Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Hoping for a Country that Works for Everyone

I have friends who really don’t want to have to vote for Hillary for president. They want to vote for Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. “Hillary is too centrist,” they say, “She’s just as beholden to corporate America as the Republicans.” With Bernie in the race, they may get their chance to cast that hopeful vote.

I understand where my friends are coming from. We see the middle class being washed away and workers’ rights have been so eroded that we are all in danger of living only to serve the corporation. My take on the political primaries is a bit different, however. When the hype of political campaigns is over, the real test is the effectiveness of elected officials in implementing policies that can make life better for the people. I happen to like both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – a lot. I just think both of them can serve the country better in the senate. That is where they have a better chance of influencing real policy change. 

There is a valid argument, though, for bringing Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders into the Democratic primary. Either one of them can insure that the voices of the people will be heard. Both of them have a proven ability to bring out the real issues of ordinary people being crushed by corporate America. They have the ability to bring hope for the common good into the national debate. Now that Bernie Sanders has declared his candidacy, we are sure to have some more excitement in the primary process, and it is more likely that the issues of ordinary people will be raised.

How Can We Make Things Better?

Whether the talk is about politics, religion, or social change, we often see heated discussions over how we can make things work better. Many are quick to point out the barriers that stand in the way, and who is to blame for what is lacking in our society. As with any presidential campaign, we are hearing various claims about which political candidate can best lead the country to greater things. The latest Rasmussen Poll reveals that 67% of the voters think the country is headed in the wrong direction, so clearly, the public wants something better than what we are now seeing. 

When I have discussions with some of my friends about the political scene and what this country needs, I often find that while we have disagreements we generally want the same thing. What we really want is a country that works for everyone. The real question is how to get there. The big issues that come up in the national discussion are often centered on jobs, healthcare, wages, and equal opportunity. From there, the discussion often goes to the question of whether these issues are seen as individual rights. For example, the question of healthcare is often framed in terms of whether it is a right or a privilege. This is the wrong question, and is often laden with hot-button issues. The real question is what is good for society?

Three Things are Needed

I have a short-hand guide that I use to think about what a healthy community needs. There are three basic things that make a society function well. Of course, there are many things that must happen to create a healthy society, but here are three essential things that must happen, things that we are not doing particularly well across the board in our society:
  • Access to healthcare
  • Access to education
  • Access to transportation

Mayo Clinic image
By "access" I mean that one needs to be able to connect with the services that many of us take for granted. Healthcare is one example. Some people have limited access to healthcare because they live in a rural area where services are simply not available. Others may lack access due to economic limitations. We have seen with the Affordable Care Act how many more now have access to the healthcare system due to expanding insurance coverage. Even so, there are still many who continue to have limited access to healthcare. I would rather have seen a single-payer plan put in place, but that's another topic in itself.

Shutterstock photo
Education, a key factor for one’s well-being, should be available and accessible as well. Years ago, even when I was a teenager, I heard that there were those who questioned why taxes should come out of their pocket to support schools when they had no children in public schools. Of course, the short answer is that if we have an educated public, then everyone benefits. If some segments of society are deprived of an education, then we all suffer as a result of that lost potential. Most will agree that education is key to success in life, yet many do not want to invest what is needed to see quality schools for all come to fruition. Look at how many of us move our families to the best school districts, or pay for private school while those who have no other option are left to fend for themselves in failing school systems. The poorest neighborhoods are then lacking in both hope and opportunity due to the lack of funding and support for their schools.

AL.Com photo
Transportation is certainly important for success. It is often taken for granted by the affluent and underfunded by local governments. I will never forget a conversation I had with a young man when I was working in social services. He lived in “the bad part of town,” which was where he could afford to live, and had gotten a job as a dishwasher at a nice restaurant in one of the “good parts of town” that was several miles down the road and a good thirty minute drive in traffic. He was in a jam because the clunker of a car that he used to get himself to work was broken down and he had no way of getting to work. The bus system in town had gone through a series of curtailments because the community had consistently voted down tax measure to support mass transit. First the hours of service were cut, and then the number of routes was cut. The young man I met that day had the good fortune of finding a job, but the misfortune of having work hours that were not served by the limited availability of public transportation. Ironically, the young man’s employer suffered as well when transportation was not readily available for his employee.

If the basic provisions for healthcare, education and transportation are in place for the population, then we can have a workforce healthy enough to contribute to society, educated enough to the job, able to get to work in the first place. At that point, we can realize that the question of whether these things are individual rights or privileges is indeed the wrong question. It becomes obvious that optimal health for all citizens benefits the whole of society. Education for even the poorest communities and adequate mass transit will benefit us all as well. If everyone in every strata of society has access to these three things, we all benefit. Look at any disenfranchised segment of our society, and you will see that one or more of these three elements has been hindered.

Common Good vs. Corporate Greed

We are divided in the United States on how to achieve these big three benefits for society. On the one hand, there are those who say that the only way to achieve the common good is for all to work together in community. On the other hand, there are people who say, “I worked hard for my college degree, my BMW and my Blue Cross coverage. If others want it they should work hard too.” 

In this country we are so afraid that some “undeserving” person may get some relief that we turn our backs on the widespread suffering and poverty that exists right here among us. That is the reason I am re-framing the question from "is it a right or a privilege" to "is it good for society?" For those who cannot stomach supporting those at the fringes of society, maybe they can get on board with a plan that will make a country that works for all of us.

There are some people who are fighting against injustice, and there are indeed others who realize that everyone benefits by living in a society that works to the benefit of all. Too many, however, have been willing to partition themselves off from the needy and the working poor in an effort to not have to deal with the problem.

The trouble in Washington D.C. is that corporations are spending millions on politicians in order to keep their own interests secure with little regard for the common good. Whoever the candidates are in the presidential primaries, both Democratic and Republican, let us hope that the national debate does not lose sight of the common good, and that we continue to raise the questions of how to best serve the whole of society so that everyone benefits. In the final analysis, it is not so much what the politicians are able to do as it is what we the people are willing to do.

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To hear some suggestions from Robert Reich about some things we can start doing now, go here.


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