Former New York Times opinion columnist Herbert (Promises Betrayed: Waking Up from the American Dream, 2005) reports on his cross-country trip investigating the lives of the 99 percent.
The author discovered a nation demoralized by economic struggles, victimized by crumbling infrastructure, worried about their children’s futures, and feeling powerless to effect change. Herbert maintains that the country can make a fresh start “if citizens overcome their reluctance to engage in collective civic action on an organized and sustained basis” and “intervene aggressively and courageously in their own fate.” Calling for united action, the author likens the potential for change to the civil rights, labor and women’s movements, which were “led by citizens fed up with an intolerable status quo.” Herbert focuses on four main themes: failing infrastructure, inadequate education (especially schools in poor areas), income inequality, and the moral, monetary and physical costs of war. In the Studs Terkel mold, he follows several individuals that exemplify the problems he addresses. A woman who was severely injured when a bridge on Interstate 35 collapsed in Minneapolis is central to his claim that the country is in “a wretched state of disrepair.” A soldier who lost both legs and an arm in Afghanistan points up the enormous costs of war in dollars and human suffering. Even $4 trillion is an underestimate, Herbert writes, to account for veterans’ disability and medical care. The author interviews students, educators and policy experts to conclude that current reform measures, focused on testing, “have undermined rather than strengthened America’s schools.” Poverty, and the anxiety, grief and fear that result, has a severe impact on student performance.
In vivid anecdotes and moving portraits, Herbert humanizes the many problems he uncovers, and he clearly believes that Americans can, and will, band together to set the nation on a new course.