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Progress for African Americans? Yes, and No

Progress for African Americans? Yes, and No

All the discussions today of how much racial progress we’ve made since Dr. Martin Luther King was alive reminded me of a disturbing point about the black−white health gap mentioned in recent research, some of which I discussed in an Atlantic essay over the weekend.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, African Americans have been catching up with whites in terms of life expectancy at birth. So things are looking up, right?

Yes, and no. To a sizeable extent, what explains the narrowing of the life-expectancy gap in the last couple decades is not just that things are better for African Americans (though they have improved), but also that things are worse for whites—working-class whites above all.

Mazatlán

Mazatlán

The sun was sinking, the day finally ending. I sat on the beach in Mazatlán, propped against my pack, swim trunks still damp under my jeans. At this hour, the beach was empty.

The night before I'd stopped in Mazatlán, a city on Mexico’s northwestern coast, to break up the long bus trip from Tijuana to Guadalajara. Back in Seattle, the Sunday travel section had made the place sound like paradise. All I’d found was a gloomy hotel room, an ocean too hot for swimming, Gila monsters splashing in an open sewer nearby, and a couple of scrawny teenagers humping alongside a broken concrete path near the beach.

The bus to Guadalajara would arrive in an hour, but I didn’t feel like waiting in the bus station. I opened up a book and started reading on the beach.

Best of In The Fray 2015

Best of In The Fray 2015

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Don't Blame Canada If They're Doing What America Should Be Doing

Don’t Blame Canada If They’re Doing What America Should Be Doing

I wrote an essay that appeared in the Atlantic yesterday. Based on the research for my book on unemployment, the piece talks about the debate over Denmark in last week's Democratic presidential debate—and how the real debate should be over Canada:

Clearly, America won’t expand its social safety net to anywhere near the scale of Denmark’s over the next president’s time in office. Judging from their rhetoric in the debate, though, Clinton and Sanders both agree that government can and should play an important role in extending economic opportunities more broadly. Canada’s approach to policy shows us some of the practical ways a country can do that—without having to go far from our roots as a New World society of dreamers and strivers.

Page 99 of My New Book on Unemployment

Page 99 of My New Book on Unemployment

I participated in Marshal Zeringue's Page 99 Test at the Campaign for the American Reader. The blog is based on a quote by the writer Ford Madox Ford: "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you." New authors talk about the ninety-ninth page of their book and what it says about its larger themes. Here's what I wrote about my book Cut Loose:

Page 99 talks about how the unemployed deal with the depression and anxiety that come from losing part of their identities. Work is central to our sense of self—it’s often the first question we ask someone we meet—and during the workday we build friendships that sustain us throughout our lives. Many of the people I interviewed felt isolated. Friends could no longer relate. Relationships with spouses and children became strained. Unable to provide the way they used to, they found themselves mired in blame and doubts.

Op-Ed on the Fight for a $15 Minimum Wage

Op-Ed on the Fight for a $15 Minimum Wage

Newsday has published an essay of mine that puts the fight for a $15 minimum wage within the big-picture context of my new book, Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy.

Futures for the Middle Class

Futures for the Middle Class

This week, after 167 years, the futures trading pits in Chicago closed down. Computers now handle the work that shouting traders flashing hand signals used to do. I was struck by this part of the story:

“What’s also disappearing is a rich culture of brazen bets, flashy trading jackets and kids just out of high school getting a shot at making it big. The pits were a ruthless place, but they were also a proving ground where education and connections counted for nothing next to drive and, occasionally, muscle.…”

America: A Country without a Cuisine

America: A Country without a Cuisine

In the United States, where I was born and raised, our relationship to food today seems more distant from our surroundings than ever. We Americans consistently lead the world’s wealthy nations in obesity. Have we forgotten how to nourish ourselves? Where and when did we lose our way?

The co-owner and executive chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Dan Barber, offers one theory on America’s problem: it doesn’t have a cuisine. “All cuisines evolved out of a negotiation that the peasants were making with the landscape,” Barber explained in an interview. “Now what could the landscape provide? And how could they make it nutritious and delicious in terms of a diet? That’s the genesis of every cuisine.” In other words, a cuisine is not just a style of cooking; it's “a pattern of eating that supports what the landscape can provide.”

Debunking the Myth of Self-Made Success

Debunking the Myth of Self-Made Success

Here is a short piece I wrote recently for a Zócalo Public Square discussion on the question "Is Rising Inequality Slowly Poisoning Our Democracy?" The discussion included experts from the Brennan Center for Justice, Cato Institute, Economic Policy Institute, and Georgetown University Center on Poverty and Inequality.

When Michael Young coined the term “meritocracy” half a century ago, he meant it to be an insult, not an ideal. In his view, a society where only the best and brightest can advance would soon become a nightmare. Young predicted that democracy would self-destruct as the talented took power and the inferior accepted their deserved place at the bottom.

Of course, the world we live in today is still no meritocracy. If most Americans are expected to go it alone, without the help of government or unions, elites continue to block competitors and manipulate the rules—as Wall Street did in spectacular fashion in the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis.

The Big Picture of Baltimore, Ferguson, and North Charleston

The Big Picture of Baltimore, Ferguson, and North Charleston

When an unarmed black man dies after a confrontation with police, there is a natural tendency to focus on racist police officers or racist police departments. We saw this after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and we saw it, too, after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Walter Scott in North Charleston. Without a doubt, there are plenty of bigoted bad apples to be found, as seen in the shockingly racist emails unearthed in the Department of Justice investigation into Ferguson’s police department. But we also need to consider that big picture, or what sociologists call social structure: institutions like the economy and political system and the roles that people take up within them. After all, the modern-day factors pushing down poor African American communities—and pulling them into hostile encounters with police—involve more than just racial discrimination (or at least discrimination of the plain-vanilla variety).

Call for Submissions: Free Speech

In The Fray magazine is looking for essays, reportage, and photo essays that have something to say about free speech—its importance and its limits, its necessity and its consequences. When does cultural sensitivity become excessive political correctness and censorship? To what extent does free speech make a democracy more vibrant, and to what extent does it make a culture more hateful?

Foraging for Bits of Home

Foraging for Bits of Home

When I was growing up in suburban Maryland, every fall would bring a familiar sound. Thud, thud, thud!—chestnuts falling in their hardy armor. My mom and I would gather them up and roast them. I loved peeling away the smooth veneer and eating the sweet, still-warm fruit nestled inside, like nature’s Ferrero Rocher.

I was not, however, so fond of the way in which we procured our chestnuts.

My mom hunted for them on suburban lawns. This was during the nineties—before foraging was a way of life, before it entered the lexicon of popular (now mainstream) “foodie” movements, before bearded chefs in Brooklyn were cooking local and seasonal. My mom and I wandered into people’s yards, into patches of wooded private land, and picked up chestnuts by the plastic shopping bagful.

“Mom, this is probably illegal,” I would tell her, hoping my protests would get me out of the chore. What if someone I knew from school saw us? Would they think we were poor, that we couldn't afford food from a store?