Precarity: relentless and crippling uncertainty about one’s economic future

It’s inevitable in our national, global and local economy based on the “K” recovery…

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

If there were ever an economic term I would never hope to see, it would be the word “precarity”.

Precarity, put simply, is defined as relentless and crippling uncertainty about one’s economic and/or social future.

It’s a word and concept inevitable in our national, global and local economy based on the “K” recovery of the early 2020s.

The “K” economy is also relentless as a metaphor – one arm points up, the other points down.

There is no stable flat line, no sustainable middle, only an economic escalator pulling us down or lifting us up. Our own economic choices reverberate and echo on our way up or down, bringing prosperity to many and foreclosure and bankruptcy to many others.

Add to this the fact that the rules and guiding principles that once felt solid seem to shift with every headline.

Are our urban centers becoming hotbeds of entrepreneurs and enterprise or of homelessness, addiction and despair – or both?

The “haves and the have-nots” and the divide between them – become all the more visible and intractable every day.

The much heralded “polarity” of America’s political landscape is nothing compared to the visceral chasm between those of us working, running errands, on vacation or with our families when we encounter a cluster of ragged and not very hygienic homeless people.

The overall well-being of society, each community, and certainly most individuals, is challenged, more vulnerable and certainly more questioned than ever before.

Many city budgets are “meaner and leaner” – often literally – as cities and city agencies make laws, conduct sweeps and wrings their hands over health dynamics, budget crunches and civic reputations as they are challenged by an ever-growing “precarious” population.

And it is not just those huddled homeless on too many city corners – the rapidly declining middle-class – and their expectations – especially regarding future generations are disintegrating faster than arctic glaciers.

Anxiety prevails where assumptions of job security and home ownership once held steady.

To a large degree, many of us (rightly) fear that regular, secure, long term salaried employment as we have known it will greatly disappear thanks to robots, algorithms and the ever more intrusive “gig economy”.

We are literally seeing the disappearance of work-as-we-have-known-it for generations.

Previously salaried work is dissolving into unpredictable temp or contract jobs without guarantees or rights and with lower remunerations, worsening working conditions and ever diminishing benefits.

The once near-sacred link between pay and direct work has been lost.

There is nothing new about this – unpaid training and internships have been central to many aspects of our economy for decades if not longer.

What is new is the degree, the number of us impacted by near-institutional job-insecurity that most of are accepting as the “new normal”.

The cost of “precarity” is almost certainly unmeasurable – but it is vast.

Precarious and desperate people do precarious and desperate things.

And these precarious and desperate things cost us tax dollars – and our well-being.

The “curb-appeal” of any neighborhood or city center is certainly, and dramatically, if not permanently impacted by the rags, filth and garbage of homeless camps and dislocated families.

Each homeless person has a constellation of costs associated with them.

Reducing that cost is a fiduciary, if not moral, obligation we should all be meeting.

And then there are what could be called the lost opportunity costs.

The vast majority of those currently homeless were once productive members of society.

Instead of being a civic blight if not hazard, many of these people once had work schedules, paid taxes and were our neighbors or went to school with people we know.

For those who are homeless – or near it – precarity is constant. Every meal, every night’s sleep, each day’s safety is uncertain. Threats are literally everywhere.

From law enforcement to property owners, to the weather to other homeless people, the one certainty is continuous uncertainty.

To re-state the obvious, people in a state of precarious desperation do not make solid, informed and dedicated citizens.

Since February 2020, nearly one million people in Washington state lost their jobs or have had employment hours severely curtailed.

Eviction and foreclosure abatement programs have been initiated and re-instated. And extended.

But we all know that they won’t last forever, and most of us don’t know what they entail even now.

But we all do know that when they expire, we all will be in a unforeseeable, unimaginable housing crisis.

It won’t be a single individual or family here or there, it will be entire apartment buildings emptying out, neighborhoods vacated, individuals and families dislocated, schools impacted, credit histories forever stained.

These are our neighbors, perhaps even people we know.

For all of them, perhaps even many of us, our level of precarity will be ramped up.

Free radicals

On the molecular level, free radicals are those molecules which are unstable and disconnected. They bounce around and increase instability as they encounter and either damage or distort healthy molecules and molecular systems.

Disconnected individuals in a society act as free radicals, creating and accelerating chaos everywhere they go. Stabilizing them is to everyone’s benefit.

The “K” economy is inherently destabilizing.

Those who are on the receiving end of the “up” arm know that this cannot continue.

Those who are on the receiving end of the “down” arm know that this cannot be allowed to continue.

A solid, stable, equitable and largely predictable economy is to everyone’s advantage.

Equality of opportunity has always been our ideal.

Combined with our long tradition of allowing “second chances”, our recovery is inevitable.

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