Losing our way An intimate portrait of a troubled AmericaName

Part I:

Book Summary

In Losing Our Way, the New York Times veteran ex-columnist, Bob Herbert takes the reader on a journey highlighting the brokenness of the US society and how ordinary people suffer due to poor socio-economic and political choices that have been made over time. After his service to the New York Times, Herbert traverses the nation interviewing the jobless, wounded war veterans, activists, educators and political elites among others. His book is a thought-provoking compilation that gets the perspective of the state of the nation from a grassroots approach.

Ideally, the captures emotional stories of the recipients of "winner-take-all" economy and chooses to defend them advocating for a better nation in which 'new citizens' would awaken to offer right direction to the country.

Further on, the book is not narrowly researched but boldly explores very pressing socioeconomic issues of national importance. Hebert primarily focusses on four issues; weakness of or "structurally deficient" infrastructure (including the predictable I-35W bridge collapse of 2007), sorry state of public education, unnecessarily military commitments (due to poor foreign policies), and the aching unemployment (where common Americans struggle to survive).

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Herbert gathers heartrending reports especially on ordinary American who have been at the receiving end of the country's bad choices. Herbert's puts a reader on a quest to question how the nation fell into such a bottomless pit of brokenness and yet once the economy boomed with vibrancy. The conclusion is that the devastating wounds being felt as mostly self-inflicted. With a dangerous shift to political power gravitating away from the ordinary Americans, the corporate and financial elites have taken control.

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And as a result of this political and economic imbalance, the nation silently suffers hoping against all hopes for a better society.

Three takeaways from the Book

One pronounced theme in the book in the huge inequalities in that is prevalent in the US society. Herbert laments that the nation has fallen for a state of low employment and reasonable wages to the current state in which there is an inequitable distribution of resources. The rich continue to be wealthy while everyone else falls behind. It is a real saddening phenomenon that contrary to information in the public domain, the nation has not moved away from the Great Depression of 2008. The government's poor choices include waging unending wars, which has brought widespread torture to soldiers and poorly funded veterans. The corporate elites continue to amerce profits while ordinary Americans lament in poorly-funded communities. In a way, Herbert contends that the ongoing economic reforms are illusionary or have no real impacts at the grassroots. Still, there is great suffering, poverty and anxiety among ordinary Americans whose incomes do not support a comfortable living.

Second, the author puts forth compelling arguments on the state of public education. The author admits that the state of public education is not worse off like portrayed by distractors. However, it is apparent that the American public schools are underfunded and under-resourced. He places special emphasis on schools in low socio-economic areas where political leaders continue to shrink the federal aid that would otherwise realize their development. The author sympathizes that the socialites and ignorant policymakers have made education their playground without concern to improve them for the sake of the young learners. For most of the school, development has stagnated while they witness incremental admissions of pupils each year. The poor state of schools and underfunding stems from the toxic political environment where elites are gridlocked and they no longer make rational decisions to empower basic public education. A typical case explored in is the courageous fight by a group of Pittsburgh against politicians who purposed to decimate funding to their school.

Lastly, one compelling issue addresses in the book is the problem of unemployment in the current US society. Apart from the unequal distribution of wealth, the American populace is suffering from diminishing employment and low wages compared to the previous years. Poverty is expanding, and the middle class has entered a period of decline. It is because there are no jobs to meet the demand by job seekers and the nation is languishing. All this happens while the economy favors the wealthy. The shrinking of job opportunities is the central reason for the collapse of the nation as the people are not financially empowered to meet their personal goals. Herbert offers touching stories of persons who lost jobs from top-rated firms such as Pfizer and another of a young man who chokes on exhaustion of learning and working at night to prevent his family from homeless. The author lies bare the ills of unemployment, and it is truly touching to the core. It is indeed a book meant for the mind, and not the heart.

Recommendations to improve Social welfare

First, one impactful proposal is the establishment of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. This type of program targets the most vulnerable families who are barely surviving to make ends meet. In this program, a specific amount of money, say, $300 a month to offer financial empowerment to these families. It will be a short term problem to cushion households against extreme poverty and would result in improved livelihoods. At least, the families would be able to afford basic meals and pay bills. This program needs to use a cash transfer system so that the most vulnerable families get the help they need. This fund will especially help the children from most impoverished homes to eat, dress and get a more comfortable life. Bolsa Familia is such a program that has elevated the life of poorest Brazilian families.

