Search This Blog

Facing and Overcoming The Looming Social Crisis

Chart from Phil Bartle's Community Empowerment Collective web site

In the United States, right now, we are seeing an economic breakdown that can potentially lead to social breakdown and chaos. Yet other than political finger-pointing, there is a lack of national dialogue in a sustained way about the problem. Everything is not OK, but we as a country maintain the veneer that it is, fueled by ivory-tower debates about the definition of "poor." Consider that:
  • The Financial Edge: According to various statistics posted at, 43% of American households' spending exceeds income; 42% don't have enough available assets to support themselves for at least three months; and 52% of employees are living "paycheck-to-paycheck." In a survey, 85% of self-identified middle-class Americans say they're worse off than a decade ago. 
  • Joblessness: According to the most recent figures (April 2012), the national unemployment rate is 8.2%.
  • The Housing Edge: The number of people living with someone for financial reasons rose by 13% between 2009-2010, to 6.8 million. The rate of increase is more than 50% between 2005-2010. Additionally, 75% of all households composed of renters living in poverty had "severe housing cost burdens." Data is from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, "State of Homelessness In America 2012." 
  • ForeclosureAccording the Mortgage Bankers Association, via 250,000 new families go into foreclosure every three months; 1 in every 200 homes will be foreclosed; and "one child in every classroom in America is at risk of losing his/her home because their parents are unable to pay their mortgage."
  • Homelessness: According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there were 636,017 homeless people in America in 2011, a slight decrease (1%) from 2009. The rate of homelessness is 21 per 10,000 people. 
  • Hunger: According to "Hunger in America: 2012 United States Hunger and Poverty Facts," a collection of statistics from various sources, 14.5% of households (1 out of 7) were "food insecure" in 2010. This is the highest number ever recorded. 
  • Lack of Insurance: In the United States, 16.3% of the population, 49.9 million people, are going without health insurance as of 2011 ("Hunger in America").
  • Poverty: In 2010, the poverty rate was 15.1%, and the number of people in poverty in the United States reached 46.9 million - the largest number since they started publishing records 52 years ago. For Hispanics and African-Americans alike, the poverty rate was more than 1 in 4. Additionally, 20.5 million Americans are in "extreme poverty," which means they earn less than $10,000 per year per family of four ("Hunger in America").
When the conditions become too much for people to bear, fundamental social change is bound to happen - whether in a nice way or a less nice way. It would be helpful if we could rely on our traditional social institutions  - government, business, religion, and so on - to facilitate a nice version of change, but this seems unlikely as long as  people are losing trust in them.

Writing at the "Community Empowerment Collective," sociologist Phil Bartle deconstructs the "Big 5" factors associated with poverty: "ignorance, disease, apathy, dishonesty, and dependency." Meaning: We don't know, we're too sick, we don't care, we steal; and we're too used to needing and taking.

Professor Bartle started his website when working in Uganda. But the factors he identifies can easily be translated to our nation. The futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard warned long ago that it is time to wake up and work together to shepherd the planet into the future. She asked then-President Eisenhower: "What is the meaning of our power that is good?"

I don't have the answer, but it's time for all of us to start thinking of solutions.

Stop Innovating

The little-known fact about innovating is that you only need a little to get the job done. The rest is hard work and teamwork.

Yet it seems all people want talk about is innovation.

My daughter said to me the other day, "Our generation doesn't respect your generation because we already know technology."

Well, OK. I heard on the news that a 15-year-old developed an early test for pancreatic cancer. I get it.

But the downside of innovation is excessive individualism. There is productivity in following. In admitting that you don't always have a better way but are happy to help the team.

Resume culture, Hollywood movie culture, etc. encourages the innovative, the rebellious, ingenuity. But really most great organizations succeed because a group of basically anonymous people work as one.

This isn't a particularly innovative thought, that we should celebrate teamwork and followership more. But as long as we waste time reinventing a wheel that already works 80 percent well, we are distracting from the substance of work that needs to be done. And that ends up draining our precious limited time and energy.