By the Editorial Board/ New York Times/ April 9, 2020
From some of its darkest hours, the United States has emerged stronger and more resilient.
Between May and July 1862, even as Confederate victories in Virginia raised doubts about the future of the Union, Congress and President Abraham Lincoln kept their eyes on the horizon, enacting three landmark laws that shaped the nation’s next chapter: The Homestead Act allowed Western settlers to claim 160 acres of public land apiece; the Morrill Act provided land grants for states to fund universities; and the Pacific Railway Act underwrote the transcontinental railroad.
Nearly 75 years later, in the depths of the Great Depression, with jobs in short supply and many Americans reduced to waiting in bread lines, President Franklin Roosevelt proved similarly farsighted. He concluded the best way to revive and sustain prosperity was not merely to pump money into the economy but to rewrite the rules of the marketplace. “Liberty,” Roosevelt said at the Democratic Party’s convention in 1936, “requires opportunity to make a living — a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.” His administration, working with Congress, enshrined the right of workers to bargain collectively, imposed strict rules and regulators on the financial industry, and created Social Security to provide pensions for the elderly and disabled.
The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare once again the incomplete nature of the American project — the great distance between the realities of life and death in the United States and the values enunciated in its founding documents.
Over the past half century, the fabric of American democracy has been stretched thin. The nation has countenanced debilitating decay in its public institutions and a concentration of economic power not seen since the 1920s. While many Americans live without financial security or opportunity, a relative handful of families holds much of the nation’s wealth. Over the past decade, the wealth of the top 1 percent of households has surpassed the combined wealth of the bottom 80 percent.
The present crisis has revealed the United States as a nation in which professional basketball players could be rapidly tested for the coronavirus but health care workers were turned away; in which the affluent could retreat to the safety of second homes, relying on workers who can’t take paid sick leave to deliver food; in which children in lower-income households struggle to connect to the digital classrooms where their school lessons are now supposed to be delivered.
It is a nation in which local officials issuing stay-at-home orders must reckon with the cruel irony that hundreds of thousands of Americans do not have homes. Lacking private places, they must sleep in public spaces. Las Vegas painted rectangles on an asphalt parking lot to remind homeless residents to sleep six feet apart — an act that might as well have been a grim piece of performance art titled “The Least We Can Do
The federal government is providing temporary aid to less fortunate Americans, and few have objected to those emergency measures. But already some politicians are asserting that the extraordinary nature of the crisis does not warrant permanent changes in the social contract.
This misapprehends both the nature of crises in general and the particulars of the present emergency. The magnitude of a crisis is determined not just by the impact of the precipitating events but also by the fragility of the system it attacks. Our society was especially vulnerable to this pandemic because so many Americans lack the essential liberty to protect their own lives and the lives of their families.
This nation was ailing long before the coronavirus reached its shores.
A great divide separates affluent Americans, who fully enjoy the benefits of life in the wealthiest nation on earth, from the growing portion of the population whose lives lack stability or any real prospect of betterment.
The hedge-fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin paid $238 million last year for a New York apartment overlooking Central Park. He plans to stay there when he happens to be in town. Meanwhile, 10.9 million American families barely can afford an apartment. They spend more than half of their incomes on rent, and so they scrimp on food and health care. And on any given night, half a million Americans are homeless.
For those at the bottom, moreover, the chances of rising are in decline. By the time they reached 30, more than 90 percent of Americans born in 1940 were earning more than their parents had earned at the same age. But among those born in 1980, only half were earning more than their parents by the age of 30.
The erosion of the American dream is not a result of laziness or a talent drought. Rather, opportunity has slipped away. The economic ladder is harder to climb; real incomes have stagnated for decades even as the costs of housing, education and health care have increased. Many lower-income Americans are born into polluted, impoverished neighborhoods, with no decent jobs to be found.
“By 40, my parents owned a house, had a kid — me — and were both doing well in their careers,” said Melanie Martin-Leff, who works in marketing in Philadelphia. “I’m freelancing, renting, partnerless and childless.”
The inequalities of wealth have become inequalities of health. A middle-aged American in the top fifth of the income distribution can expect to live about 13 years longer than a person of the same age in the bottom fifth — an advantage that has more than doubled since 1980.
These changes have become harder to reverse because the distribution of political power also is increasingly unequal. Our system of democracy is under strain as those with wealth increasingly shape the course of policymaking, acting from self-interest and perhaps also failing to imagine life on the other side of the divide or to design policy in the common interest.
The wealthy are particularly successful in blocking changes they don’t like. The political scientists Martin Gilens of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Benjamin Page of Northwestern have calculated that between 1981 and 2002, policies supported by at least 80 percent of affluent voters passed into law about 45 percent of the time, while policies opposed by at least 80 percent of those voters passed into law just 18 percent of the time. Importantly, the views of poor and middle-class voters had little influence.
The fragility of our society and government is the product of deliberate decisions. The modern welfare state was constructed in three great waves:
These policies embodied a broad and muscular conception of liberty: that government should provide all Americans with the freedom that comes from a stable and prosperous life.
“We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence,” Roosevelt told the nation in 1944.
The goal, of course, was never realized in full, but since the late 1960s, the federal government has largely abandoned the attempt. The defining trend in American public policy has been to diminish government’s role as a guarantor of personal liberty.
Advocates of a minimalist conception of government claim they too are defenders of liberty. But theirs is a narrow and negative definition of freedom: the freedom from civic duty, from mutual obligation, from taxation. This impoverished view of freedom has in practice protected wealth and privilege. It has perpetuated the nation’s defining racial inequalities and kept the poor trapped in poverty, and their children, and their children’s children.
One of the most important aspects of this retreat was the government’s role in constructing a new residential landscape of economically and racially segregated communities. The government built highways that carried white families to new suburban neighborhoods where minorities often were not allowed to live; it provided mortgage loans that minorities were not allowed to obtain; and even after explicit discrimination was declared illegal, single-family zoning laws continued to exclude low-income families, particularly minorities.