2007 are eerie. People are qualifying for large loans with no regard to their ability to pay. For borrowers, there's no income check, no need to verify employment, and no disclosure of how much other debt they've taken on.
Welcome to the booming field of college loans 2012. As reported earlier this month in a joint investigation by the nonprofit news organization ProPublica and The Chronicle of Higher Education, the federal government gave out $10.6 billion last year in Parent Plus loans, which average about $11,000 per student per year. Adjusted for inflation, that's $6.3 billion more than in 2000. Just under a million families signed on for Parent Plus loans last year -- almost twice as many as in 2000.
The U.S. Department of Education, which runs this particular program, should not be in the business of knocking down families into poor credit and poverty. Yet, Parent Plus loans -- like the no-money-down mortgages of a few years back -- appear to run the risk of that very outcome.
The journalists' report tells the story of a woman making $25,000 a year in 2000 who took out $17,000 in loans for her daughter to attend NYU. Today, with fees and interest, the mother owes $33,000. Her credit has been so badly damaged that she can't qualify for a loan to send a second daughter to college. Student loan debt for Americans, as a whole, now exceeds credit card debt.
This tale of easy credit for people with little means is all the worse when you consider that one in five Parent Plus loans went to students who also received Pell Grants -- need-based financial aid for households with incomes under $50,000 that don't have to be repaid.
Is there a role for the Department of Education to tighten this lending? Should the department perform better credit checks on families? The answer to that question depends in part on your faith in the future. Lending to the parents of bright young students could give them the opportunity they need to step up the social ladder.
But there's also a gloomier prospect -- and another parallel to the mortgage disaster. The housing bubble inflated because people counted on housing prices to continue climbing skyward. With similar sunny optimism, families have been depending on graduates to emerge into careers with steadily growing paychecks.
Yes, college graduates earn 75 percent more, on average, than their peers with high school degrees. But that's if they can find a job. Some estimates say that 54 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed -- meaning, they would prefer to work more hours or could take on more responsibility.
Another problem with Parent Plus is it allows colleges to keep raising tuition and fees. The bill for bigger student centers, fancier dorms, and higher faculty and administration salaries is being shifted onto middle- and working-class families. Colleges often steer families toward Parent Plus loans -- some include the loans in financial aid award letters -- when the colleges could be giving students a break on tuition.
Surely, colleges believe that families will safeguard their finances and forgo a loan that puts them at risk of defaulting. But is that asking too much of parents, who may be excited about an acceptance from a child's dream school? Pride and easy credit are a dangerous combination. I wouldn't want to deny a child the chance at an education that might mean everything to his or her future. Upward mobility is hard enough in this country -- and getting tougher all the time.
Yet the Department of Education and colleges need to close this lending spigot. Strict lending rules aren't punitive. They're just good sense.
This essay was first published in Newsday.
End-of-the-world scenarios have been circulating forever. Some think the world will end with the Mayan calendar later this year. But I believe I've seen the real doomsday. Our species will simply fail to reproduce.
That's my conclusion from two news items. The first is from the U.S. Census Bureau, which announced a baby "bust" last fall. The census shows that, in 95 percent of counties across the United States, the share of the population younger than 18 was smaller than in 2000.
There are now more households with dogs than children.
The other piece of evidence is a book published this month from feminist author and blogger Jessica Valenti: "Why Have Kids?" A new mother herself at 33, she looks at the unhappiness among parents with young children and asks this very relevant question: Why do it?
According to interviews, Valenti concludes that it's the chasm between the idealized parental life and reality that causes so much woe. Americans glorify the mother alone at home raising kids.
It may be tempting to tut-tut Valenti and tell her that she'll get used to the lack of adult conversation and the jobs that require either 24/7 commitment or unemployment, with nothing in between. But her perspective may well spring not so much from her phase of life as from our time in history. Or, as we've begun to say about this economy that refuses to improve, her complaint is the new normal.
Raising children well has become increasingly difficult. I blame it on my generation - those of us who have teenagers, as I do, and older kids. Instead of banding together to wrest better policies from government and employers - or to create strong communities to assist one another - we've indulged ourselves in divisive "mommy wars." We have bickered about which is better, attachment parenting or free-range? Stay-at-home mothers or moms with paychecks? Opting out or having it all?
In 1996, we heard that it takes a village to raise a child, and we looked the other way.
Now, Americans are having fewer children. In 2007, according to the census, the average number of births per American woman was 2.1. That's just enough to hold the population steady. Last year, however, the birthrate fell to 1.9, the lowest in decades.
Have we decided that it's too difficult to go on - at least in the United States? France is still reporting somewhat higher birthrates. Perhaps the French crèche system of universal day care - which, by the way, supports an employment rate of 80 percent among French mothers - has a lot to do with providing young families with the resources they need to feel happy and hopeful enough to keep having children.
