Sunday, July 31, 2011

We COULD be Having a Different Conversation

"...Give me enough food to live on. Neither too much, nor too little. If I'm too full, I might get independent, saying 'God? Who needs Him? If I'm poor, I might steal and dishonor the name of my God."
Proverbs 30:8, 9


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An interesting and very vital report from the Pew Center this past week, which did indeed get lost in all of the talk of the made up controversy surrounding raising the debt ceiling. The wealth gap between whites and minorities in our country is widening to what should be alarming rates. 

"The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of newly available government data from 2009.

These lopsided wealth ratios are the largest since the government began publishing such data a quarter century ago and roughly twice the size of the ratios that had prevailed between these three groups for the two decades prior to the Great Recession that ended in 2009."

"The Pew Research Center analysis finds that, in percentage terms, the bursting of the housing market bubble in 2006 and the recession that followed from late 2007 to mid-2009 took a far greater toll on the wealth of minorities than whites. From 2005 to 2009, inflation-adjusted median wealth fell by 66% among Hispanic households and 53% among black households, compared with just 16% among white households."

"As a result of these declines, the typical black household had just $5,677 in wealth (assets minus debts) in 2009, the typical Hispanic household had $6,325 in wealth and the typical white household had $113,149."

While we have heard the constant drum beat that our current national debt is unsustainable, it is equally true that we cannot sustain a viable economy with such wealth disparity of this magnitude. There are no personal, let alone political ideologies that can drown such a gap in pious and self-righteous platitudes about 'work ethic' or 'waste, fraud and abuse'. The fact is this points to a systemic flaw in how we are structured and one which, left unaddressed, will be passed on to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 

This is not just a liberal screed. Indeed it calls into question the focus of some of our most cherished progressive dogma. To what extent do we continue to preserve some of our most cherished progressive enactments - social security, Medicare and Medicaid, while it is all too apparent that those whom we seek to protect with these policies are falling farther and farther behind? It's a hard question. But, it is one which must be faced honestly. It is another form of an age old question: Can we have it all?

It also challenges conservative arguments. While they may have accurately called attention to structural problems in our economy, simply cutting taxes and cutting discretionary spending sends the most economically vulnerable in a downward spiral from which their can be virtually no hope of extrication. When we talk about wealth creation, we are not talking about the number of people in our country who are consuming - we already are seeing the effects of declining consumer confidence - we are talking about a shrinking pool of people who are invested in the fiscal future and health of our country. We are talking about generations of people working simply to pay bills. Without equity, without savings, perpetually owing more than they are worth. It gets worse when you consider the fact that the United States is hurtling toward the day when we will have a majority 'minority' population. 

What are the answers? That needs to be our national conversation. 

Currently, twelve years of public school leading to a high school diploma consigns one to a life of poverty. But a college bachelors degree is no longer enough to make most graduates from a four year academic institution with stability and a future. Why aren't we having a conversation about sixteen years of public education? Why aren't we talking about more money for SBA loans? There are endless policy possibilities that could be a part of a discussion to provide opportunities for access to training in trades, to encourage savings and investment and make education a national movement. 

Instead, we are being threatened with a high stakes game of chicken. A game which we could all lose, no matter who 'wins'. 

Michael Gershon, of the Washington Post's lament is entirely appropriate and sums up our dilemma better than I can, "In normal times, a worsening social problem like the wealth gap might unite creative liberals and compassionate conservatives in an unlikely policy alliance. Meetings would take place at the New America Foundation. Bipartisan legislation would be introduced."

"It is a Washington I can remember — but now seems impossibly distant."

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