The staggering gulf between the rich in America and everyone
else is the root cause of our financial crisis. We can only stimulate the economy if we solve inequality.
There would have been no sub-prime mortgage crisis had there
not been poor families with unstable jobs to trick with bad loans. There would not be outlandish interest
rates and record consumer debt had credit schemes not been invented to sucker
those with limited cash. Healthcare
costs would not be bankrupting families if we had established health as public
benefit not a private privilege.
More to the point, these and other structural inequalities
were allowed to spiral out of control because our government got out of the
financial regulation business at the behest of big corporations and the
super-rich who wanted their profit - and thus, inequality - to grow.
Trying to revive our stalled and stumbling economy without
addressing the fundamental problem of inequality that got us here is like
trying to fix the flat tire on your car just by adding air. It's no solution at all: there's still
a hole in your tire.
There is a giant hole at the bottom of the American economy
that has been engulfing poor families for decades but which many others are noticing
for the first time as they too are falling through it.
The Congressional Budget Office recently forewarned that, if
there is no government action, the nationwide unemployment rate could approach
9% by 2010. In the Bronx borough
of New York, where there has been little government action for years,
unemployment is already at 8.3%. The
same in Detroit. President-Elect
Obama recently suggested that in the absence of a stimulus package,
unemployment could hit double digits.
But in parts of Appalachia, unemployment has been over 13% for
years. In Youngstown, Ohio, the
unemployment rate is over 14%.
Meanwhile, we're finally acknowledging the national crisis
that 47 million Americans lack health coverage and 79 million more have
significant healthcare debt. But
poor families and low-wage workers have been without adequate health coverage
for decades. Inner-city African
Americans and Latino immigrants have long received substandard care through
In our increasingly interconnected and complex world, it's
naive to think something isn't a problem until it affects us directly. If compassion for others wasn't a
sufficient wake up call, hopefully the low balance in your retirement account
now is. Lani Guinier and Gerald
Torres suggest that the canary in the coalmine, whose premature suffering warns
the miners of impending danger, is a fitting metaphor for communities of color
and poor people whose experience at the margins of our society illuminates
crises threatening us all. We're
in this financial crisis now because we failed to heed the signs of danger as
noxious inequality rose all around us.
Few have talked about the financial crisis in terms of rich
and poor. Most of the focus is on
the "disappearing middle class."
But where do you think the middle class is disappearing to? They're not sailing their yachts to
Hawai'i. The middle class is
rapidly joining the ranks of the poor, reeling from the inevitable, gravitational,
polarizing pull of inequity.
Barack Obama himself said that, in addition to providing "a
jump-start to the economy" we should use the stimulus package to "put a down
payment on some of the structural problems that we have in our economy." What might that look like?
Well, while construction jobs are valuable and important, those
jobs don't usually go to those at the bottom of our economy. And communities like Detroit and
Youngstown have infrastructure needs that go far beyond buildings alone. They need early childhood education
programs and health clinics and better schools - which happen to be areas more
likely to employ women and people of color and low-income communities. In addition to physical infrastructure,
the stimulus package should invest in community and human infrastructure - and
related jobs - as well.
And similarly, we should not only be helping those who have
lost their healthcare recently but make a down payment on affordable, quality
healthcare for all. Many children
and families haven't had any health coverage for some time, many others are
receiving unequal care due to racial disparities, others are finding the
hardships of the financial crisis multiplied by mounting healthcare debt. Reinvesting in Medicaid and the State
Children's Health Insurance Program and removing the barriers to participation
in these programs would not only lift the financial burden on families and
state governments but be a significant down payment toward ultimately universal
The Campaign for Community Values, a national alliance of
more than 150 community organizing groups organized by the Center for Community
Change, is bringing grassroots leaders to Washington everyday to press this
agenda on Capitol Hill. You
can help by visiting www.communitychange.org
and joining our list.
In his inaugural address, President Kennedy said, "If a free
society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."
For the economic stimulus package to work, it has to get everyone working
- and make our economy work for all of us. And that means finally addressing the inequality that got us
into this mess.