America off the rails

Part II of a three-part series


I’m shocked, shocked to find there’s gambling in these premises. Captain Louis Renault in “Casablanca” before being handed his winnings in Rick’s Café

Last week, I wrapped my column with the comment about America careening off the rails, wondering how it could allow dedicated public workers, much valued and appreciated when their services are in need, dismissed as occupying secondary positions, inferior to important ones, you know, like those that “produce the wealth”: investors, hedge-fund managers and the like.

Positive economic numbers roll in. Unemployment is at its lowest in years and family income is rising. Good news…on the surface. The unheralded truth is that many public workers are forced to work second and third jobs for low wages to survive.

The Colorado Center for Law and Policy holds that “The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Colorado—the level at which families can meet basic needs without public or private support—generally requires an income above 200 percent of Federal Poverty Level or even higher in some parts of the state.” The FPL = $24,300. That’s $2,025 per month. That’s before deductions: taxes, insurance, retirement, etc.

The Denver Public Schools teacher I wrote about last week pays $1245 a month for a two-bedroom apartment for her and her three children on her $45,000 salary, not double the FPL. It leaves her a few hundred for food, clothing, and the rest.

Women, especially single-mothers, and people of color are primarily those on the short end of the stick. “Although only 9.7 percent of Coloradans live in single-mother households,” says CCLP, “they account for 41 percent of households in poverty.”

The lowest paid among college-educated professions: Teaching and nursing, both traditionally female populated. Little wonder 20 percent of American children live in households that are “food insecure.”

How, in heaven’s name, do we expect people to survive? What’s going off the rails?

First and foremost: Values. Skewed values held by those more outraged about how two people show their love or what a woman does with her body than that millions of their neighbors and fellow Americans go wanting.

Another: The dis-empowerment of workers. Unionism, once enshrined as a core value among American workers beginning with the 1935 National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act, which guaranteed workers the right to organize and bargain, has become anathema for many thanks to rightwing re-education camps.

“An important factor at play in the divergence between growth in productivity and wages,” says CCLP, “is the eroding bargaining power of workers. One measure of that is union representation. In Colorado, union participation among all workers has dropped from 16.2 percent in 1979 to 9.8 percent in 2016.”

Third: Legal and financial engineering beginning, as I wrote last week, in 1970s with the rise of laissez-faire, neo-liberal economics with the Chicago School of Economics.

Journalist-entrepreneur Steven Brill, author of “America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals” and recently released “Tailspin: How My Generation Broke America” calls it the “50-year tailspin” in which the battle has not necessarily been along partisan lines but between the “protected and the unprotected”: Those that have secured themselves and their families by manipulating—Senator Elizabeth Warren calls it rigging—the system, and those without the resources to hire well-paid lawyers and lobbyists to protect themselves.

“About five decades ago,” writes Brill in Time, “the core values that make America great began to bring America down. The First Amendment became a tool for the wealthy to put a thumb on the scales of democracy. America’s rightly celebrated dedication to due process was used as an instrument to block government from enforcing job-safety rules, holding corporate criminals accountable and otherwise protecting the unprotected. Election reforms meant to enhance democracy wound up undercutting democracy.”

The clincher: “Ingenious financial and legal engineering turned our economy from an engine of long-term growth and shared prosperity into a casino with only a few big winners.”

Along the way, frustration with the American way, the once ballyhooed American Dream, has grown into a miasma of cynicism for the majority both on the left and the right, left, as Brill puts it, “to fend for themselves.”

Next week, Part III: The ethics of treating our public employees so shabbily.

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