ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT
The annual summit meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures, a big show that’s coming to the Twin Cities next month, features a breakout session labeled “Keeping the American Dream Alive.”
That’s a rather cosmic policy objective on a calendar that includes wonky sessions on how to manage public employee pensions and the latest developments in voting technology.
But a topic that grand underscores the thematic dominance of widening economic and racial inequality as an over-arching concern in national and state politics and policymaking. And Minnesota’s remarkable record of legislative achievement over the last two years to directly address inequality, through wage and tax and health care policy, makes this year’s conference the ideal locale to tackle the issue.
Among those who will be most focused on the Aug. 21 “American Dream” breakout session is Minnesota state Rep. David Bly, of Northfield, who has been one of the more persistent advocates in framing inequality around the decline of the middle class.
Bly in past years has proposed a “Middle Class Amendment” to state or national constitutions. His latest efforts include the idea of a “Middle Class Covenant” to which legislators, candidates and citizens could commit. Recently he traveled to another association of legislators, the Council of State Governments Midwestern Legislative Conference meeting in Omaha, to present his paper, “An Economic Covenant for America’s Future.”
Whether through amendment or covenant, Bly and many other lawmakers across the nation are beginning to cobble together a coherent state and national movement not just to reduce inequality between the rich and the poor, but to improve the basic condition of the median household and a loosely defined middle class, and to grow its ranks.
Bly brings some important personal learning to the task. He has been a lead teacher at the Northfield Alternative Learning Center, and thus has plenty of first-hand experience dealing with the stresses that affect vulnerable families and children, those trying to maintain a middle-class lifestyle or those trying to attain it.
In his own words: “I saw families struggling even before the 2008 economic downturn and I saw that they found staying afloat even more difficult when they did not have access to health care, transportation, living wage jobs, and an education system that addressed their particular needs. It opened my eyes to the need for early intervention and working together to help families and youth become more productive. It got me thinking about how to get out in front of what I saw as a growing problem across our economy, and having an impact on almost everyone, either in their family or someone they knew.”
Bly and a growing number of legislators think states need to fashion a more coherent agenda and a more comprehensive set of policies that provide livable wages and benefits for all workers, much expanded educational and training opportunities from birth to career readiness, affordable health care, quality housing, low-cost transportation, and investments in a cleaner and greener economy.
In his online essay (at davidbly.com) calling for a Middle Class Covenant, Bly eloquently explains that this movement is about a traditional and classic American ideal, a belief that our nation and our states rise or fall on the condition of the average person and that those in the middle will thrive if given the opportunity and a fair deal.
Bly calls for a covenant and a movement that rests on “a nationwide commitment for everyone to have what they need to develop their potential. This commitment goes beyond lip service and political speeches. It involves deliberate policies that maintain a middle class economy.”
Much has been written recently about a perceived shift in President Barack Obama’s messaging, from his oft-voiced concern about widening inequality and the growing dominance of the richest, to more of a focus on the struggles of the middle class. That shift was on display in Obama’s recent trip to the Twin Cities, in his meeting over a burger with a local middle-class mom, and a couple of speeches peppered with phrases about the plight of the middle class and average families. Bly addresses the tension between “inequality” and a “middle class economy” skillfully in his covenant essay:
“A middle class economy is not one in which every single person makes a certain amount of money. Even in a middle class economy, some are rich and some are poor. But most of the people have most of the money. Most of the people can take care of themselves and fully develop their potential. There is also a commitment by those [at the top financially] to support programs that allow the less fortunate to develop the skills to meet their own needs.”
That last phrase is particularly important for consensus building. Reporter Zachary A. Goldfarb, in a recent Washington Post article on Obama’s shift in focus from fighting income inequality to lifting the middle class, found at least some sympathy from a conservative think tank.
Goldfarb quoted Stuart Butler, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, who almost complimented Obama. Butler said that the shift in terminology “reflects not necessarily a consensus, but a growing recognition that there is a distinction between inequality itself and a deeper concern about whether there are some people who lack the ability to move up the economic ladder.”
Focusing on the middle class does bring immediately more buy-in from independents and conservatives. And national and state business leaders increasingly are voicing concern for the middle class, both its long-term productivity and its purchasing power.
We shouldn’t be forced into false choices on terminology. Whether it’s “widening inequality,” or “keeping the American dream alive,” or “creating a middle-class economy,” the policy choices are remarkably similar and complementary. And in one ringing phrase that comedian John Oliver featured in his impressive monologue on the inequality subject recently, Obama got all three themes into one sentence that conveyed the urgency of the threat:
“The combined trends of increased inequality and decreased mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe. I believe this is the defining challenge of our time.”
A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, July 23, 2014.