Three events on campus I went to last week left me – let me try to put a positive spin on this – less than fully optimistic about the direction the country is going.

Jess Cox

Maybe I should have studied for my midterms instead.

Tuesday night I attended an event that Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality put on about the bitter 1937 Flint sit-down strike that forced General Motors to recognize the United Auto Workers. Then current Delphi worker and UAW Local 651 Vice President Arturo Reyes spoke about the situation facing auto workers today. Though Reyes has a son at the University, Delphi wants to cut his pay to $9 or $10 an hour – if it doesn’t just get rid of him.

Wednesday I saw education critic Jonathan Kozol speak on a book tour. If any conservative readers are wondering how I ended up being such a misguided lefty, Kozol’s book “Savage Inequalities” is part of the reason why. Ten years ago I was shocked to read about the overcrowding, unequal school funding and segregation that deny any meaningful approximation of an equal education to millions of children in this country; I’d been under the delusion that life in the greatest country in the world was always fair.

Not only are the funding inequities and segregation still there, but Kozol pointed out that efforts to make “failing” schools accountable through high-stakes tests have pared the curriculum in many inner-city schools down to the essentials. Teachers following scripts robotically drill students only on the reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic they’ll need on standardized tests, inspiring a love of learning and a drive to go to college be damned.

Friday, I was one of the thousands standing the Diag to hear former Sen. John Edwards speak as part of a college tour aimed at sparking a grassroots movement to combat poverty in America. Citing the focus on issues of race and poverty after Hurricane Katrina, Edwards said, “We have to continue to drive this movement, drive this issue, so that our political leaders will pay attention.” We’re going to have to drive pretty hard if we’re going to get them to pay attention right now.This week, the U.S. House and Senate will be busy debating cuts to programs like Medicaid and food stamps. They’re not debating whether to cut social programs, mind you, but rather exactly how many fewer billions of dollars should be spent on the poor.

There’s a common theme linking these events that explains why I left all of them in a somber mood: As a nation, we are increasingly less concerned about providing everyone in society with the chance to live an economically secure life as part of a strong middle class.

It’s no secret that there’s been a tremendous increase in the income gap between the rich and everyone else over the past couple of decades. As The New York Times reported in June, the proportion of the nation’s income that goes to the richest 0.1 percent of Americans has more than doubled since 1980 while the proportion earned by the bottom 90 percent fell. The obscene size of the “McMansions” sprouting up in the most outlying suburbs around any large city provides a visceral grasp of the statistic that real wages have been flat or falling for all but the richest fifth of the country over the past five years. Even outgoing Federal Reserve Board chair and former Ayn Rand confidant Alan Greenspan said before a congressional committee in June that “this is not the type of thing which a democratic society – a capitalist democratic society – can really accept without addressing.”

After Edwards spoke Friday, he walked into the crowd to shake a few hands and was soon engulfed by a crowd of hundreds of shoulder-to-shoulder well-wishers. I worked my way to the center of the mob and asked Edwards what he thought was responsible for hollowing out the middle class in recent decades. He cited tax policies protecting capital at the expense of earned wages, the persistent failure to raise the minimum wage, the decreased power of labor unions and globalization. “If we don’t figure out what to do about this, we’re going to lose our middle class in this country,” he said, adding that democracy relies upon a strong middle class to work properly.

Edwards is one of the few politicians left who pays any attention to economic justice. He described the fact that 37 million Americans live in poverty in his speech as “one of the great moral issues facing America today.” He made the “two Americas” a theme in his campaign for the Democratic nomination. And he lost.

As a nation, we aren’t figuring out how to maintain our middle class in a global era when jobs like the production work at Delphi – as well as increasing numbers of white-collar jobs – can be done cheaply overseas. Politicians have more luck at the polls talking about eliminating the estate tax than they do with plans to offset our deficits by allowing Bush’s tax cuts for the rich to expire. We won’t do anything about segregation in our schools, and our advice to people who want to go to college but can’t afford the tuition seems to be to settle for a few night classes at community college.

A recent Associated Press poll found that 66 percent of Americans think that the country is on the wrong track. At least I have some company.


Zbrozek can be reached at zbro@umich.edu.

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