The reasons for the decreasing U.S. birthrate are many. The financial crisis of 2008 made parents fearful of another bill. The annual cost of center-based day care for an infant in 35 states - New York among them - is higher than a year's in-state tuition and fees at a four-year public college.
Wages have been falling for 40 years, which means that many household budgets require two, three or more jobs. Forget about quality family time with that schedule. One New Jersey town recently hired soccer coaches because it could no longer count on parents having the leisure to volunteer. Not only will we have fewer kids in the future, it looks like we can forget about fielding a team for the World Cup!
We could reverse these trends, if we believed that saving the species were important enough. We could fight for better policies. Or we could accept the situation and look on the bright side: It will be a lot easier to navigate store aisles without all those annoying baby strollers.
This essay was first published in Newsday.
As poverty grows and the gap between rich and poor widens, there's a narrative developing that women may have taken this equality stuff too far.
Today, 41 percent of births in the United States occur outside of marriage, compared with 17 percent in the 1980s. The decline in marriage leaves parents - mostly mothers - to struggle alone financially. Depending on which study you read, sociologists believe that single parenting accounts for 15 to 40 percent of a family's likelihood of living in poverty.
Even Isabel Sawhill, who directs the Center on Children and Families for the moderately liberal Brookings Institution, wrote in May that former Vice President Dan Quayle was right 20 years ago about Murphy Brown: Unmarried motherhood is a bad choice. Children who grow up poor more often act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of high school.
But this narrative implies that the rise of women's rights is to blame for all these changes - or that it is reversible. The bad news story also ignores the gains arising from the greater earning power of women, the looser divorce laws and the reduced social censure that have enabled so much single parenthood. The rate of domestic abuse has dropped steadily, for example, and women are less likely to commit suicide or be killed by an intimate partner.
Many single parents are raising wonderful children - I know several - but they don't have an easy job. We need to acknowledge that we are headed for a post-marital world, and adopt policies that will give the children of such families a better chance at a secure middle-class adulthood. Such policies will lighten the single parent's load, too, although that's no reason to oppose them.
First, we could educate teenage fathers about their responsibilities to their children. There's a lot of advice out there for girls but very little for guys. A man has the right to know whether he is the father, and to seek to be involved in raising the child. Men have a responsibility to provide financial support, and to see that decisions are being made in the child's best interest.
Counseling for couples planning to marry should be easily available. So many of us marry without a realistic view of how to live together. A handful of states - Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee - have passed legislation providing financial incentives for couples to participate in formal premarital education.
We must find other ways for kids to have more parental figures - if they can't have both biological parents - in their lives. For example, some builders have begun designing homes to accommodate multiple generations. Family rooms and dining rooms are larger, and the homes include two master bedrooms at opposite ends of the house, for privacy. Overall, the American housing market is trending toward smaller - but this home-sharing concept is part of the mix.
Living near extended family, having community centers and places of worship that attract all generations, extending the school day to accommodate extracurricular activities and homework help - these are also crucial.
If I hadn't met my husband and formed a traditional family, I may have had a child on my own. I was considering it in 1992, when the veep made his quip about Murphy Brown. Life's drive to recreate itself is very strong. That's something people don't mention often enough in these discussions.
If American marital norms are morphing into something we wouldn't have recognized 20 years ago, well, so be it. Let's take what good marriages have taught us about children's need for belonging and the influence of caring adults, and make sure we meet that need - no matter what forms our families take.
This essay was first published in Newsday.
Entering adulthood used to be like wading into a gently sloping lake. You got your feet wet with a degree or job. Then maybe you found an apartment, and eventually a life partner. Soon, you were swimming in deep water.
But today, it feels as though the water gets deep fast. Young people can't just splash around and "find themselves" anymore. The world has changed.
Work can disappear with little warning. Skills grow obsolete fast. Lifetime employment and corporate loyalty are mostly things of the past. Compared to two decades ago, the average American worker puts in an extra 164 hours per year on the job, according to economist Juliet Schor. And adjusted for inflation, middle-class U.S. workers make less than they did in 1971.
These pressures mean that anyone who wants to "have it all" - career, family and leisure - needs to look way ahead. We parents would be wise to talk through the choices very explicitly with our children, especially the majority who are likely to want both work and kids.
We can explain the need for a sharply different perspective on career planning. For example, a friend of mine in her 20s who just got married says that she and others her age won't rely on working for an employer. The long hours and lack of security aren't worth it. Her plan is to run her own business and live frugally. Great idea; I hope for her sake it works out.
Another option is to choose an explicitly family-friendly career, something women have been doing for ages - a career with predictable hours and even some job security. Men increasingly are doing likewise; they make up ever more of our nurses, school teachers, bank tellers and food servers.
