In my years in the Minnesota House of Representatives, I have noticed that everyone talks about saving our middle class economy. Our actions, however, can tell a different story. We hear calls to cut education, defund health programs, let our roads fall apart, resist sustainable energy solutions, and support economic policies that have us working more for less. We are told we must go it alone, that our neighbor’s problems have nothing to do with us. We are told to ignore Paul Wellstone’s great advice: “We all do better when we all do better.”
As we go down this road, more and more of us find that our neighbor’s problems are now our problems. Our children don’t have the schools we think they should, we worry more about health care, the roads we drive have more potholes, our climate is harsher, and our paycheck doesn’t go as far as it used to. All of this adds up to shrinking opportunities, not just for us, but for our neighbors and our children. We find ourselves thinking that everyone deserves at least the opportunity for a good life, but wondering, “Where will those opportunities come from?”
Those opportunities come more easily for those who have the good fortune to live in a middle class economy. To make sure everyone has that advantage, we must focus on the things we have to do together. Our spending priorities must respect what I call “the five building blocks of a middle class society”: education, health care, transportation, clean energy, and living wage jobs. Maintaining these foundations must be our number one legislative priority if we are to provide ourselves, our neighbors, and our children with the opportunities they deserve.
I can hear the objections already: “This is too expensive! Where will the money come from?” When people say “We can’t afford this!” we will also have to remind them that, even more so, we can’t afford the alternative, that is, a Third World economy in which most of us lack for opportunity. That is not the American dream. This was not the intent of those who wrote our Constitution. And this is not a path that will lead us out of the despair that motivates so many voters in today’s elections.
Tax breaks for the rich, small government, and ideological shouting matches simply cannot, and will not, get us where we need to be. What will get us back where we need to be is restoring our priorities so that they are in line with the idea of opportunities for all. We are still the world’s richest country. What we do with that great wealth and what policies can make better use of that wealth to continue to create opportunity and prosperity is everyone’s business.
Changing the conversation about how we move forward and build and maintain a middle class economy is not an easy task. This is going to be a big job, far too big for any one of us, or even any group of us, to get done on our own. All of us working together is a different story. We can get this done as it was done once before. We can renew our calling to build “a more perfect union” for all Americans. And we can live in country where the words “The Land of Opportunity” truly mean something, not just for a privileged few, but for each and every one of us.
David Bly represents House District 20B in the Minnesota Legislature. His most recent book is We All Do Better: Economic Priorities for a Land of Opportunity (www.WeAllDoBetter.com)