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The Broken Promise of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
Published on Monday, July 5, 2004 by
The Broken Promise of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
by Karen Dolan and Stefan Heumann

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”
-- Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

July 4 is dedicated to the memory of the Declaration of Independence which called for the end of English colonial rule and formed the basis for the emergence of the first modern democracy. Over two hundred years later we still celebrate this courageous expression of democratic principles. But the Declaration of Independence is not only about the will to self-governance. The authors of the declaration justified their dissociation from English rule with the failure of the English Crown to secure their basic and unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The Declaration of Independence reminds us that the government has to be at the service of its people and that the failure of the government to serve the people gives them the right to institute a new government. On July 4 we should not only celebrate the achievements of this country, but we should also ask ourselves how well our current government serves us. What is the state of American democracy in 2004?

At least two recent publications indicate that the American government does not serve its people as it should. Earlier this month, a task force of the American Political Science Association, the nation’s most respected professional association of political scientists, published a revealing report on the failings of U.S. democracy.

The report, “American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality,” finds that increasing inequalities threaten the American ideal of equal citizenship and that progress toward real democracy may have stalled in this country and even reversed.

This study reported that income inequalities have sharply risen since the mid-1970s and threaten the health of our democracy. Nearly nine out of ten individuals in families with incomes over $75, 000 reported voting in the presidential elections while only half of those in families with incomes under $15,000 cast their vote. Only 12% of American households had incomes over $100,000 in 2000, but a whopping 95% of the donors who made substantial contributions were in these wealthiest households.

The concentration of wealth an income in the hands of a few has given the affluent a means to express their voice in politics that is unavailable to most citizens. Bush’s tax cuts, overwhelmingly benefiting the wealthiest Americans, demonstrate that our governing institutions are much more responsive to the highly privileged than to ordinary Americans.

Also telling is a new compilation of statistics from Washington University professor Mark Rank shows the shocking level of persistent poverty in America. In addition to pointing out that the U.S. has the highest poverty rate of all industrialized nations, Rank argues that the economic deprivation wrought by such conditions puts disproportionate obstacles to liberty, justice, equality and democracy in the path of the poor and disadvantaged in this country.

Rank’s recent book, “One Nation Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects us All,” demonstrates how poverty has become an integral part of our everyday experiences. We not only see evidence of poverty round us, but according to Rank at the age of 75, three-quarters of the American population will have experienced at least on year of poverty during their adulthood. Rank persuasively argues for setting of the poverty level at the level needed for basic self-suffiency, and estimates this at one and a half times the official poverty level.

U.S. labor market statistics indicate that many full-time jobs do not pay people enough to lift them out of poverty. Almost 10% of all families in which the head of household works full-time live below the official poverty line. Twenty-nine percent of large families (Two parents and three children or more) fall below the official poverty line. If poverty is looked at in the more accurate way to reflect what is needed for self-sufficiency, fully 54.6% of large families in the U.S. whose head of household works full time, live in poverty.

A final blow to the illusion of U.S. ideals of freedom and democracy is evidenced in the racial wealth gap. The APSA study found that the median U.S. white household has 62% more income and twelve times as much wealth as the median black household and that 61% of African-Americans in this country and half of all Latinos have no financial assets at all, compared to only 25% of whites without financial assets. These racial disparities are more extreme than those in Canada, Germany, France and many other industrialized countries and are a significant barrier to equality and responsive government.

So, this 4th of July let’s raise our glasses to our independence. Let’s also consider this question: Is it time for the People to “institute a new government?”

Karen Dolan,, is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Stefan Heumann, is a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies. Institute for Policy studies is a multi-issue think tank in Washington D.C.


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