Even for the most ambitious, there are ways to craft a career that allows for more family time. A study of nearly 1,000 women who graduated from Harvard College between 1988 and 1991 showed that, 15 years after graduation, the ones who became doctors and lawyers had an easier time combining work and family than did those who later got an MBA. The doctors and lawyers had shifted to part-time work, opened their own practices with like-minded colleagues, or moved into the nonprofit sector or government work. The businesswomen, by contrast, faced an either-or choice: Put in grueling hours or quit.
Marissa Mayer, the new Yahoo chief executive, is an example. She's 37, will give birth this fall, and plans "a few weeks" of maternity leave during which she will continue to work. But if you want a different sort of work-family balance for yourself, then perhaps you shouldn't plan on following in her footsteps.
Stories about families working together to make hard choices are encouraging. Austrian tennis player Sybille Bammer, for example, had a child at 21 and quit competing. She went back to tennis after her life partner, and the child's father, became her coach, hitting partner and Mr. Mom. For a while, they lived on $500 a month.
Then there's Angela Braly, chief executive of health benefits giant WellPoint, whose husband left his family business for a more flexible schedule in real estate and teaching. They have three children. How do we discuss the complexities of the modern balancing act without blunting our kids' ambitions? I can hear them mocking us now: Settle for the mommy track early, dear, and save yourself a lot of angst. But that's not the message. On the contrary, what's important is figuring out what you want and planning for it, precisely so you don't end up sidetracked.
Couples considering a family should talk openly about their expectations, too. You know the old saying: If you don't know where you're going, you're sure to get there.
This essay was first published in Newsday.
I well remember how my first job made me feel: capable, creative, in charge. I was a summer counselor at a YMCA day camp, and still practically a kid myself, just out of 10th grade. I made a lot of mistakes.
As the arts and crafts counselor, I blew most of my $200 budget on Popsicle sticks and gimp. We ran out of arts and crafts supplies halfway through the summer, and so taking long "nature walks" became our fallback. I wonder what the campers' parents thought.
Making mistakes like that is partly what early jobs are all about. We learn, and then make better decisions when the "real" job comes along.
So it's troubling that teens today are facing their third straight summer of bleak employment prospects -- in fact, the worst since World War II, when the government began keeping track. In April, the jobless rate for 16- to 19-year-olds approached 25 percent. And the unemployment rate only counts those actively looking. Many are too discouraged by the dismal economy to try.
Parents may debate the merits of teens taking jobs bagging groceries versus studying or pursuing music, sports or college-level courses. But the poorest Americans don't have that choice, and to double down on their woes, they are hit hardest by teen unemployment. Last summer, just one in five teenagers with annual family income below $20,000 had a job, according to a report by Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies.
Not only aren't these teens earning needed cash -- or learning the life lessons I got at the YMCA -- but the joblessness they experience now may drag them down for years. One study in the United States and Britain said that 37-year-old men who had sustained a year of unemployment before age 23 made 23 percent less than their peers. The equivalent gap was 16 percent for women.
College graduates who took jobs beneath their education or outside of their fields often never got back to where they might have been, according to what the Japanese learned from their "lost decade" of economic doldrums in the 1990s and early 2000s. When the Japanese economy recovered, employers preferred graduates fresh out of school, creating a generation that suffers higher rates of depression, heart attack and suicide, and lower life expectancy.
These structural problems with capitalism -- the ups and downs of the business cycle -- should not be borne by individuals, but collectively. That's why we have unemployment insurance, for example.
Other countries seem to have a better understanding of this. Germany's renowned apprenticeship program, a training period of two to four years, attracts roughly two-thirds of vocational school students there. They're often hired afterward, one reason Germany has a far lower youth unemployment rate than us, at 9.5 percent. Firms and government share the apprenticeship expenses.
The Netherlands, also keen on averting a lost generation of workers, is dividing full-time private sector jobs into two or three part-time ones, with government providing supplemental income for part-time workers. When the economy improves, Dutch 20-somethings will be ready with skills and experience.
The New York Youth Works program has the right idea. On Long Island, at least 64 employers have signed up. The program offers them tax credits for hiring low-income youth. Given that unemployment among teens is more than twice the 7.4 percent rate for adults on Long Island, we should expand this program.
When teens work, it teaches them independence, responsibility, a good work ethic and how to get along with others. Our collective future depends on investing in their success.
This essay was first published in Newsday.
Ah, summer. Lazy grassy afternoons, damp towels, the scent of chlorine. It's a sweet scenario, but for working parents summer is a treacherous season, filled with wrangling and expense over how to fill the 10-week break with worthwhile activities and good supervision.
Like many full-time working parents, my husband and I spend more than $7,000 a year on day camp for our two children. We employ an afternoon baby-sitter, too, who also has to be paid. Every October we start saving to meet the cost.
