What America’s Nurses Can Tell You About the Great Economic Crisis of 2011

America is a human disaster waiting to happen. Correction, the human disaster has been under way for some time. It just hasn’t made it into the mainstream media.

The evidence is there in the facts and figures, in the measurements of wealth and poverty, in the scale of real joblessness and the misery that accompanies it. And it also evident in the harrowing testimony of those who must deal with distressing consequences for human health, the nurses of America whose job it is to care for the casualties of what is rapidly becoming the greatest economic disaster of our age.

Unemployed get a handout in the 1930's

The calamity that is coming/is already here is the product of two sets of circumstances, each of which would, by themselves, be catastrophic but whose combination is a toxic mix unequalled in nearly a century. One is a growing disparity in the share of national wealth in the United States, now at levels not seen since just before the Great Depression of the 1930’s, and the second is an economic recession whose only remedy, according to the consensus of political and media opinion, lies in policies that can only intensify that inequality. It is as if, knowing that the well is poisoned we return to fill our buckets to overflowing.

Wall Street

Consider this statistic. In 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash which heralded the Great Depression just one per cent of Americans owned 20 per cent of the wealth, that is one in every five dollars was owned by one in a hundred people. Guess what the figure was in 2010? The same one per cent now owns 24 per cent of the economy, that’s nearly a quarter of all wealth in the hands of a tiny fraction of the population.

How has this come about? Most people thought advanced economies like America’s had consigned those levels of income inequality to the dustbin of history and by policies designed to soften poverty – medicare for the elderly, medicaid for the very poor, social security for the elderly and progressive income tax with their equivalents in Europe – sought to make society fairer and the lot of most people more bearable.

That’s true. That all did happen. It came about in America, as it did in Europe, in the post-war years and this golden age, if you want to call it that, lasted until the end of the 1970’s. Social welfare programs and measures to more fairly redistribute wealth were enormously popular with most people but for the wealthy and very wealthy they were a source of resentment, anger and the biting, all-consuming desire to restore the status quo ante.

The election of Ronald Reagan in the US and the parallel election in Britain of Margaret Thatcher signaled that the status quo ante was indeed coming back to town. On the back of slogans like ‘Government is not the solution, it is the problem’, Reagan and Thatcher began clawing back all those gains made by ordinary people and returning the savings to the back pockets of those who claimed it was theirs to begin with.

Ronald Reagan & Margaret Thatcher

Tax changes, privatization, deregulation all served to strengthen the richest sections of society and impoverish most of the rest and those policies have more or less been adopted by governments of whatever ideological hue on either side of the Atlantic, by Republican and Democrat Presidents, by Labour and Conservative prime ministers.

Again the figures tell the story. In 1980, when Reagan and Thatcher came to power, one per cent of Americans owned eight per cent of the wealth. By 1990 they owned 12%, by 2000 it was 16% and it is now 24%. In 1965 the average CEO made twenty four times the wages of his workforce. By 1978 it was thirty-five times; by 1989 it was seventy-one times; by 2000 three hundred times and by 2007 it was three hundred and sixty-four times larger. Inexorably the rich have got richer, the poor poorer.

Now whenever people in America complain about figures like these they are almost sure to be accused of indulging in class warfare, something that is decried as being unAmerican. In fact class warfare is exactly what’s going on. Even Warren Buffet, America’s favorite billionaire, can see that. A few years back he was quoted in a perceptive New York Times piece about tax inequalities that favor the rich: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

It is against this background that the Wall Street-created financial crisis of 2008 happened and the consequent economic recession, now about to go into a double dip. Officially unemployment is above nine per cent and rising but the real jobless figure, which includes those who have lost hope and given up the search for work or part-timers who would like to work full-time but can’t find a job, is nearer to 18 per cent, not far off one in every five people.

The political establishment seems united on one thing. The problem of federal deficits is a more serious and urgent issue. Both major political parties are agreed on that and how to tackle it: government spending must come down. The only thing they differ on is the mix: should it be spending cuts plus tax hikes or just spending cuts. Either way an awful lot of public money is going to be taken out of the economy and the result will be an even more serious and long lasting recession, more poverty and hardship and greater inequality. Where are ye, John Maynard Keynes when we need you?

Back in the 1930’s John Steinbeck’s magnificent novel The Grapes of Wrath captured the misery and waste of the Great Depression. Ask ordinary Americans about today’s economic crisis and they will tell you, it may not be called a Great Depression but it sure as hell feels like one.

There’s no Steinbeck around today to paint the word pictures of this economic calamity in the unique way he could. But there are few people better placed to tell it as it as than America’s nurses.

This week, some eight hundred members of National Nurses United, the union that represents 170,000 of America’s Registered Nurses (RN’s) are this week holding a conference in Washington DC in an effort to highlight the growing health disaster that is overtaking the United States and to put forward a program to redraw national priorities, for jobs at living wages, access to health care, schools, decent housing and an equitable tax system. During the week they will rally outside the White House in the hope that someone, Barack Obama and/or the media, will start to take notice.

The nurses call it a health emergency, the direct consequence of the economic crisis and the worst some of them have seen in careers that have lasted forty years or more.

The health crisis is disarmingly straightforward. Not knowing if you’ll ever work again, worrying about how long the unemployment checks will come in, anxiety about children and families and sheer poverty all cause stress which in turns creates health disorders.

The nurses identify a surge in heart ailments, especially in middle-aged men, hypertension, pancreatitis, colitis, increased obesity caused by poor diets, mental illnesses like anxiety disorders, growing rates of asthma and, in America’s privatized health insurance system, an inability to pay growing premium costs and co-pays (for European readers, a co-pay is like an insurance deductible) as all the consequence of the Wall Street recession. And many of the nurses are sharing the problems they see their patients suffering.

This is what they say:

“Every day patients call me to say that are putting off a procedure, like a colonoscopy, because they cannot afford the co-pay. Employers change the terms of health insurance coverage, raising costs to workers, and many do not know it’s happened until they show up in need of care and are shocked and unable to pay. People are working harder than ever, two or even three jobs to make ends meet. Often it’s tied to a problem in the household or extended family—unemployment or sickness. Men in their 50s, engineers who were laid off and living in my community, have given up looking for work.  There is nothing out there.” – NNU Co-president Deborah Burger, RN.

Deborah Burger

“People are going without care at a time when stress-related illnesses are up. Mental illness is enormous and largely untreated. We see extreme angst in children—serious anxiety disorders. They are worried about whether mom and dad have jobs and they hear the talk about losing the house. Patients cannot afford to be out of work, so they are coming to work ill and with symptoms.” – Jean Ross, RN, a NNU co-president. 

Jean Ross

“Stress-induced illnesses are growing—gut disorders in people of all ages, even kids. It is all stress from economic circumstances. RNs are scared and nervous.  Some are single moms, others have laid off spouses, and their paycheck is critical.  Many work an extra shift or two to get by. Many of us have to put off retirement. We are back involved in the lives of our parents because they are aging and vulnerable and do not have the resources to get by.” – NNU Co-president Karen Higgins, RN.

Karen Higgins

Welcome to Barack Obama’s America.

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2 responses to “What America’s Nurses Can Tell You About the Great Economic Crisis of 2011

  1. Pingback: Nurses on the Frontlines of Compassion : The Bobbosphere

  2. Pingback: Nurses on the Frontlines of Compassion: Past & Present | Nurses Aide

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