When Money Talks, Democracy Walks
This is where we are.
In 2010, the poverty rate in the United States reached 15.1 percent, up from 14.3 percent in 2009. A total of 46.2 million Americans live in poverty, and more than a third of them are children. Nearly 40 percent of African-American children and 35 percent of Hispanic children in the United States live below the poverty level, and it is getting worse.
A record 6.7 percent of Americans (one in 10 children) are living at less than half the poverty level. Wages are declining. The median household income for working-age Americans has dropped from $61,574 in 2000 to $55,276 in 2010, virtually wiping out the gains made in income over the previous 40 years.
The wealth gap in the U.S. is the widest that it has ever been — wider than it was during the Great Depression and wider than any other industrialized nation on the planet. In 2007, the richest one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans controlled 6 percent of the country’s wealth. In 2010, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans controlled 33.8 percent of the country’s wealth, while the bottom 50 percent on the net worth scale accounted for about 2.5 percent.
Unemployment stands at 9.1 percent (14 million people), and two-thirds of those are long-term unemployed. Unemployment among post-9/11 era veterans was at 10.9 percent as of April 2011, nearly two percentage points above the national average.
Education, the very foundation of our economic strength over the previous century, is being gutted just when we need it most. This year, 6,307 jobs were eliminated in North Carolina public schools — including 4,000 teachers or teacher’s assistants. Over the past four years, North Carolina eliminated 16,678 educators.
This is what we could do about it.
Last Thursday, President Obama introduced the American Jobs Act. Drawing heavily upon ideas that have enjoyed bipartisan support in years past, the $450 billion plan is two-thirds tax cuts and incentives and one-third investment in actual jobs. Included in this bill:
Cutting the payroll tax in half for small businesses, making it easier for them to hire new workers.
Cutting the payroll tax in half for workers, allowing them to put more of their paychecks back into the economy.
The creation of an “Infrastructure Bank” to put people to work rebuilding our decaying infrastructure.
A $4,000 tax credit for employers who hire people who have been unemployed more than six months.
A total of $5,600 to $9,600 in tax credits for employers who hire unemployed veterans.
A total of $35 billion to keep teachers on the job and $25 billion to invest in school infrastructure.
This country needs an impactful jobs plan, and it needs it right now. That is exactly what the president delivered. Congress should not hesitate to, as Obama put it, “do what they were elected to do.”
Here’s why they won’t. Members of Congress don’t do what fickle majorities elect them to do. They do what relatively stable benefactors select them to do. In 2009, newly elected President Obama wrestled a stimulus through Congress that didn’t go far enough. In 2010, a new Congress was swept in on the promise of jobs, jobs, jobs.
In the nine months since, Congress has delivered nothing, nothing, nothing. They can do that because among that 1 percent of Americans who control more than a third of our wealth are people willing to spend the money required to convince just enough of the rest of us that austerity is a jobs program.
The most important development in this country since Barack Obama took office is not the new health care law or the elimination of bin Laden. The event that will alter the course of this republic was the decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, in which the Supreme Court decided that corporations had the same rights as individuals.
In a country where 10 percent of the people account for 71.5 percent of personal wealth, adding corporate profits to those monied interests makes the minimalization or elimination of capital gains vital, the maximization of tax shelters essential, and education and affordable health care for average Americans “socialism.”
It’s ironic that people invoke the Founding Fathers to rail against the very government the founders created. They’ve become the symbol for more limited government that some of them embraced.
But when corporate money and the concentration of wealth in a tiny minority of Americans create leverage that the majority cannot match, then we’re no longer living in the representative democracy the founders envisioned.
When money talks, democracy walks.
Kevin Smith lives in Aberdeen. Contact him at email@example.com.
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