And we're among the lucky families. Pat Lenehan, a single father in Deer Park, told Newsday that he may have to leave his 11-year-old home alone if Suffolk County eliminates the family from its subsidized child care program. High demand and lower state funding may force the county to drop 1,200 children this month.
Yet increasingly, children are being raised in homes where all the adults work. In 2010, nearly half of households with children were headed by two working parents, and another quarter were single-parent homes.
The answer isn't more child care, it's more school. That would solve a much bigger problem than what to do with the kids during the summer: the need to improve education.
Most students lose academic skills over the summer. And we've known since 1964, when standardized tests began comparing students worldwide, that our kids rank poorly -- currently in the bottom half among 30 developed nations in problem-solving, reading, math and science.
Many school reforms have rolled through our classrooms in the past four decades, but one thing we haven't tried on a large scale is more time in class. At 180 days a year, Americans have one of the shortest school years. Germany, Japan and South Korea average 220 to 230 days.
By eighth grade, American students have spent roughly 400 fewer days in school than kids in those countries. Not coincidentally, perhaps, middle school is where Americans begin to fall behind their peers.
Low-income students tend to suffer more summer learning loss, according to sociologists from Johns Hopkins University who tracked 800 Baltimore students over 20 years. The better-off kids retained more over the summer break. Their minds were stimulated by trips to the library, to museums and concerts, and out-of-town vacations. They participated in organized sports and lessons.
But the lower-income students in the Baltimore study fell back. Researchers blamed summer breaks for two-thirds of the achievement gap seen between low-income students and their better-off peers by ninth grade -- a persistent and debilitating drag on American public schools that often translates into Hispanic and black students doing worse than whites and Asians.
Some cities have organized summer learning programs for low-income kids. Summerbridge in Pittsburgh is high-energy and hands-on -- which must be a nice contrast with the regular classroom. In Indianapolis, 11 charities pooled $3 million to create a summer program that builds on the city's patchwork of day camps, community centers, sports camps and summer jobs programs. It is staffed by volunteers from fire departments and 100 Black Men of Indianapolis, a group that mentors young people.
Long Island could make similar use of our recreational abundance. Better yet, we could do it in cooperation with school districts. That sort of innovation would require thinking collectively instead of every parent for himself or herself.
For some kids, summer breaks can be lonely, boring and even dangerous. We should put our imaginations to work to find better solutions for those lazy, grassy afternoons.
This essay was first published in Newsday.
As college students return home this month for the summer break, their parents might not notice much of a difference. In a sense, for many of them, their kids never really left.
That's because some parents and college students keep in touch several times a day through cellphones, email, Skype and other technological marvels. A horrified English literature professor writes about this constant communication in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, in "Don't Pick Up: Why kids need to separate from their parents."
"One student - a delightful young woman whom I know to be smart and levelheaded - confesses that she talks to her mother on the cellphone at least five, maybe six, even seven times a day," writes Terry Castle, who teaches at Stanford University. The student says she calls her mom whenever she gets out of class to tell her about the professors, the exam - whatever's going on at the moment.
"I'm stunned; I'm aghast," Castle writes. When she was an undergraduate, from 1971 to 1975, "all we wanted to do was get away from our parents! We only had one telephone in our whole dorm - in the hallway - for 50 people! If your parents called, you'd yell, 'Tell them I'm not here!'"
Castle never says whether her current students are different from those she taught in the past - more docile, perhaps? More obedient? But she does say that the willingness to defy or just disappoint one's parents is essential to emotional and intellectual freedom. Is the Class of 2012 at risk of remaining in mental chains?
The online responses to her essay are fascinating. One says that with parents paying as much as $55,000 a year for college, you bet they are going to check in. Another says this is probably a problem only at elite universities - the implication being that you needed to be a helicopter parent in the first place to get your kid into a top school. Another says parents are anxious because of the recession and feel they need to try extra hard to help kids find their place in the world.
Melissa Bares, who just finished her junior year at Stony Brook University, says she has friends with too-concerned parents who she describes as "babied." "They can't even make their own schedule without checking with their parents first," she says in an email.
Bares, a psychology major, speaks with her parents about school a couple of times a week - which seems normal to me. Both Bares and James Kim, another Class of 2013 student at SBU, defend parental involvement - but not over-involvement. "If a parent nags, it brings a lot of pressure," says Kim, a double major in chemistry and Asian-American Studies. He calls home about once a week. "If it's the right amount of nagging, you see students excel more."
He mentions a friend - a slacker - who could use a lot more parental oversight.
Jenny A. Hwang, who heads up mental health services at SBU, says parental involvement is crucial and can protect against alcohol and drug abuse, as well as depression and even suicide. But technology has made it so easy for parents to reach out that one of her roles is to counsel moms and dads about a healthy amount of communication.
"Parents can remain available and help students problem-solve," Hwang says, "without responding to that pull that's always there to make it all better."
