Forty-seven percent of those surveyed in a Rasmussen Reports poll last month said "America’s best days have already come and gone." That negative feeling increased 6 percentage points in just one month.
Times are tough. The economy contracted by 6.1 percent in the first quarter, according to the Commerce Department. And the contraction is expected to continue. Economists are forecasting a national unemployment rate topping 10 percent by year’s end. By that time, more than 8 million Americans will have lost their jobs in this recession.
Meanwhile, our government is adding to our problems.
Borrowing and spending is skyrocketing. A huge tax increase on American investors, earners and businesses will take effect on Jan. 1, 2011. Even as the government is trying to stimulate the economy with increased welfare and infrastructure spending, private citizens and businesses are cutting spending as much as they can because they will have to pay for the government largesse.
The Environmental Protection Agency has classified the carbon dioxide we all exhale as a pollutant. If passed into law, "cap-and-trade" legislation before Congress will further increase the annual tax burden by more than $3,000 per American family and eliminate another 4 million jobs.
Then there’s the swine flu.
Given all this negative news, Americans are right to be concerned about the future. But in such times, it is essential to look at history — family history, in particular — for perspective and guidance.
When I watch the classic film "It’s a Wonderful Life," I always think of my grandfather, John Meakem, who was the same generation as the actor, Jimmy Stewart, and his famous character, George Bailey.
My grandfather was born in Newark, N.J., in 1909. His mother died when he was 5. His father abandoned him and he was sent to a Catholic orphanage. Fortunately, the nuns who cared for my grandfather gave him a strong elementary education and a moral foundation grounded in faith.
In 1919, John Meakem survived the Spanish flu epidemic, which killed 600,000 Americans. At age 12, he left the orphanage and worked picking crops and shining shoes through his teens while attending school at night.
As a young man, my grandfather studied accounting, secured a job as an accountant and married my grandmother, Helen. They survived the extreme deflation of the Great Depression by retaining their employment and living modestly. In 1936, Helen gave birth to my father.
A booming economy followed World War II. My grandparents were doing well. Then they gave birth to a mentally and physically handicapped daughter. Through the 1940s, ’50s and beyond, John Meakem had career ups and downs, but he earned a solid, middle-class living and he and my grandmother successfully raised and provided great educations to both my father and my uncle. They also took loving care of their daughter, who was their special gift until the end of their lives.
Were the lives of John and Helen Meakem easy? No.
Was America always on the right course? No.
But through war and peace, sickness and health, economic expansion and contraction, they persevered and left a legacy of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who have made, are making and will continue to make positive contributions to our country and our culture. I stand on their shoulders.
In these difficult times, if millions upon millions of Americans focus on working hard and leaving a positive legacy, then not only will we fight through the difficulty and be successful individually, but we will enable America to become better than ever.
Glen Meakem was the founder, chairman and CEO of FreeMarkets Inc. He is co-founder and managing director of Meakem Becker Venture Capital in Pittsburgh.