A central tenet driving environmentalism is that we should leave
the world better than we found it. As we think about reviving our
stumbling economy, the same principle should apply — if we simply
restore the economy to its pre-crisis footing, we have not only missed
the opportunity for more sweeping reforms but paved the way for future
crises by failing to address the fundamental failings that caused this
Poor people will continue to be poor, with staggering rates of homelessness and hunger. Urban communities of color will still suffer underinvestment and anemic opportunity. Middle class white families will see tuition and healthcare costs rise as retirement savings fall. We will all put down payments on our dreams with rising levels of debt. And the extremely privileged and powerful among us will further segregate themselves economically and politically from the effects of their greed.
After all, this was the state of our economy well before the words “financial crisis” were ever uttered. One in ten Americans living below the poverty line, women earning 20% less than what men earn, over a third of African American men either unemployed or incarcerated, 12 million hardworking immigrants without a path to citizenship, 42 million Americans without health insurance and millions more who can’t afford the insurance they have — none of this was a crisis. Only when the underlying economic inequalities of our system finally bubbled up to pull at the pockets of the privileged did we finally acknowledge we have a problem.
Inequality is at the root of this economic crisis. Only by fixing inequality can we fix our economy and make America work for everyone. This requires a multi-layered strategy, not only passing policies to stabilize and re-regulate Wall Street at the top, and expand unemployment benefits and create new, green jobs for workers at the middle of our economy who have recently lost their jobs, but also creating a spectrum of programs to help poor families, new immigrants and others at the bottom of our economy. Just as FDR’s first New Deal set of reforms was followed by a more transformative (though often less noted) Second New Deal that established the Works Progress Administration, Social Security and the minimum wage, the valuable economic reforms of the Obama Administration thus far must be followed by not just by more stimulus but a “shock to the core”. As President Obama himself has said, “Let's not only provide a jump-start to the economy and immediately create or save three million jobs. Let's also put a down payment on some of the structural problems that we have in our economy."
A next-step agenda to address the inequality in our economic system must include:
• Comprehensive immigration reform that creates a path to citizenship for undocumented workers and prevents race-to-the-bottom worker exploitation;
• Significant investment to address racial disparities in our health care system and ensure that communities of color have equal access to quality, affordable care;
• An easing of obstacles to collective bargaining, such as proposed by the Employee Free Choice Act, to balance the power of workers and hold corporations accountable;
• A renewed national commitment to full employment, this time with teeth: a guarantee of a living wage job to everyone who wants and needs one;
• Expanded options for economic opportunity, including new forms of public-private industry, community-owned and worker-owned local businesses, and more democratic governance of corporations.
Just like no amount of
recycling can make up for deeper problems of coal burning power plants
and carbon emissions that are eating up our planet, no amount of tax
breaks or even additional short-term spending will make up for the
deeper problems in our economy. If we fail to seize this moment of
crisis to solve the fundamental inequalities embedded in our economy,
our children and our children’s children will continue to stumble and
struggle. We will go down in history not as the generation who
confronted this crisis and put our nation and world on a new and better
path to justice but those who stood idly by as the wheels of the status
quo steadily ground us down.