More Americans are suffering than at any time since the Great Depression, due to rampant unemployment and the ensuing spiral that leads to hunger and homelessness, and then affects health, education, crime and other essential pieces of our social fabric.
The official unemployment tally is about 14.5 million, but when you add to that number those who have simply given up looking for jobs and those working part-time because they can't find full-time jobs, the real figure approaches 30 million.
How did we let this happen? Why have we done so little to correct it? One explanation came in a recent commentary by Rush Limbaugh that laid out a rationale for people who still have a job, food and a roof overhead, and who seek to justify their callous disregard for those less fortunate.
Limbaugh, who speaks to millions on radio and influences many more when his remarks rebound on cable-TV and the Internet, titled his piece "Life Is Not Fair." He tees up a premise that on the surface seems so axiomatic that it rings true on both sides of the aisle: life isn't always fair; in fact, it's often brutally unfair.
"Sometimes people earn more than others," says Limbaugh, easing into a lengthy recitation of life's inequities. "Some people have children when other people can't. There's nothing unfair about that. That's just the way it is."
Limbaugh goes on to talk about those "who work in trash and sludge all day long and don't make much money," and those unlucky enough to be killed by drunk drivers, all because life isn't fair. He postulates, "there's no way that you can change certain aspects that make life unfair to make them fair."
But two things eventually come clear in Limbaugh's dissertation that shed light on a troubling perspective shared by an increasing number of Americans and their elected representatives. The first is to extend the argument about basic bad luck to conditions such as unemployment, suggesting that being jobless or homeless is simply a part of life's fundamental unfairness. The second is to use the first as justification for society's failure to act responsibly and help those who need it.
Being poor or sick, according to Limbaugh, "doesn't mean that somebody owes you something. It doesn't mean that you're a victim of anything. It's just called life."
Well, it doesn't get more fundamental than that -- the question that for so long has separated conservatives and progressives and now, in difficult times, seems more divisive than ever. To what extent are we responsible for each other's basic well-being?
Limbaugh's answer follows the classic bootstrap theme: "Some people think they have no control over their lives. They are constant victims that are always looking to blame everybody else for what doesn't go right in their lives. Other people don't have time for that. They realize they only have one life and every day is something to seize, to make the most of."
Limbaugh concedes, "this is not going to go down well among people who have this notion that fairness is the overriding objective of any society."
That's devastatingly blunt. It's one thing to deny our obligation to those less fortunate, it's something else to claim that "fairness" is not our "overriding objective."
When you peel away Limbaugh's arguments, even the seemingly irrefutable elements become weak. Wouldn't "good luck" in finding a job come to more people if we spent more on education? Wouldn't "bad luck" at the hands of drunk drivers happen less if we spent more on building safer cars and enforcing laws to keep drunks off the roads?
Sometimes it seems that zealots like Rush Limbaugh and those like him at both ends of the political spectrum have become so entangled in a web of their own words that they say things they couldn't possibly believe. I wish that were the case here. But as the suffering of so many Americans goes unchecked, as the nation splits more severely into "us" and "them," I fear that Limbaugh's view is becoming more widespread.
Life can be unfair; we all know that. More than ever it's our responsibility to figure out what to do about it.
Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker. He's also the long-time host of "Candid Camera." He may be reached at: www.CandidCamera.com. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. newspaper syndicate.