I love Thanksgiving for its illusion of abundance. It brings back early childhood memories of the one day each year during the Depression when the food on my family’s table was not the leftover produce that my Uncle Leon could no longer sell at his stall, or the nearly spoiled organ meats that our local butcher offered at a steep discount.
But Thanksgiving day was quite the opposite, and while I obviously can’t recall what was served in 1936, the year I was born, the holiday was soon seared into my childhood memory as the day when the good times looked upon us in the form of charity gift baskets from philanthropists of various religious and political orders, much like the needy will be served today in volunteer kitchens across America and just as soon will be forgotten.
It did not take long before I was old enough to realize that the largesse of Thanksgiving was the rare exception, and that “just getting by,” as my mother’s brave optimism would have it, was the norm. Getting by, thanks to Mom’s piecework in the downtown sweatshops and my mechanic father’s signing on to one of the New Deal’s public jobs programs.
Then came the economic miracle of World War II, dismissed in its day by some Republicans as Franklin Roosevelt’s treachery, and my parents and other relatives got their jobs back. The relevance of the wartime jobs to Thanksgiving in our family was that my Uncle Edward, the welder, was rewarded every year at his plant with one enormous turkey or two smaller ones.
The result was what I recall as an annual day of bloating, as if my extended family was frantically storing calories in preparation for a severe economic winter that was certain to return. But for us it didn’t return. Not with the good union jobs that abounded in the postwar boom and the opportunities provided by the GI Bill and the spread of affordable college education that made upward mobility a truly plausible American goal.
Every time I need to be reminded of what was done for my generation in the way of generous government-funded programs, I reread the part of Colin Powell’s inspiring autobiography where he writes about the educational opportunities and vigorous community support programs that postwar kids in the Bronx were afforded. Powell and I were engineering students in the same class at the City College of New York, though I didn’t get to know him until he was famous and I spoke with him as a journalist. But the great opportunities available to us, as compared to what is available to the poor today, is a recognition we share.
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I thought back to those buoyantly optimistic times at CCNY, the working-class Harvard as it was justifiably called, last week when students protesting onerous tuition hikes at the University of California got pepper-sprayed for their efforts to keep hope alive. The once excellent and very affordable UC system, like the publicly funded colleges of New York and elsewhere across the country, was the proud boast of moderate Republican and Democratic politicians who believed as did the nation’s Founders that equal opportunity leading to a land of stakeholders was the essential bedrock of America’s experiment in democracy.
No more. On this Thanksgiving we have been cheated of the bounty of that harvest as the stakes have been pulled up on 50 million Americans who have lost or soon will lose their homes. The housing crisis haunts a majority of Americans, even those who own their homes outright but have lost their jobs and must now sell in a downward-swirling housing market.
Good public education on every level, from preschool through college, is now a matter of inherited privilege reserved for those who can pick and choose affluent neighborhood settings for their children’s schools. And the prospect of affording one of those settings is dim for most parents in a country where securing a good job is beyond the reach of so many highly motivated people.
How many folks from my generation are honestly sanguine about the economic future of their children and grandchildren? What I have heard constantly, and just this week from a former top investment banker addressing a college class I teach, is that our offspring probably will face a decade of lost opportunity. I thought back to my college days and how shocked any of us, even those from the most impoverished of circumstances, would have been to hear such a prediction.
As The New York Times editorialized this Thanksgiving, “One in three Americans—100 million people—is either poor or perilously close to it.”
A bummer of a message, I know, until I think of those pepper-sprayed college students linking arms, and of all the Americans, young, old and between, who have occupied their minds with a challenge—that it doesn’t have to be this way. For their brave spirit of resistance we should be most grateful this Thanksgiving.