In his first address from the oval office, President Barack Obama described the oil spill as “the worst environmental disaster America has faced” and a “crisis”.
The oil spill is devastating and indeed it is a major crisis that will have long term consequences for the gulf coast and its residents for years and probably decades to come.
There is another spill, however, that is approaching crisis proportions that could have far greater consequences for the entire United States and for the future of America. It is the human spill. The human spill is the un- and under-employed, the under-compensated, and the working poor in the United States.
The oil spill has been and is highly visible. Every day we see tens of thousands of barrels of oil gushing from the Deep Water site, images of tar balls on beaches, and heart-wrenching pictures of sea gulls and other wild-life covered in oil.
The human spill has been and is primarily invisible. We get unemployment statistics on a monthly basis and an occasional feature piece but we don’t get ongoing coverage of this crisis on a daily basis.
There are many reasons for this. A primary one is that, as with the oil spill, the full dimensions of the human spill have been seriously under-estimated. Just before President Obama’s address, government scientists announced that the Deep Water site could be leaking as many as 60,000 or more barrels a day. This compares to an original estimate in the 5,000 barrels range.
Official government reports estimate that unemployment in the United States since the first of the year has stood at close to 10 percent. That statistic significantly understates the dimensions of this crisis.
If those who have dropped out of the job-seeking market or who are under-employed are included, this number becomes closer to 20 percent or 1 in 5 Americans. If those employed as temporary workers or working reduced hours or at reduced wages are added into the equation, the number increases to at least 25 percent, or 1 in 4 Americans of working age. Some estimates are that as many as 1/3 of American families are living in highly distressed conditions.
Unfortunately, as with the calculations of the oil seeping into the gulf, these top-line statistics don’t even begin to tell the whole story of the human toll being wreaked by this crisis. Almost 7 million Americans have been unemployed for more than 6 months. 1 out of 8 Americans are on food stamps. Income inequality is at the highest level since it has been measured. Home foreclosures continue at a record pace. There has been an unexplained increase in suicides among those in the 45-54 age cohort.
The human spill in the United States is virtually omnipresent. It affects nearly every area, age cohort, and ethnic group. Still, the plight of those affected is being largely ignored or tolerated and viewed as acceptable. The question is why is this so? Although there are many reasons, the one that overshadows all others is that the concerns of those who are part of the human spill are not a top priority for those in positions of political power and influence.
From the time that he entered office, the four key elements on the President’s domestic agenda have been health care, education, the environment, and energy. Republicans in the Congress of late have taken to obsessing over the budget deficit and national debt. So much so, that they want to start balancing the budget on the backs of those long-term unemployed by denying them supplemental benefits. Democrats have shown a stronger inclination to address long-term unemployment issue through extended benefits and a modest emphasis on job creation. But, in the main, they have been loath to confront the crisis in a major way. If the polls and pundits are to be believed that’s because it could cost them at the ballot box in the November elections – no profiles in courage there. Finally, the Federal Reserve Bank still seems infatuated with attempting to right the nation’s financial ship rather than improving its economic ship.
The sad fact of the matter is that few leaders in government speak or stand for those who are becoming disenfranchised from what once was the American mainstream. Is it any wonder that a recent Pew Research Center survey disclosed that the three groups in the United States that received less attention than they should from the federal government were: the middle class, poor people, and small businesses?
We need to correct this attention deficit disorder. The President could initiate this process through a second oval office address. In that speech, he could announce that even though he declared war on the oil spill in his earlier address, the real war that we have to win is the war on the human spill.
The reason for that is simple the human spill engulfs the entire United States and not just a region of the country – by winning that war we win the battle in the gulf as well. After making that announcement, the President should lay out a specific plan for dealing with this crisis spelling out the steps to be taken to ensure the proper preparation, involvement and execution to prevail in this must-win battle.
BP drilled in deep water without properly preparing and it appears that it will now pay some of the price for that. The United States is in deep water and many of our citizens are underwater as a result of it today. If a plan is not created and implemented with a fierce sense of urgency immediately, we will all pay the price in terms of the future of America and the American Dream.
Frank Islam, George Munoz and Ed Crego are co-authors of Renewing the American Dream: A Citizen’s Guide for Restoring Our Competitive Advantage to be released on July 4, 2010. The book provides a systematic assessment of America’s current condition and detailed recommendations for citizen involvement in addressing it. Islam heads his own investment group and serves on the advisory committee for the Export Import Bank. Munoz chairs the Munoz Investment Advisory Group and was formerly President of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. Crego is a management consultant specializing in strategic planning, customer focus and organizational transformation.