America has a serious we problem as in, Why should we pay for them?
By ROBERT REICH
Tribune Content Agency
The question is popping up all over. It underlies the debate over extending unemployment benefits to the long-term unemployed and providing food stamps to the poor.
Its found in the resistance of some young people to being required to buy health insurance in order to help pay for people with pre-existing health problems.
It can be heard among residents of upscale neighborhoods who dont want their tax dollars going to the inhabitants of poorer neighborhoods nearby.
The pronouns we and they are the most important of all political words. They demarcate whos within the sphere of mutual responsibility and whos not. Someone within that sphere whos needy is one of us an extension of our family, friends, community, tribe and deserving of help. But needy people outside that sphere are them, presumed undeserving unless proved otherwise.
The central political question faced by any nation or group is where the borders of this sphere of mutual responsibility are drawn.
Why in recent years have so many middle-class and wealthy Americans pulled the borders in closer?
The middle-class and wealthy citizens of East Baton Rouge Parish, La., for example, are trying to secede from the school district they now share with poorer residents, and set up a district funded by property taxes from their higher-valued homes.
Similar efforts are under way in Memphis, Atlanta and Dallas.
Why should we pay for them? is also reverberating in wealthy places like Oakland County, Mich., that border devastatingly poor places like Detroit.
Now, all of a sudden, theyre having problems and they want to give part of the responsibility to the suburbs? says L. Brooks Patterson, the Oakland County executive. Theyre not gonna talk me into being the good guy. Pick up your share? Ha ha.
But had the official boundary been drawn differently so that it encompassed both Oakland County and Detroit say, to create a Greater Detroit region the two places would form a we whose problems Oaklands more affluent citizens would have some responsibility to address.
Whats going on?
One obvious explanation involves race. Detroit is mostly black; Oakland County, mostly white. The secessionist school districts in the South are almost entirely white; the neighborhoods theyre leaving behind, mostly black.
But race alone cant explain the broader national pattern. According to Census Bureau numbers, two-thirds of Americans below the poverty line at any given point identify themselves as white.
Another culprit is the increasing economic stress felt by most middle-class Americans. Median household incomes are dropping, and over three-quarters of Americans report theyre living paycheck to paycheck.
Yet this doesnt explain why so many wealthy Americans are also exiting. Theyve never been richer. Surely they can afford a larger we. But most of todays rich adamantly refuse to pay anything close to the tax rate Americas wealthy accepted 40 years ago.
Perhaps its because, as inequality has widened and class divisions have hardened, Americas wealthy no longer have any idea how the other half lives.
Americas wealthy increasingly inhabit a different country from the one they inhabit.
The first step in widening the sphere of we is to break down the barriers not just of race, but also, increasingly, of class and of geographical segregation by income that are pushing we Americans further and further apart.
Robert Reich, a former U.S. labor secretary, is the chancellors professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.