There’s a certain buzz in Washington that correcting income inequality is back on the agenda—big speeches are made, think tanks launched, strenuously worded columns published. But in practice, this means exactly nothing (yet) for economically challenged Americans.
In fact, this year has seen Washington actively make the fortunes of many middle- and low-income Americans worse: federal pensions will get slashed, food stamps have been cut (and will be cut again) and vital long-term unemployment insurance will expire. And forget about anything proactive like raising the minimum wage.
Tuesday afternoon, Senator Tom Harkin took to the Senate floor and gave one of the more bracing speeches of the year, in which he called out the “benign neglect” of Congress towards Americans with “tough lives.”
I would encourage you to read or watch the entire speech (especially if you, say, work in the office of a Republican House member) but allow me to quote from it at length here first. It’s a message that essentially escaped notice this week, but if historians are looking back on this awful gilded period in American history, they would likely identify a voice of sanity amidst all the madness.
“We used to agree that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you should be able to earn enough to support your family and keep a roof over your head, put some money away for a rainy day, and have a secure retirement.
“We used to agree that if you lose your job through no fault of your own, especially at a time of chronic unemployment, you should have some support while you’re looking for new work. We used to agree—on both sides of the aisle—that no child in this country should go to bed hungry at night.
“But in recent years, it has been alarming to see how these fundamental principles and values are being attacked in our public discourse. For many, the new attitude is ‘you’re on your own.’ And if you struggle, even if you face insurmountable challenges, it’s probably your own fault.
“There is a harshness, born of a benign neglect, toward those Americans who have tough lives, are ill-educated, marginally employed, or just down on their luck.
“It used to be that we only heard such harsh rhetoric from talk radio partisans trying to attract ratings. Sadly, now it has become part of our everyday conversation here in the United States Congress. We hear how minimum wage workers don’t deserve a fair wage because they are not worth $10.10 an hour. We hear that unemployed workers should be cut off from unemployment insurance because they are becoming ‘dependent.’ But they are trying to support their families on $310 a week on average—and that ranges from $193 on average in Mississippi to $490 on average in Massachusetts.
“At a time when there are three job seekers for every job, we hear that it’s critical to take away food assistance from millions of individuals so that, supposedly, they will learn the redemptive power of work—as if young mothers working service jobs, laid off factory workers delivering newspapers, and unemployed families receiving SNAP benefits need to be lectured by members of the House of Representatives about work.