Bootstraps aren’t what they used to be.
That was the essence of a speech about the economy President Barack Obama gave on December 4.
It was a remarkable address in its starkness of message about the “opportunity gap” that exists in the United States. But bigger headlines preceding it — Pope Frances’ widely disseminated and discussed takes on capitalism — and following it — the death of Nelson Mandela — deprived it reaching the audience it deserved among those who are living out the results of that gap, which continues to grow. As does the contention in how to address it. The recent government shutdown was a skirmish in that contention.
Not for nothing did the president make strong arguments in his Dec. 4 speech for how government intervention in the forms of Social Security, Medicare and the Earned Income Tax Credit helped to create a safety net that bolstered the middle class and kept great numbers of Americans out of poverty. The other side of that coin: Just days later, in response to the president’s call to extend unemployment benefits, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul talked about how such extended benefits were a disservice to Americans and led to a “perpetual unemployed group in our economy,” according to a political website.
This is at the heart of today’s argument about Obamacare, on whether to raise the minimum wage for workers who are growing increasingly vocal for higher pay, on whether and how to limit campaign donations, whether to extend food assistance and unemployment insurance to those who are struggling, and on and on.
Given the growing disparity between the top and bottom earners in our country, and the slowing of mobility in this country, the safety net may be the only thing that keeps people from thinking the deck is permanently stacked against them, making it essential in more than one way to our democracy.
“We don’t do it to replace the free market,” the president said of measures to help, “but we do it to reduce risk in our society by giving people the ability to take a chance and catch them if they fall.”
The recession, and the stubbornness with which the economy has recovered, has claimed many of our friends and neighbors.
Our own local food bank, Dare to Care, reports a 60 percent increase in the number of local people needing help with food since 2008 — and that that need is not just in pockets of the community anymore, but everywhere.
Likewise, the president said social patterns that hurt mobility and were once associated only with one part of our population now hurt all groups and all races: “The fact is this: The opportunity gap is now as much about class as it is about race.”
At this time in our national life, about 20 percent of Americans are poor or near poor, tens of millions of them children. For a family of four, that means living on $24,000 or less annually. As former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin noted, “Nearly 11 million working Americans had annual income below the poverty line last year.”
It is in this atmosphere that the president made his speech about the economy and inequality, and that Congress will decide whether to cut food stamps and extend unemployment benefits. How they can think of doing so now defies logic, if not decency.
This is not an academic exercise. There are real consequences to action and inaction to correcting an equation that now looks like this:
“Since 1979, when I graduated from high school, our productivity is up by more than 90 percent, but the income of the typical family has increased by less than 8 percent,” the president said.
“Since 1979 our economy has more than doubled in size, but most of the growth has flowed to a fortunate few. The top 10 percent no longer takes in one-third of our income; it now takes half. Whereas in the past, the average CEO made about 20 to 30 times the income of the average worker, today’s CEO now makes 273 times more. And meanwhile, a family in the top 1 percent has a net worth 288 times higher than the typical family, which is a record for this country.”
We’ll end where we started: Bootstraps aren’t what they used to be.
This editorial first appear in the