When ordinary people start talking politics and change, you know something is happening out there. This morning, I stopped off to order new glasses on my way to work. The woman I was sitting with — we'll call her Evelyn — made small talk as she measured for fit. "So what are you doing today?" I told her I was on my way to work, and pointed to my Real Change hat, and she lit up and congratulated me for leading a life that matters.
"There's a lot of very vulnerable people out there," I said.
"I know," she said. "I have friends who work in public health, and they all say how little is available, and how hard it is to find the help people need."
"Yeah. From where they sit, it's pretty obvious how broken things are. But everyone is feeling more vulnerable. Inequality keeps widening, and middle-class people are being hit hard as well."
"It's all we talk about here," she said.
"Tell me about it."
"We have people working here who have families, and they're having a really hard time just keeping up on their house payments. I filled my tank this week and it was almost $50. Proctor & Gamble just announced that they were raising their prices 16% across the board. These are basics that you have to buy, and everything else is going up too. People are afraid of losing their homes."
""One of the things I always talk about is how we know how to solve homelessness because we've solved it before with the economic programs that kept the Hoovervilles from reappearing after the war. These were programs that built the middle class. Education through the GI bill. Public housing. FHA loans that fueled the housing boom. Public works programs to build infrastructure. An agreement between government, big business, and labor that no one would be too greedy and that supporting the public good was a mutual goal. This led to thirty years of declining inequality and steady economic growth. Now, we've had thirty years of growing inequality, and people have been pushed about as far as they can go."
She looked at me through the large, squarish, peach frames that perfectly accented her auburn hair and attractive slightly rounded face.
"And now," she said, talking faster, "they're starting to go after things like free speech. The things that make America America. They can't let go of power, and everyone's on the make." She paused. "And it's both Democrats and Republicans."
"Yeah. It's a corrupt culture, and everybody knows it. Although I have to say that I'm throughly enjoying Ted Stevens in Alaska. He's what, 84? End of the road dude!"
She laughed and looked at my paperwork. "How old are you?"
"Well, I'm 57. And I know how things change. I was going to the marches and protests in high school, and we changed things. There was the women's movement, and what happened with blacks. We protested and organized and things moved."
"That's what I think is so important about Obama," I offered. "He's a politician, but he understands the role of citizens' movements. He creates hope and raises expectations. Richard Nixon was a law & order conservative Republican, but by today's standards, his Great Society program was practically socialism. And it was because of the social movements you're talking about. When the pressure builds from below, politicians have to respond."
She offered to clean up my glasses and disappeared for a moment to the back. When she returned, she sat across the small table and looked into my smudge free lenses. "You know, people feel small. They feel bad about themselves when they think they're not making it. But now, they're getting mad."
"I think this is what happens. For awhile, people think it's about their own failure. And then they start looking around and see that no one else is really making it either, and that it's the system that's failing. It's harder and harder to hold onto being middle class, much less become middle class. People are starting to push back."
"People are barely hanging on," she said. "No one has any savings. There's no margin for error anymore, and people are scared. It's all we talk about."
We were wrapping up. It was time to go.
"I'm hearing these conversations everywhere," I said. "At bus stops. In thrift stores. Over in fruit & vegetables at the supermarket. Everywhere."
"So am I," she said.
"Things are changing. It's in the air."
"Thanks Tim," she smiled. "You've made my day."