Castle, the English professor, cites fictional orphans - Dorothy Gale, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins - who are heroes of their own stories, to argue that psychological distance from parents is essential for kids to grow up.
That may be true, but distance, like many things, is better in moderation.
Column first published in Newsday.
It looks like Supermom is here to stay. Women ages 18 to 34, in a new survey, rated "high-paying career" high on their list of life priorities. For the first time, women in this age group outnumbered men in considering it important - 66 percent of women, compared with 59 percent of men. The last time this question was asked of this age group, in 1997, the sexes ranked "career" roughly equal in importance (56 percent of women and 58 percent of men).
At the same time, being a good parent and having a successful marriage continued to rank significantly high on everyone's list. "They haven't given any ground on marriage and parenthood," said researcher Kim Parker of the Pew Research Center, which conducted the study. "In fact, there is even more emphasis [on home life] than 10 to 15 years ago."
The story line over the past couple of decades has been that, for the most part, women would prefer to stay home with children. Those who could afford it were "opting out" of the workplace for home. The recent stir over Ann Romney's stay-at-home motherhood reawakened culturally conservative voices claiming that her choice is superior for women, and certainly better for kids.
But Parker believes that young women's expectations about the need to earn a paycheck are changing their attitudes. They were surveyed as the damage of the 2008 recession - dubbed the "mancession" for how men lost jobs disproportionately - was still playing out. "The reality is hitting women that they cannot rely on a male breadwinner," Parker says.
On a brighter note, she adds, young women have seen older women reap the fruits of workplace success and "are motivated to take on big roles." Women have been outpacing men for some time in earning college and graduate degrees. There are now three women on the Supreme Court, women play major roles in government, they're running large companies and building media empires - all of this inspires.
Pew also surveyed men and women aged 35 to 64, who responded at roughly the same rate (43 percent and 42 percent) that being successful in a high-paying career or profession is important. In 1997, middle-aged men greatly outranked women: 41 percent to 26 percent.
The big rise in middle-aged women who care about their careers probably reflects both opportunity and necessity, Parker says. But, you'll notice that young women are more positive about work than their middle-aged counterparts. Parker believes that the allure of "having it all" wears off once women are faced with the reality of supermotherhood. In fact, moms who work full time have told numerous pollsters that they would prefer part-time employment if it were available to them.
Often, scaling back from full-time work means a loss of health benefits, seniority, security and status. Employers as a whole could be doing a better job to help moms cope - and as the women in the 18-to-34 age group move up and have children, perhaps there will be more reason for employers to do so.
Governments could also be doing more to raise the quality of child care and birth leave support for both fathers and mothers.
Finally, individuals need to do a better job of thinking through their competing desires, and choose careers that accommodate parenthood well. Doctors, lawyers and accountants - and people who are willing to shift into lower-paying nonprofit or government sectors - often find more flexibility in their schedules.
Supermom is great as a concept - using all of your human abilities in a lifetime. But there's a lot more that can be done to take the risk and stress off parents' shoulders.
Essay first published in Newsday.
People leaving jobs for reasons they don't want to discuss often say something hackneyed about spending more time with family. But it appears that Michèle Flournoy literally means it.
Flournoy, 50, is a top Pentagon policy adviser and potential first female defense secretary. She announced this week that she will quit after the New Year to have more time with her three children, ages 14, 12 and 9. Her work for the Defense Department often runs from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and over many weekends.
Flournoy's work sounds fascinating. She testifies before Congress, and is strategizing troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's a lot to give up for three kids.
Which is why I love that she stated her reason so baldly: The work of being a mother is important, too.
It's possible there's more to her story -- who knows? But her public affirmation of motherhood is brave. It risks the anger of those who argue women can "have it all." Flournoy invites the envy of parents who have to work for financial reasons; she's married to a top deputy at the Department of Veterans Affairs. She risks instilling doubt in the junior women -- perhaps also mothers -- whom she sought to mentor and inspire. And she courts ridicule by the ignorant. Remember when talk show host Mike Gallagher called Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly's three-month maternity leave "a racket"?
Highly visible women should keep talking about the importance of parenting, because they can have repercussions for working moms and dads who aren't among the power elite. There are many parents who don't have the protections of money or status to assert something so basic as the need for time away from a job to raise children.
And working people have ever less leverage now, as the depressed economy has "excessed" so many into the unemployment line. In the spring of 2009, a House subcommittee on Workforce Protections, chaired by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), heard testimony from advocates that the dismal economy was pushing parents out of the workforce because their opportunities for flexible work schedules were drying up. Parents who had worked a four-day week, for example, found their employers suddenly requiring five days.
Sometimes, employers were trying to stretch to make do with the current workforce, because they didn't want to hire anyone new. But the result was often to upset a delicate balance and force the parents out.
