With the Civil War raging, Abraham Lincoln addressed the U.S. Congress on July 4, 1861, and talked about the stakes involved:
"This is essentially a people's contest. On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life."
Almost exactly 152 years later, we're having the same struggle. A "people's contest" is under way across our land to see that the government provides a fair opportunity for all in bettering their lives. It's a contest we're losing.
President Obama told The New York Times in a 40-minute interview that bettering yourself economically "was part and parcel of who we were as Americans." But, "that's what's been eroding over the last 20, 30 years, well before the financial crisis."
As Obama talked about policies to close the income gap between the rich and poor, The Associated Press got exclusive access to a report by professor Mark Rank of Washington University in St. Louis. His findings, corroborated by other studies and data, are shocking. The gap between wealthy and poor is widening -- and the middle class is disappearing. Most Americans -- not just minorities -- will experience lives that cycle in and out of poverty.
Four out of five Americans -- 80 percent -- will experience joblessness, poverty or near-poverty, and will have to rely on welfare at some point. "Poverty is no longer an issue of 'them,' it's an issue of 'us,'" Rank said.
This is a people's contest. The growing gap between rich and poor raises an existential question: Should government favor the few, the wealthy, the privileged, the powerful?
Or should government embrace Lincoln's vision and "lift artificial weights from all shoulders," and "afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life"?
A recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities stated that "Public programs lifted 40 million people out of poverty in 2011, including almost 9 million children, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Supplemental Poverty Measure, which counts noncash benefits and taxes."
It's the programs that work that some in Washington desire to cut as being wasteful. In their adoration of austerity -- as effective a cure for economic ills as decapitation is for a headache -- they also want to lower tax rates for corporations, the economic stimulus that doesn't stimulate. And, unfortunately, we can say "of course" that House Republicans have made it clear there will be no increase in the minimum wage, last raised under George W. Bush.
Go into any Wendy's, Chipotle, McDonald's or Starbucks, and as a worker waits on you, ask her (or him) if she has more than one job. In my experience, almost all do. It's the only way they can survive, given the low wages retail fast food establishments pay. The same goes for Wal-Mart, the nation's largest employer, and likely the one with the most employees on some form of public assistance.
A colleague told me of his neighbor, a white, 58-year-old widow who has supported herself for years. She works 40 hours a week, but can barely meet her bills. Her friends told her they survive by getting their food from local food banks. There were times, she revealed, that she's sat through a lot of "boring lectures and poetry readings" at the local library because they provided plentiful refreshments afterward.
On July 29, in seven major cities, employees of McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, KFC and other establishments had a walkout for higher wages. Most earn $7.50 an hour and they want their wages doubled. Many of these employees work two jobs, and still do not earn enough income to meet family necessities. Rents are high, gas prices are high, food prices are high, medical costs are high, and they, too, pay taxes.
Obama has proposed a new grand bargain that includes reforming the corporate tax code (something Republicans want), provided the monies gained from a streamlined tax system are invested in jobs for the middle class. Republicans have rejected it out-of-hand. They simply oppose any new stream of revenue, even if it goes toward deficit reduction, rebuilding America's aging infrastructure or helping those still struggling through the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Someday, sooner or later, the people will win this people's contest, too. The minimum wage will be raised, members of Congress will act on behalf of their constituents -- not their corporate sponsors -- and an honest focus on jobs and infrastructure will promote the general welfare.
Let's just hope that someday is sooner, and less painful than the last.
© 2013, United Features Syndicate