Hideous choices now urgently confront the countries of Europe as they flounder in deep waters, borne down toward drowning by the inexorably growing weight of human misery cascading into and over them from Africa and Asia. Solutions are not even imaginable, especially when so few recognize the root causes. [See “The Choice Worse than Sophie’s,” “A Tsunami of Climate Refugees is Drowning Europe.”] What even fewer will admit is that a refugee crisis of similar intensity is coming to America. In a sense, it is already here.
The refugee crisis now gestating in the United States is not one of desperate brown people pouring over our southern border,
nor even of desperate snow bunnies crashing our northern boundary, although one of the candidates for Captain of the Titanic thinks we should consider a wall on the Canadian border. The people who will constitute our next tsunami of misery, its like not seen since the days of the Dust Bowl, are citizens, already here, their misery steadily approaching the intolerable. Soon, because they have to, they will start to move.
If you want to count them, get to know them, begin with the 94 million people who have vanished from the American work force. Each month, the don’t-worry-be-happy bean counters of our government report, as they just did for August, the “creation” of a robust 173,000 jobs, resulting in a healthy contraction of the unemployment rate — the proportion of those who do not have jobs compared with those who are available for work — of 5.1%. The economy is coming back! It’s morning in America!
Except that while 173,000 jobs became available, 251,000 adults left the labor force. A minority of them retired, or went to school, but for most of them the move was not voluntary. Their unemployment benefits ran out, they are too discouraged and broke to continue the fruitless duplication of resumes, and so, by government definition, they have vanished from the pool of potentially available workers. They are un-people now.
There are 94 million of them. Their number has increased by nearly two million in one year; by almost 15 million since the last good year, 2007.
I met one of the non-people a while ago, gave him a ride to town, seven miles from his trailer home. For months he had been walking there — he could not afford to license his ancient pickup truck — every single weekday, looking for work. He had been a heavy equipment operator in construction, but has not had a regular job in seven years. He has no front teeth because he could not afford the root canals that would have saved them. His wife is ill, and while that does bring them a disability pittance once a month, they experience hunger every month. One of their close friends and neighbors takes her to medical appointments, and grocery shopping, when necessary — and charges her $30 for the favor. I came to know him as a good, reliable and knowledgeable worker. His desperation has not yet turned to anger. Not yet.
Did I mention there are at least 94 million of him?
People who “vanish” from the labor pool, and/or become homeless, mail-deprived and often phoneless, often become invisible as well to the agencies and institutions that are designed to help them. A recent book documenting the lack of a safety net for such people identified 1.5 million households, inhabited by 3 million children, whose total cash income per person per day during 2011, including public assistance, was no more than $2. For those disconnected from the job market, the authors say, there is virtually no help.
Then there is the thing we in America share with all the countries of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia whose people are now crashing into Europe: growing, spreading, intensifying drought. The western third of the United States is experiencing the worst drought in a millennium, and a consequent water crisis worse than anything in our history. Large agricultural areas (California’s Central Valley, to name just one) and some major cities (Las Vegas and Phoenix, to start) are seeing the water supplies that make them habitable vanish. When the water is gone, like the farmers of Syria after 85% of their animals dies of thirst, the population of these places will start to move.
Where are you going to build that fence, Donald?