Flexible schedules are rarely set down in writing and can disappear when an accommodating manager is replaced by someone less family-friendly. Another possibility -- and the one that most concerned Congress -- was that employers could be using the bad economy to discriminate against pregnant workers and parents.
Recognizing how precarious the work-family balance continues to be, some companies have begun making flexible work arrangements more formal. For example, KPMG, the audit firm based in Idaho, with offices in Melville, has a flexibility website where employees can explore compressed work weeks, telecommuting, job sharing and more.
Of course, accounting firms like KPMG battle notoriously high turnover, so they look for ways to retain employees. At other kinds of jobs, many workers don't even have paid sick days -- in fact, 47 percent of private-sector workers, according to the Department of Labor. We have a long way to go as a country that supports parents.
People like Flournoy should keep up the drumbeat about the importance of child-raising, reminding employers that parents have important work off the job, too.
First published in Newsday.
Regarding the column by Anne Michaud, "Keep school budget talk out of the classroom" [Opinion, Dec. 8], I agree that children need to feel secure in school. Their focus needs to be on learning. A major part of that learning should, in my opinion, be relating knowledge to reality. What good are the three Rs if we don't see the issues that are facing us daily?
We live in a society that has a small percentage of people voting in general and school elections. This lack of response leads to lack of control over the direction our country takes and sometimes even to corruption in government.
It is imperative that our children learn to be good citizens and participate in our democracy. If this means bringing up budget concerns to students old enough to understand, then they should be mentioned. An open discussion talking about the whole process and not focusing just on layoffs, would be in order. This hopefully would bring students to begin thinking about mundane issues that our society faces on a daily basis. Opening their young minds would undoubtedly lead to a more involved electorate later on.
Steve Tuck, Huntington
If a teacher is asked a question by a student, shouldn't it be answered? I find it amusing that a person who contributes to Newsday's Opinion pages wants to now control the things we say in class. Newspaper columnists get their forum without any input from readers.
I find all the harsh rhetoric printed in the last several years about teachers "divisive, angry and unhealthy" as well. When class sizes are larger and programs are cut, remember the true culprits: the financial institutions and oil companies whose employees and owners still get record bonuses each year -- on average, more than teachers make in a year.
Rich Weeks, Middle Island
I believe that Anne Michaud completely missed the point. School budget talks allow Social Studies teachers to discuss relevant and current issues facing our communities. This issue lends itself to great discussions of limited resources, the role of the citizen in a democracy, economic choices and a whole host of other topics. This is what we call a teachable moment.
We do our students a great disservice when we try to shelter them from what is happening in the news.
Kathleen Stanley, Massapequa Park Editor's note: The writer is a high school Social Studies teacher.
As a teacher in a public high school, I feel that I need to explain why teachers sometimes discuss rules governing teacher layoffs (last in, first out) with their students. A lot of students don't understand the difference between being laid off and being fired. They just assume that when someone is excessed because of budgetary reasons, that person has been fired for cause.
I feel it is important to explain to students how tenure and seniority work. It's bad enough when colleagues are let go. I'm certainly not going to let their reputations be tarnished with misinformation.
The column is right in this sense, that younger children should not be frightened by teachers into thinking Mom and Dad hold the key to a teacher's survival, and children should therefore convince their parents to vote for the budget. It's a cheap ploy.
However, I also think that when students come to school and tell me their parents say I make too much money and have it really easy, that I should be allowed to defend my profession. I don't think it's inappropriate to discuss the realities with older students, some of whom will be able to participate in the upcoming budget votes.
Jeffrey A. Stotsky, Forest Hills
Recently, I was driving my seventh-grader to one of her many events, when she began explaining LIFO to me. She told me that the youngest teachers were usually the ones to lose their jobs when there are budget cuts: "last in, first out."
I don't consider this information a seventh-grader should be thinking about - except perhaps when learning labor history in the classroom. She said that her teachers, and others, have been talking about the politics of school budgets.
It may seem a little soon, given that budgets won't be up for a public vote until May. But people are thinking ahead since this time around will be different. New York schools will be budgeting to stay under the 2 percent property tax cap passed earlier this year.
This week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo negotiated a deal to restructure state income tax rates so that New York will be able to afford a promised 4 percent increase in state aid to schools next year. I hope that deal takes some of the tension out of the classroom, because I don't think school budget cuts are a proper topic for students.
I first heard such concerns from my daughter when she was in fourth grade and came home to report that her teacher might lose her job if the school budget didn't pass. The message to parents was that we should get out and vote "yes." It was the emotional equivalent of dangling a baby over a banister.
I sent an email to another teacher, who was the supervisor of my daughter's program, and said I didn't think they should be talking in class about teacher layoffs. First, it's scary for kids to think that the teacher could suddenly be gone. There's an emotional attachment between student and teacher.
