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.
“What has happened to respect for the people who do the work and want to work in our country? What happened to our values—the basic moral truth—that people shouldn’t go hungry in the richest country in the world?
“And how did we get to the point where many of us value the work of day-traders pushing paper on Wall Street, but ignore the contributions of the people who work in day care centers, educate our children, and care for our elderly in the twilight of life? What about their value?
Harkin is right in this last bit—just looking at the record shows Congress clearly does value the work of the financial sector over most everyone else. For just one small example, consider the budget bill slated to pass only hours after Harkin spoke. While it cuts the pensions of federal workers and doesn’t include any extension of long-term unemployment benefits, it did manage to exclude a non-binding measure simply expressing a sense of Congress that maybe big banks shouldn’t be so big that their failure endangers the economy.
On this and so many other examples (think the airport waiting line carve-out from sequestration), the policy priorities of the wealthy tend to win out in Washington, as Marty Gilens, a professor of politics at Princeton, has demonstrated convincingly:
But that wasn’t the thrust of Harkin’s speech. Time and again he went after the ideology that those relying on government benefits are in the wrong, and unworthy of help—at times targeting his colleagues by name.
“Senator Paul, for example, said last week that he didn’t support an extension of the federal unemployment program. He said: ‘When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed…group in our…economy, and…while it seems good, it actually does a disservice to the people you’re trying to help.’
“A ‘disservice?’ Frankly, I don’t understand at all this kind of myopia, this harshness.”
Almost to reinforce Harkin’s point, less than twenty-four hours later a Republican House member suggested that poor children should sweep the floor in exchange for their subsidized lunch.
It’s this attitude Harkin condemned, and ended with words from a woman in Colorado and a plea for compassion:
“Let me close with one more statement from a real worker whose life will be improved if we here in Congress will step up and support the people who do the work in our country. She has a lesson for us here in Washington. Jackie Perkins works at a restaurant in Denver, CO, and she says:
‘You’re talking about real people.… You can sit in your ivory tower in the legislature and talk about economics and numbers and…jobs, but what you don’t understand is…there are real jobs…and real workers who have families that they need to support, and raising the minimum wage helps me support myself and my family and to advance…and to achieve the American dream.’
I believe in Jackie’s dreams and those of all hard-working Americans. As we look ahead to Christmas and the New Year, I hope that all my colleagues here will take time over the holiday to think about all the blessings we have been given, all we should be thankful for. And I hope we put ourselves in the shoes of those working people, who just want to build a better life for themselves and their children. Think about the minimum-wage retail worker who works hard running the cash register, standing all day, but can’t afford to shop in her own store. Think of the unemployed worker who must go to the local food bank because he can’t find a job and can’t afford Christmas dinner.
We have a duty to make sure the people who do the work in this country get a fair chance to aspire to the American Dream. When we return from the holidays I urge all of my colleagues to support a strong food assistance program, a richly deserved and long-overdue increase in the minimum wage, and an extension of federal unemployment insurance. And let’s have a new year that’s filled with less harshness and a little bit more compassion and understanding for our fellow Americans.
Read next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on the budget deal.