Hurriedly running errands to prepare for our first big snow a few weeks ago, I sat in the car with my two young sons at a stoplight. My six-year-old described a man he saw waiting near a lone bus stop pole in front of a popular Norfolk shopping plaza from the back seat. My son lamented, sad that this man had to turn a shopping cart on its side to make a seat for himself while awaiting a slow bus at a shelterless stop. I looked up at the deep, freezing storm clouds wheeling in the sky above us and forming their first icy flakes, then considered a city full of people simply struggling to take good care of themselves on a normal day. I momentarily closed my eyes and pulled a breath down into my belly, thinking:
When did America stop worrying about Americans?
As the light turned green and we kept driving, a smooth stone formed in my throat as, all the way home, we passed bus stop after bus stop littered with overturned shopping carts used as makeshift resting places. There was no getting around it: one of the world’s most powerful, abundant democracies forces taxed national citizens to fend for their basic needs in piecemeal, often dehumanizing ways. Quality public goods and services that prioritize the fundamental human right of comfort and occasional rest after a fair day’s work have disappeared. Over the decades, American citizens have become almost entirely reliant on extractive private entities (and their shopping carts)—entities that spend fortunes to lobby the government while delivering sub-par shared services and limiting citizen input and power.
At what point did we decide this was our best path forward?
- Investing In Human Happiness
Unable to let go of my curiosity around our fraught American paradigm, I went into Eleanor’s Bookshop looking for answers and picked up Heather McGee’s 2021 masterpiece The Sum of Us. I know spine-tingling is rarely a term that gets nestled beside the phrase “book about the economy,” but that’s exactly the sensation that electrified me upon cracking open the spine. The story begins somewhat unbelievably: a quasi-utopia where Americans received free college educations, affordable homeownership, and job guarantees. She describes a nation full of towns competing to build the most incredible public pools, parks, schools, libraries, and transit systems.
Then, a mind-rippling crescendo: this too-good-to-be-true America once existed.
Our nation’s robust social programs and enormous public works projects began with President Roosevelt’s New Deal and Works Progress Administration, putting 8.5 million Americans to work. The result saw a set of beautiful public amenities for the relaxation of a nation deeply weary from WWI and The Great Depression. The robust policies of the 30s, 40s, and 50s enjoyed broad bipartisan support, and our investments paid off handsomely: every $1 spent on assets like free college saw a whopping $4 return in tax revenue. These policies and efforts stoked a massive fire under the American economy that sent it roaring into the middle part of the 20th century, giving citizens more money than ever before. So successful was our investment in public and social assets that other countries scrambled to copy our democratic model.
Emerging from my fog of shock, I wondered: what on Earth could make us irrationally abandon such successful, popular policies? Did this happen here in Norfolk, too?
Keep an eye out for the next parts in this series that examine the history of our City’s leisure spaces.
West Ghent, NFK
Kayce White is a community organizer and advocate passionate about creating unique conversations via artistic and inventive mediums, with the goal of engaging citizens in important local and national civic issues.
Raised in Myrtle Beach, SC, Kayce and her family happily washed ashore in Norfolk after 11 years in Brooklyn, NY. They found a true home for their two little boys and two black cats in West Ghent, where Kayce now heads up the civic league’s safety committee. By day, she runs her sustainable home goods brand HAVEN®.