Shulman delivered these remarks at the Failure of Conservatism Conference on May 3 in Washington, sponored by the Campaign for America's Future and The American Prospect: Conservatism historically has seen government as a problem to overcome, an albatross. President Reagan stated it succinctly when he said, "we need to get government off our backs." Conservatives usually justify this negative view of government in the name of freedom. They conflate freedom with unregulated markets, anti-unionism, low taxes and a rabid individualism. Without so-called government interference, people would be free to make their own choices. But what has this restricted view of government and the notion of freedom it embraces meant for America's families today? In one word—disaster.The "you are on your own" notion of government and freedom has meant that American families must live with stagnant wages at a time of high profits and productivity without a way to get ahead no matter how hard they try. It has meant health insecurity for workers and their families as fewer and fewer jobs provide health care coverage. It has meant that workers face their older years without the means they counted on to retire, as corporations have slashed traditional pension plans. And it has meant that half of Americans don't have the fundamental right to take a day off from work when they are sick without losing a job or a paycheck.
It has meant parents having to forgo a child's high school or college graduation or a PTA meeting because twenty percent of America's workers do not have any vacation or personal days. It has meant parents tag teaming their shifts to provide their children supervision leading to increased divorce rates because they can't afford child care. It has meant families who are more stressed out as jobs become more and more insecure. And it has meant more families just struggling to get by with one out of every three workers making less than what it takes to have basic self-sufficiency. All this has been dumped on the already sagging shoulders of working families while government has stood on the sidelines.
And as parents look to provide a better future for their children, it has meant coming up short. Today, it is only the wealthy who have the resources to provide their children the tools required to move up in our society—quality early education, good public schools and a college education. The rest of America's children just have to do without.
This is a false freedom that forces us to make false choices. Americans aren't free when they have to choose between paying the rent and providing child care for their children. Parents aren't free when they must choose between being responsible workers and responsible family members. The elderly aren't free when they must choose to continue working in their later years because they don't have pensions. Families aren't free when they have to declare bankruptcy when they can't pay their hospital bills. Mothers and fathers aren't free when they don't have time to be with their children because they are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. And children aren't free when they can't get the basic tools to succeed and fulfill their potential as human beings.
We can make different choices that would ensure that Americans who work hard can support themselves and their families. We are free to choose ways that will give families time to share with each other and acquire the means that they and their children need to succeed in our new global economy. But this involves a very different definition of freedom, one that presents a very different agenda that will move us closer to ensuring that America's families can thrive.
This definition of freedom eliminates the false choices we are saddled with today. This freedom involves more than being left alone. Instead, it offers the opportunity to build healthy families and healthy communities. It involves an investment in people. It is a freedom that recognizes that no one can be free without the basic necessities of life, that we can't be free unless we are all treated with the dignity and respect we deserve.
It is a freedom that recognizes the interconnectedness of us all as human beings and the critical role that our government plays as a protector of public values. It recognizes that government is a place where Americans come together to solve our most pressing problems and to determine how to best use our national resources for the common good.
In the past, government has successfully played a role in providing the public structures for all of us to succeed. As a nation, we determined that our elderly should not be impoverished or go without health care, so we created and continue to provide Social Security and Medicare. We determined that all children deserve the tools to be productive citizens, so we have public schools. And as a nation, we determined that it is in the interest of all of us to have a literate population, so we fund libraries. We passed the GI bill that gave millions of Americans the opportunity to go to college and buy their first homes. It is now time for our government to provide the same kind of opportunity supports that families need today.
Government can and must play the kind of role that it so successfully performed after World War II, in creating the largest middle class in America's history. Only government can set minimum standards for wages, health coverage, health and safety, paid sick days, retirement security, and the right to organize a union that ensure that hard working Americans have the basics of a decent life. Only government can ensure that families can be both responsible workers and caring family members by updating the outdated workplace practices and supports.
Only government can play the pivotal role in leveraging our resources to provide what workers need to succeed in our new global economy, and create the supports for workers and their families as they move across jobs and/or in and out of the labor force as their life and jobs circumstances change over time. And it is government which has an irreplaceable role in ensuring that all children have the tools they need to fulfill their potential and that opportunity is not limited to the wealthiest among us.
The role of government is to ensure that the prosperity of our economy is broadly shared amongst all hard working Americans and their families and that we create a society in which all families can thrive. The conservatives have it wrong. It's not about getting government off our backs. It's about getting it back on our sides, the sides of working families. Beth Shulman is a lawyer and consultant focusing on work-related issues. She is the author of The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans.
© 2007 Beth Schuman