Second, empowerment to education can also be achieved through specific grants. From a federal perspective, Pell Grants have availed up to $5,550 for each child mainly for postsecondary education. In the current case, children from low-income families and regions struggle to get an education, and still, the schools are under-resourced. It would be essential to draw up a specific grant to support learning for each child as well as financially supporting schools through books and other learning resources. It will be a welcome move toward social equality as children will learn like those from economically empowered neighborhoods.

Relevant Advocacy Strategies

One way to contribute to social justice is to find a cause and use media as a tool to champion for equality. Today, several causes are being promoted on conventional and new media. Therefore, a media campaign would help shape mindsets and public opinion so that the nation is well aware of the social ills that face ordinary people. Often, media discussions on inequality raise substantial attention among listeners and even have long-lasting impacts at the federal level.

Secondly, advocacy can also be sustained if the relevant authorities are engaged. Teaming advocates together and presenting concerns at the ministry of education officials could also raise attention for reforms. Platforms thus can be sought to bring activists, parents, ministry officials and other stakeholders on one table. The holding of seminars is an example of such platform to jointly brainstorm on crucial issues of concern such as underfunding to school in specific low-income zones.

Part II: An Op-Ed:

Addressing the social problem of poverty, an open Letter to HHS Secretary, Alex Azar

Ever since the Great Depression, the national economy has been performing poorly, at least according to the average US citizen. Scholars such as Herbert (2015) in Losing our Way, admits that the country continues to choke on the ever-shrinking employment opportunities which means the gap between the wealthy and everyone else continue to widen. The ordinary folks are suffering, unable to attain the promises of the American Dream. And yet, the Department of Health & Human Services has a critical role in understanding the plight of ordinary citizens and move with speed to save the country from aching poverty.

First, the surest way out of poverty is finding well-paying jobs. In the light to these, there is a compelling need for having a robust framework to create jobs, especially in the low-income regions. The federal government need to live its promise of adopting job-creation strategies to stimulate the economy towards improving levels of improvement across all the sectors. Such investment could star from rehabilitating infrastructure, renovation of housing, investing in renewable energy among others.

That aside, the federal government need to have a serious reflection on the existing minimum wage. Already the inflationary tendencies have reduced the value for money, and most households barely earn enough to sustain them. The average hourly wage of $7.25 per hour that exists today is not sufficient as indexed to the current inflation levels. A consideration to raise it to about $10 would save millions of families from sheer poverty by increasing the wages.

Further, this discussion cannot ignore the pay inequalities that exist in the country today. In general male employees are paid more than their female counterparts, yet they are at par in training and experience. This phenomenon, without doubt, makes poverty a gendered aspect in the country. By, for instance, having a full-time female worker earn only 78 cents for every dollar that a male worker earns is robbery and crude discrimination. Consider hundreds of thousands of female-only breadwinners. This disadvantages women to stay in poverty despite competitively dedicating their efforts at the workplace.

Finally, restructuring jobs would also work towards reducing poverty levels. Currently, the hourly and low wage jobs have constantly been changing and unpredictable schedules. It presents a nightmare for an individual to work, find time for study or even study in part-time. These dynamic schedules also come with job insecurities and workers are unable to meet child care goals since jobs are not guaranteed. HHS has a role in uniting employers towards viable frameworks such as in favor of Schedules That Work Act to ensure predictability and surety in the job schedules. It would ultimately lead to healthy fulfilling lives where workers give their best in return to reasonable incomes.

As widely accepted, a nation is as good as its workforce landscape. There is much to do, especially by HHS to deliver a better nation characterized by sufficient jobs, better pay and reasonable working conditions.

HHS holds a promise for a better tomorrow, but this work should start today.


Judith Rodriguez


Herbert, B. (2015). Losing our way: An intimate portrait of a troubled America. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Updated: May 20, 2021
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