One Nation, Divisible
The rich are doing just fine. An article in last Thursday's New York Times noted that sales of luxury goods are recovering strongly. The age of conspicuous consumption is returning so powerfully that high-end retailers are actually marking up prices on luxury goods. The article quoted one shopkeeper who said that it's no big deal for his customers if an $800 pair of shoes is marked up to $860.
And while that additional $60 may not mean much for some consumers, many others struggle to buy the basic necessities. The same article noted that discount retailer Wal-Mart has begun selling smaller packs of bulk toilet paper because many of its consumers don't have enough cash on hand to afford larger multipacks.
That many families can't afford basic needs is not an indictment of the wealthy. But something is terribly amiss when experts continue to proclaim the nation is more than two years into an economic recovery yet some families can't afford basic necessities such as toilet paper and high-end retailers have the luxury of marking up already pricey goods and services.
It is this gross dichotomy that makes the current political climate and debates in Washington so troubling. This disparity also makes it hard not to question the terms of the debt deal signed into law last week. Lawmakers agreed to trim at least $2.4 trillion from the deficit over the next 10 years. The deal forces cuts to domestic, discretionary programs–including those that support people in advancing their jobs skills, education and training and those that provide supports to families in poverty–by imposing spending caps in the name of deficit reduction.
Since lawmakers began talking in earnest about deficit reduction last year, they've thrown around the phrase, "shared sacrifice." But as is, the bill pays lip service to that principle by failing to put revenue raisers such as closing corporate tax loopholes or ending tax breaks for the wealthy in the mix. If this warped notion of "shared sacrifice" persists, low-income families already struggling to put food on the table or buy toilet paper and other basic necessities will have to do without even more, while those at the highest income levels will not be asked to shoulder any of the burden of deficit reduction.
Just as Washington is politically divided, we as a country are economically divided. One in three Americans, nearly 98 million people, lives in a low-income household without sufficient money to provide for their families' basic needs. These families are one health care crisis, job loss or other unforeseen event away from poverty. One in seven Americans, nearly 46 million people, relies on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) to put food on the table. More than 14 million people (9.1 percent) are unemployed. Economic inequality continues to worsen.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), expressing frustration about the final debt deal, said to the Washington Post: "My constituents are suffering; they've lost their jobs and their homes, and now to cut the very programs that could have provided them with support while the rich are given a pass - it's ridiculous."
The trouble is not that the wealthy are purchasing high-priced consumer goods, it's that in neighborhoods across town, other families are making tough decisions about how to make limited dollars stretch. It's these families that need someone in Washington to stand up for them. Yet lawmakers have chosen to drastically reduce discretionary spending in a way that will result in cuts to programs that alleviate immediate hardship and provide opportunity for families to move out of poverty.
If we are truly one indivisible nation, we should find a policy path that moves us toward fiscal discipline while maintaining the critical role of the government and its safety net for those who need it most.