It's also frightening for kids to contemplate how their teacher might be harmed by job loss. Last, it's unfair to imply that Mommy and Daddy hold the only key - the ballot box - to saving Teacher's job.
Could it be that if the school board had negotiated a more modest teachers contract that it could afford to pay more teachers year after year? Of course. Could it be that if administrators found savings - like condsolidating their ranks or settling for less luxurious compensation packages - that the system could afford to lay off fewer teachers? Right again.
But I didn't say that when I emailed my daughter's school. I simply said that I felt the financial conversation was best kept among adults, and that students might be frightened by layoff talk.
When teachers raise district budget issues in class, it feels like divorcing parents who are pointing blaming fingers at each other. It's divisive, angry and unhealthy. I feel the same way about teachers refusing to stay for after-school help or wearing black to school to protest that they're working without a contract. These "conversations" should occur among adults. Kids should be able to focus on adaptive immunity and rational integers and the branches of government without being distracted by budget politics.
Teachers surely want to be treated like professionals - and I've met far, far more good teachers than the occasional inconsiderate one. But a few loose comments - such as how my daughter learned about LIFO - can poison the atmosphere.
With the tax cap in effect, the conversation about how to pay for public education is going to become tenser in coming years. We can figure it out, but let's do it in a room where only the grown-ups are allowed.
First published in Newsday.
“Can Obama lose this election?" a friend asked the other day. It's something supporters of the president are well within reason to ask these days, given the widespread economic misery that has opened a big double doorway to that possibility. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released last week, 54 percent see the current troubles as the beginning of a long-term national decline, not simply a trough for the U.S. economy that will give way to prosperity soon.
And so with a race that could tilt either way, Americans are obsessed with who's ahead in the Republican pack, and President Barack Obama's sympathizers gleefully chalk up the gaffes: restaurant executive Herman Cain's groping allegations, Texas Gov. Rick Perry's forgotten list of federal agencies to shutter, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's shifting stance on health care.
But the president will be missing a crucial responsibility over the next 11-plus months if he allows the Democratic Party's message to center on the horrors of the Republican roster. That responsibility is this: to reassure Americans that there's a candidate in the race who can't be bought and sold on Wall Street.
According to that same Journal/NBC poll, three out of four people say the nation's economic structure favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of us. That's an incredibly skewed perception of the basic fairness and merit-based achievement that are supposed to underlie our democracy. We aren't Dubai or Panama, are we?
No wonder half of those responding to the poll say they identify with one of this country's polar extremes: the tea party or Occupy Wall Street.
But beyond a broad disaffection fueled by high unemployment and underwater mortgages, the perceptions of poll respondents were specific to Obama as well: About three-quarters said the president has fallen short of his promises to improve oversight of the banks and Wall Street.
That's why the Obama administration's position is confounding on a proposed national settlement between big banks and federal and state officials over mortgage abuses. Attorneys general around the country are examining foreclosures made, perhaps illegally, through a hasty process known as "robo-signing." The president's people are said to be pushing for a $28-billion agreement - while a few outlier attorneys general are resisting: Eric Schneiderman here in New York, Kamala Harris in California and Beau Biden in Delaware.
Let's face it: $28 billion is a puny sum compared with the harm caused. To put it in perspective, negative equity in the housing market tops $700 billion. The government shouldn't give bankers immunity from legal liability - perhaps for any sum - but certainly not for so little, and not before a thorough investigation of banks' role in the near-meltdown of the global financial system.
In the past, a little salve on the wound - $28 billion in mortgage forgiveness, refinancing, credit counseling and legal services - might have been a very smart election-year gambit. But the economic pain and resentment of the last three years is too deep, and the Internet has made the public better informed. Reacting to news about the possible bank settlement, the Occupy Wall Street folks hoisted a sign reading, "Obama, don't be Wall Street's puppet."
Perhaps the president has good reasons for urging this settlement with the banks. If he does, he should take his case to the public. Because there's a lot more at stake than which party takes the White House. We could lose our faith that our government works for most of the people, most of the time.
First published in Newsday.
With millions out of work, complaints about the decline in middle-class wages may seem misplaced. But without some shoring up, the middle class will remain dispirited -- and our economy, which is 70 percent dependent on consumer spending, will remain in the dumper.
It may be that there's a role for government to play in buttressing these eroding wages, which result not only in a declining standard of living, but also in a family life so pressure-filled that it leads to its own problems: angry homes, fast-food diets, dependence on alcohol and drugs.
Calling for any sort of government role during these tea party times can raise charges of socialism. But the idea of a wage that supports some minimum standard of living -- shelter, clothing, food -- has been broached on and off for more than a century.
In the late 1800s, social activists began protesting wages earned by a working-class man that were not sufficient to sustain his family, without the additional wages of working children and mothers. The Catholic Church published a fundamental social teaching, "Rerum Novarum" (on capital and labor), that read, "Wealthy owners of the means of production and employers must never forget that both divine and human law forbid them to squeeze the poor and wretched for the sake of gain or to profit from the helplessness of others."
