Sustainable Prosperity and the American Dream

The TakeAway: What can the sustainability movement in the US do to address chronic unemployment and record levels of poverty?

Sustainability hinges not only on environmental stewardship and social justice (the higher-profile defining aspects of the term), but also on economic prosperity.  Unfortunately, the collapse of the financial house-of-cards system (built on subprime sleight-of-hand and foreclosure fraud) has rocked the foundation of our economy.  In the US, record-level poverty and chronic joblessness, which now affects 14.8 million, has stalled the economy, and challenge the fundamental assumptions at the heart of the American dream.  The question: what can the sustainability movement do to promote economic prosperity (the third leg of John Elkington’s Triple Bottom Line concept that translated “sustainable development” from UN-speak into practical terms)?  What are your suggestions and opinions?  We would like to see if we can generate some discussion and crowd-sourced answers.

Last night, 60 Minutes ran a sobering segment on long-term unemployment, which has hovered at about 9.5 percent for 14 months, causing Congress finally to extend unemployment benefits to 99 weeks, through the end of November.  Of course, this does not take into account those people who’ve seen their hours cut to part time (often for lower pay), or have stopped looking for work altogether.  When you count them, the number jumps to 17 percent nationally—it’s 22 percent in California.  At least 1.5 million American have exhausted their unemployment checks, and one-third of all unemployed Americans have been out of work for more than a year—problems evoking the Great Depression.

60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley went to Silicon Valley to talk with 99ers, the nickname for jobless people facing the day when unemployment benefits run out.  At a “Job Connections” meeting in a church, Pelley surveyed the number of jobless with PhDs (4 or 5), Master’s degrees (40 or more) and Bachelor’s degrees (nearly everyone present).  (Nationally, nearly 20 percent of the unemployed have college degrees, while college graduates enter the worst job market in decades.)  One former fiber optics engineering manager said he’d spent the last two years applying for jobs. “I’ve gone through the tier-one companies.  I’ve gone through the tier-two companies and now I’m down to Target.  I just got a job offer from Target to work a part-time job at $9.50 or $9.25 an hour,” he explained.  He told 60 Minutes he was taking the Target job, and was glad to get it—lest he spiral further from his former economic stability into the new reality of poverty afflicting more and more.

Last month, the US Census Bureau released shocking figures on poverty levels: 14.3% in 2009, or 43.6 million people, the highest since 1959.  In other words, one in seven lives below the poverty line.  And the problem stands to get much worse before it gets better, according to The Brookings Institution’s Isabel Sawhill and Emily Monea.  They estimate poverty rates will continue to climb, reaching a high of about 16% by 2014 and remaining there for the rest of the decade.  This means another 10 million in the US, including 6 million children, will land in poverty—and the numbers could be higher.  “The Census Bureau is now considering publication of a supplemental poverty measure beginning in 2011 that… may paint an even more dismal picture for many groups,” say Sawhill and Monea.

Slowly, government has responded.  After the struggle to extend unemployment benefits Congress renewed its efforts to provide further funding.  In August, Nevada Representative Shelley Berkeley filed HR 6091, and Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenaw introduced S. 3706, The Americans Want to Work Act, which would extend emergency unemployment benefits.  But what is the sustainability movement doing to promote economic prosperity and justice?

We see some efforts, such as the work of the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy, but surely there must be more work addressing the economic leg of the Triple Bottom Line stool happening here in the US.  Please open our eyes by adding examples of initiatives advancing economic prosperity and justice domestically – or innovative ideas not currently being pursued – to the comment stream below.

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5 Responses to Sustainable Prosperity and the American Dream

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  2. Although perhaps mostly at the margins, the US might begin to build in more sustainability by encouraging worker co-ops or hybrid models involving significant worker ownership and participation in managing excess capacity resources. Instead of shipping more jobs overseas, the development of cooperatives modeled after Italy’s Emilia Romagna and Spain’s Mondragon systems may provide an opportunity for laid-off workers to compete. Such systems have been found to be significantly more productive based on the greater enterprise commitment of employees with a real stake in corporate success.

    Unlike Google, Dow and other international companies, they are also less likely to use tax tax avoidance schemes, pollute their local environment or layoff workers.

  3. Jennifer says:

    The really sad thing about the Scott Pelley report on 60 minutes was that it was filled with hopelessness. We, the long term unemployed have or are fast losing all hope of a recovery. It is true, if you saw the piece, that none of us expect the bill to extend unemployment compensation past 99 weeks, to pass — EVER. Did you also notice that all of those people were over 50 years old? We are unemployable even with mad excellent skills — problem I think is that we look old … and tired… and the perception is, we have lost our mojo — regardless of whether or not this is true. It’s scary. We’ve grown, we are not stuck in the 1960’s but I think that is the perception. I want to work. Someone please, throw me a lifeline.

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