James Webb's Equity Challenge: What If We Got Serious?

WASHINGTON — Cheers for Sen. James Webb. His Democratic rejoinder to the State of the Union address provided a blast of fresh politics we hear all too rarely, either in Washington or the state capitals.

And it wasn't just Webb's predictably biting critique of the Iraq War. The surprise was Webb's co-theme — how critical it is to address this nation's alarming and growing income divisions and stratospheric corporate salaries as Wall Street trumps Main Street, jobs get shipped overseas, health costs soar, college tuitions inflate.

Fine, you may say, but where do we go for solutions, beyond the mild, overdue minimum-wage bill now before Congress? And what's to rescue the 40 percent of American earners who now receive just 12.5 percent of total U.S. income?

For answers, I turned to Peter Dreier, urban policy specialist at Occidental College in Los Angeles and a longtime champion of broadened income opportunity in America. Dreier would start by raising the minimum wage above the poverty line, as it was back in 1969. That would mean $9 an hour (compared to the $7.25 figure now before Congress). Dreier hopes John Edwards, the presidential candidate so far most attuned to poor people's needs, might actually embrace the $9 figure.

Would a higher minimum wage mean U.S. job losses? No, replies Dreier, "Our fight isn't over low-skill, low-pay jobs — those that can are going to China and Pakistan anyway. The big benefit would be in our immobile service sectors, like hotel workers — and don't worry, those hotels won't move to Mexico."

State governments could help too, says Dreier, with laws guaranteeing that a living wage be paid by all firms that get state subsidies or contracts.

But low-wage workers also need unions, he insists. He'd ``level the field between labor and management'' with the Employee Free Choice Act, currently before Congress, that would reduce workers' fear of being fired if they join a union campaign.

If America could get back to 25 percent union membership, Dreier believes, ``the entire politics of the country would change, we'd have a much higher minimum wage — and we'd have national health insurance.''

And he believes that universal insurance — ``Medicare for all'' --would end up reducing individuals' risk (BEG ITAL) and (END ITAL) total system costs.

What about housing — the most expensive item in people's budgets?

There's not a single U.S. county where a minimum-wage worker can afford a one-bedroom apartment, reports the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Dreier would replace today's Sec. 8 rental vouchers with a housing component added for all recipients of the Earned Income Tax Credit program, which has turned into the federal government's most significant aid for the poor.

Other ideas: universal child care for all families, plus universal preschool, including in the summer, to help narrow the class/income achievement gap. Then use the federal purse to coax and assist states to equalize public school spending across their rich and poor districts. Dreier would also have Washington equalize school spending among states.

Our federal government pays for only 8 percent of public education, compared to half or more in Europe, he notes.

From several weeks of annual paid vacation for all workers to sharply increased financial aid for college students, there seem to be no limits on Dreier's list of equity measures.

Opponents' sure response would be howls of outrage about the costs. In fact, Dreier would have us raise the highest tax bracket for multimillionaires to the high levels (50 percent to 70 percent) of the 1970s. And he'd get rid of the Social Security tax higher-earner exemption (on income above $97,500).

Too expensive? Too depressing on economic activity? Canada and Western Europe, notes Dreier, have dramatically higher taxes than the U.S. but have largely resisted the same pressures of globalization. ``It would take several decades of 'moving to the right' before they approached the levels of inequality, economic insecurity and social misery that we have in the United States.''

And for expense, if we can spend potentially trillions of dollars for Middle East misadventures, how about investments in our own people that would almost surely pay off in better health, higher literacy, dramatically increased earning power and thus national wealth over the next decades?

No Democratic congressional agenda mirrors the full dramatic leftward tilt of Dreier's recommendations. But after years of right-wing drumbeat, maybe it's time to hear, to listen with care to the left.

That's not to say the right doesn't have solid points about the downward drag of bad and indifferent schools, absent parents and islands of subculture that glorify swagger over work. But the answer shouldn't be punitive, says Dreier; his recommendation is give people economic hope combined with training in such life skills as parenting and conflict resolution.

For a society we're truly proud of, couldn't we at least dream of having it all? 

Tags: Economy