Shortly afterward, Australia's courts ruled that an employer must pay a wage that guaranteed a standard of living that was reasonable for "a human being in a civilized community" for a family of four to live in "frugal comfort."
In the United States, these ideas led to laws forbidding child labor, making education compulsory and protecting women from exploitive labor conditions. The campaign to establish a "family wage" was defeated, but in 1938, a lower standard, the federal minimum wage, was passed.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Daniel Patrick Moynihan and in 1968, a group of 1,200 economists including Paul Samuelson and John Kenneth Galbraith, have all supported some kind of minium income guarantee.
Echoes of this debate are being heard now, in the Vatican's critique last week of the global financial system, and in places where labor unions still have some sway: In the New York City Council, which at the urging of retail workers may require employers in commercial developments built with public subsidies to pay at least $10 an hour, a "living wage" higher than the minimum wage of $7.25; and in Albany, where the State Legislature in April passed an increase to $9 an hour for home health aides, who are represented by the influential 1199 SEIU United Health Care Workers East. That increase takes effect on Long Island in 2013.
It's easy to see why the lowest-paid workers would need a boost from someone powerful enough to argue on their behalf. But to make the argument for the middle class, one has to believe that this great swath of America, nearly half the country, has special value. And it does: The stability and upward mobility of the middle class not only underpin the U.S. economy but give America its famously optimistic and innovative spirit.
That spirit is on display as the middle class makes the best of things today: The average American has added around a month's worth of work, 164 hours per year, in the last two decades. One-third of American families have reduced their savings for college, according to a 2010 Sallie Mae/Gallup poll, and another 15 percent are not saving at all. Retirement savings are in similar decline.
How much more can the middle class cinch in its belt, before we lose what's precious about this way of life?
Atop sports bleachers and inside minivans across Long Island, gloom about the economy is never very far from mind. The current generation of middle-class householders is used to the normal ups and downs of the economic cycle, but none of us is prepared for a second "down" right now -- the terrifying, rumored double dip.
Recently, as I rode with some other parents along Route 110 from Huntington through the busy Melville corridor to Farmingdale, the conversation turned to how many empty buildings we were passing. One man recalled visiting a now-vacant office center to close on the purchase of his house. A favorite wedding reception hall had been demolished. The Checkers drive-through was suddenly out of business -- open one day, and stripped of its signs the next. Even the dollar store -- maddeningly misnamed "Things Over $1" -- has closed.
How does a dollar store fail during a recession, when everyone's looking for a bargain? The unspoken fear is that perhaps this time, it's something worse.
The Week magazine recently concluded that we aren't in an ordinary economic cycle, but that Americans are in the process of paying off mountains of debt. We had grown used to living on credit, and we are now regretting having covered ourselves with piles of bills just as the economy was about to stumble. For an economy that was 70 percent propelled by consumer spending, tight home budgets are incapacitating.
Others say that the emerging economy -- outsourced and technology-dependent -- is unfavorable to the middle class. It can only benefit those at the top. While economists pull apart the numbers to make sense of it all, the middle class is endeavoring to persevere.
Many are forming new philosophies about kids and college, for example. Two years at a community college add up to a potentially employable graduate with an associate's degree. Meanwhile those same two years at a four-year institution equal, perhaps, nothing more than a college dropout with loans to repay.
One acquaintance told his high school senior that if she wanted to go to a private university, she would have to pay the difference between that tuition and SUNY's. There is praise for the child who chooses the practical -- accounting or engineering -- and a roll of the eye for liberal arts majors.
Nobody says directly that money is tight, but that thought is always lurking. Without asking if we needed it, my daughter's orthodontist offered us a financing plan. While we were school shopping, the clerk at Macy's warned that the jeans we were considering cost a whopping $89.
These small kindnesses are a balm in difficult times -- especially because the opposite coarseness so often confronts us, too. School clubs demanding payment for expensive class trips. The classmate whose outfits display Abercrombie & Fitch logos. The burgher purchasing a case of good red wine, and tipping the clerk to carry it to his Cadillac Escalade SUV.
There used to be far more class trips, designer clothes and Escalades. Or, so it seemed. The new polite is to talk cheap. Where to find the best thrift stores, and bargains at the gas pump. Good buys in used cars. Off-price movie tickets.
Because even if we aren't having financial troubles, we know many who are. The new adult horror story is the acquaintance who hopped the Long Island Rail Road to attend nine job interviews with a potential employer -- only to have the company eliminate the opening in light of more bad economic news. A divorce lawyer remarked that he used to divide up assets; now he parcels out marital debt.
Long Islanders can be resilient. But we'd like to know, how much longer?