Why are so many Americans struggling?


The Great Risk Shift

By Jacob S. Hacker

Oxford University Press, 2006

Hardcover, 256 pp., $26.

Jacob Hacker examines a situation most Americans now face in their daily lives — growing economic insecurity.

He describes the insecurity as “elusive” because there is not yet a single, overall analysis that shows “how more and more economic risk has been offloaded by government and corporations onto the increasingly fragile balance sheets of workers and their families.”

Hacker calls this change “the Great Risk Shift.” He argues this shift is at the root of rising anxiety over economic security.

The New Deal reforms of the 1930s committed this nation to some financial security and a safety net of social programs to aid families facing hardship. They included Social Security, unemployment insurance, welfare assistance, traditional guaranteed pensions and more. And later, Medicaid and Medicare.

Today, Hacker observes, “You are on your own.”

Health insurance has been drastically cut, government programs have been eliminated or severely curtailed, and most traditional pensions are gone. New bankruptcy laws are reducing many debtors to near-indentured-servant status.

Right-wing ideologues welcome us to the “ownership society” in which working people end up owning all of the problems of this radical, unregulated, free-market capitalist society.

Hacker says the present crisis dates back to the policies of the Reagan administration in the 1980s.

He notes, “Over the past two decades, the corporate and government policies that once provided a basic foundation of economic security for American workers and their families have run headlong into a collection of beliefs, institutions and advocates I call the Personal Responsibility Crusade.”

The result has been the unloading of risk onto the backs of those who can least afford to bear it. Hacker charges the architects of this ideological campaign foresaw the end result, but chose to conceal their plans behind humane sounding slogans.

Employment and health care have been hit hard by the rightist attack. America’s relatively low official unemployment rate hides the extent of workplace insecurity, as growing numbers of U.S. workers are being displaced from their jobs with little or no prospect of finding other jobs offering similar pay and a middle-class life style.

Every 30 seconds “someone files a bankruptcy claim that’s due in part to medical costs and crises,” and in most cases that person was working and had health insurance.

The U.S. has no bankruptcy protection for medical debts. Much of the blame for the health care crisis rests with health insurance companies who are dedicated to large profit margins, high co-payments and deductibles, and minimal payouts for health care services.

Efforts to reform health care have faced vicious, well-financed attacks from the medical-industrial lobbyists who ignore the fact that health care is a social necessity and not an optional luxury.

Hacker provides informed insight into the social, economic and political factors that have placed working Americans at their greatest risk since the 1920s. He argues there is substantial public support for government programs that promote economic opportunity and security, if there is the political will to advance them.

He speaks to the heart of the problem and clearly demonstrates that the current crisis is the result of a cleverly thought-out economic assault on working Americans to deprive them of nearly every risk protection program since the Great Depression. The work lends a clearer understanding of why so many Americans are struggling and suffering under the so-called GOP ownership society, and is a useful tool in countering right-wing policies.