America In Crisis

9/11, Recession, H1N1 Flu

By Emanuel Boussios

Is America in crisis? A profound argument has been made that in the last eight years, America has been deep in crises affecting all realms of our livelihood from personal safety to personal health: 9/11, the Great Recession, and the swine flu pandemic. For example, data from the current US Census indicates that the recession has done much to effect the way of life of Americans: more people are delaying marriage and purchasing homes, more are carpooling yet traffic has worsened, and less people are migrating to new cities. Are these events harsh crises or actual opportunities? I would argue that these crises have presented an opportunity for Americans to “rethink” their way of life — in particular when it comes to security, finances and health — perhaps for the better. How is this possible?

First, how about the Great Recession? The balance sheets of many Americans have been hard hit. In response to their shrinking savings pool, senior citizens and near-retirees have been forced to scale back their way of living, some have chosen to retire later, and many retirees have re-entered the work force. Recent data from the US Census has shown that nearly 15.5% of Americans 65 and over (6.1 million) were in the labor force — up from 15% in 2007. Many mid-age or new workers have been coerced into substandard salaries or taking employment positions that, in normal economic conditions, would be unattractive to them.

In this economy, many working professionals are left with the prospect of low-paid unskilled work, if available, and large debts. According to the US Department of Education, even many university and college students have extended their stay in academia for fear of the job market.

Consumer spending has been hit as well, showing a severe decline in the past year. Although in the most recent assessment there has been an uptick in this reading of the economy, the fear is, any further strain in this critical element of the economic cog could worsen any improvement seen in the US economy in the short-term.

Out of this crisis, however, are opportunities. Since more Americans have decided to either stay in school longer or to return to school this has created a “more educated” America. In addition, Americans have been tightening the belt on their discretionary spending, creating what appears to be a more budget conscious America a phenomena reminiscent of the Great Depression. Perhaps then, Americans have learned to spend less then they actually earn?

Second, how real is this swine flu pandemic? According to the Center for Disease Prevention and Control, existing reports suggest of approximately 50,000 cases, the virus has caused more than 600 deaths and more than 9,000 hospitalizations since first being identified in April. This is a staggering number, given that these cases consist of nearly one-fifth of all the reported cases of the swine flu worldwide. Western nations, in response, have rushed in creating a swine flu vaccine which is due to appear in late October. The new vaccine is debuting at a time when the World Health Organization has predicted a second wave of the swine flu to occur as the heavily populated northern hemisphere edges towards the flu-thriving cooler season.

Although the public focus on this pandemic has subsided to a degree, schools, malls, hospitals and even many public spaces have placed a sharper focus on maintaining strict hygiene measures and, in some cases, have closed operations temporarily due to an immediate threat. Some government agencies have initiated awareness programs, i.e. television ads, educating their citizenry of the dangers of the swine flu and the need for precautionary measures. In response, many Americans have placed a premium on maintaining heightened hygienic standards in their daily routines and have become more health conscious.

Third, let’s discuss 9/11. There is no doubt that this crisis has dramatically reshaped security measures in this country, and perhaps the argument can be made for most of the world. What has transpired since then, and has continued to develop, is a focus on potential terrorist threats. One can argue on how this is different from previous Cold War nuclear threats, is this emphasis on protecting borders, airports, malls, bridges, tunnels, stadiums and even parking lots from external threats — encompassing biological, chemical, nuclear and other bomb-style threats (i.e. the anthrax scare shortly after 9/11). For a time after 9/11, American tourism had been at a standstill. Since then, the dramatic nature of the ‘immediate’ terrorist threat has subsided. Yet, it is clear that Americans have become more security conscious and are willing to accept a substantial compromise to their rights in order for officials to better “control” these threats.

For some, these crises have been another unnecessary struggle to endure. Others may see a slight silver lining in these difficult struggles, that there has been a raise of consciousness among Americans in three distinct ways: security, finances, and health. Americans have shown resolve in these difficult and tense moments, and have shown an increasing concern to place a premium on security, in maintaining a more balanced savings-and-spending lifestyle, and placing a sharper focus on sanitation and proper hygiene. Although the hysteria around these crises are given due attention, it is critical to recognize as well that America has changed. The degree of this change is perhaps much more substantial than anyone may have expected: a dramatic alteration of the lifestyle of Americans in the new millennium.

Emanuel G. Boussios is a professor of sociology at Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2009

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