Century Marks

Century Marks

Welfare “reform”

The food stamp program seems to have worked well during the recent recession. The number of recipients has increased by about 30 percent. Welfare, since it was "reformed" in 1996, is another matter. Getting through the hoops to receive assistance from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families is difficult and the decisions can be arbitrary. Some recipients have called it the "Torture and Abuse of Needy Families" program. One couple was told that to qualify they must each apply for 40 jobs a week, even though their car was in disrepair and they had no money for gas or babysitting (Barbara Ehrenreich's afterword to the 2011 edition of Nickel and Dimed).

Job change

Typical mid-level college graduates today can expect to change employers 12 times over the course of a lifetime and change skill sets at least three times. By the time they reach 40, they will not be able to rely on the skills they learned in school. With so much fluidity in employment, loyalty between worker and employer will diminish. "Modern capitalism is turning everyone into a work migrant, and many into work exiles," says sociologist Richard Sennett. Amid so much change, it will be difficult for people to have a sense of a coherent life (Hedgehog Review, summer).

Day the music died

The long tradition of English hymnody has nearly reached a point of extinction, says Angli­can church organist Jeremy Nicholas. Until several decades ago, British schools began the day with an assembly or chapel in which hymns were sung. Due to multifaith sensitivities, that practice has been disbanded, and most youth don't go to church. When couples plan their weddings, they haven't a clue what to sing and will ask Nicholas for suggestions. They totally miss his humor when he tells them what not to sing: "Fight the good fight," "O Jesus, I have promised to serve you till the end" and "Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways" (Gramophone, March).

History isn’t past

Civil war historian James M. McPherson argues that the Civil War did more to shape America than the Revolutionary War. Two percent of the population was killed during that war. A comparable figure today would be 6 million Americans dead. The war reshaped the balance of power between the federal government and the states. The first 11 of 12 amendments to the Constitution put limits on the power of the federal government. After the Civil War six of the next seven amendments enhanced the power of Congress. The issues of that war are still with us, says McPherson, "matters of race and citizenship; regional rivalries; the relative powers and responsibilities of federal, state and local governments." The symbolism of the Confederate flag can still arouse deep passions on both sides (Wilson Quarterly, summer).

Insufficient funds

In 1948, the year of his bar mitzvah, Michael Walzer's parents took him to a Jewish fund-raising banquet. After an impassioned lecture by a guest speaker, pledge cards were distributed with the expectation that they would be filled out on the spot. The owner of one of the most prominent stores in town, who knew every family's financial status, reviewed the pledges. If he thought someone wasn't pledging enough, he'd tear up the card and pass it back. The meaning of the Hebrew word tzedakah (charity or justice) suggests that giving is an act of both charity and justice, says Walzer. To not give what you're capable of giving to the poor is tantamount to taking something from them (Foreign Affairs, July/August).