The New York Times:
For generations of Americans, working for a state or local government — as a teacher, firefighter, bus driver or nurse — provided a comfortable nook in the middle class. No less than automobile assembly lines and steel plants, the public sector ensured that even workers without a college education could afford a home, a minivan, movie nights and a family vacation.
In recent years, though, the ranks of state and local employees have languished even as the populations they serve have grown. They now account for the smallest share of the American civilian work force since 1967.
The 19.5 million workers who remain are finding themselves financially downgraded. Teachers who have been protesting low wages and sparse resources in Oklahoma, West Virginia and Kentucky — and those in Arizona who say they plan to walk out on Thursday — are just one thread in that larger skein.
Every generation has to decide anew what it wants “America” to be. For the most part, each generation has wanted the same thing: a decent and stable income, a safe and attractive place to live, and the ability to someday retire to a life of modest comforts after working most of a lifetime to earn those things. We call this the middle class; the great American dream is, for the majority of Americans, to be in the middle class.
For a good long time one of the best ways to achieve that dream was to work for the government itself. Whether you were the maintenance man at City Hall, a school teacher, a road worker, a park ranger, or what have you, you would never become rich but you could afford the basics of life, you’ve got a good healthcare plan and can look forward to a decent pension if you stuck with it for the required decades. From regulation-writers to air traffic controllers to police officers to workplace inspectors, we rewarded government workers because government jobs are important. They affect the lives of anywhere from thousands to millions of people; they need to be experienced, which means they need to stick around long enough to get that experienced; they need to be gifted at their profession, which means the government needs to be able to select from the best in a field, in any job where having the best is important.
It was a simple calculation: We made those good jobs with decent incomes, and in exchange Americans who desired middle-class stability and were committed enough to stick with the grind of public duties signed up for the long haul. Somewhere along the line Republicans, and by this I primarily mean the very, very wealthy patrons of Republicans who have funded the modern incarnation of the party for the last half-century, began telling Americans that this was all a big grift. Wealthy business owners were slashing factory wages, and customer service wages, and the wages in every other profession—due, largely, to relentless attacks on worker unions—so why are these government workers getting decent wages and decent pensions? It’s unfair, they said. They think they’re better than you. It’s time to put them in their place.
And this was, again, all because very, very rich Americans didn’t want to pay their taxes. Or their workers. Or follow pollution regulations. It was cheaper to buy politicians who would claim government was crooked, or unions were crooked, or the environmental scientists were crooked than it was to do any of those other things, and so here we are. Large parts of the working class have been indoctrinated with the notion that we scarcely need government at all, and that anyone who works for it must be, by definition, their enemy.
Every generation has to decide anew what it wants “America” to be, and a particular sub-group of our currently in-power one has decided that America cannot have the things it had in past generations because it is unfair to ask the people whose wealth was created from that American prosperity to pay it forward. We can’t “afford” to pay teachers middle-class incomes so that they don’t need second or third jobs; we can’t “afford” textbooks for the schools, so that they have something to teach from. We can’t afford to give out decent health care, and America certainly cannot afford to have its workers retire. Because we don’t want to pay for it. It would require taxes to return to what they were 30 years ago, and the people who write the checks that pay for each political candidate’s television ads could never tolerate that.
And so now each of the basic underpinnings of what once marked someone as middle class—job stability, health care, a pension, a decent school with textbooks for every child—is now shouted about as socialism at best, if not outright communism, and we don’t have those things. It was by design.
But it doesn’t feel like we, as a country, made that choice. We stumbled into it, because politicians turn out to be cheaper purchases than any of those other things and it just sort of … happened. The current teacher strikes, in multiple states, come alongside reports of atrocious school conditions; we are now to the point of arguing whether children’s schools need to be open five days a week or whether four will do, if it’s a choice between doing that or repealing a too-hasty tax cut.
I wonder if it is sustainable. We have now spent the better part of fifty years demonizing the very notion of government; for many Americans, the contempt for common good popularized by radio millionaires, television blowhards, and other representatives of the gilded class has seeped into their very bones. But nobody happy with the status quo; at best, they growl that nobody else should have it better while they’re doing worse. I am not sure that the next generation will settle for that, not even if the likes of Lou Dobbs tells them to.