Molly Ivins October 23
AUSTIN — In case you missed it (and you probably did because the media considered this a non-story), this country's social well-being has fallen to its lowest point in almost 25 years, and those who are suffering most are children and young people.
The social-health index was developed by respected researchers at Fordham University's Institute for Innovation in Social Policy, and it goes back to 1970. The results of this year's study are dismal. Four of the six problems in the survey affecting young Americans — child abuse, teen-age suicide, drug abuse and the high school dropout — worsened in 1994, the most recent year covered by the study. This was the first time that four issues involving children have all shown deterioration. The study did find a slight decrease in child poverty — making it only the fifth-worst year for it since 1971.
According to a study released last week by the Tufts University Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy, about 12 million American children go hungry or are threatened with hunger. "Recent scientific evidence now demonstrates that the type of hunger we have in the United States — mild malnutrition — produces long-term and even permanent cognitive impairments in children."
The teen suicide rate is almost twice as high as it was in 1970. And as we all know, the welfare "reform" bill devised by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress and signed by President Clinton will inevitably shove more kids into poverty. On a social-health index with ratings from 0 to 100, America scored 37.5.
This rather rude reminder that things are not hunky-dory here in Mudville got the reception that bad-news messengers usually get: a nice, blank wall of denial. Political discussion these days is limited to how to dismantle government, so sitting up and suggesting that government might actually make a renewed commitment to social and economic justice in this country is like passing gas at a tea party.
Think about what is not being discussed in this campaign. We have the most expensive per capita health-care system in the world, but between 41 million and 44 million Americans still have no health insurance.
Even though most families now rely on two wage-earners, between 1979 and 1994, the annual household income of the poorest fifth of Americans declined by 3 percent to $7,800. Income for the next highest fifth declined 4 percent to $19,200. In the middle fifth, the decline was 2 percent to $32,400. But because wealthier Americans enjoyed such a dramatic increase in their incomes, total household income grew by $1.1 trillion.
Morton Mintz, that superb reporter, suggested last summer in The Washington Monthly some of the questions that we might usefully consider in this campaign.
The pay gap between CEOs and workers is wider in the United States than in any other country. Would you favor a limit on the corporate tax deduction for executive compensation in excess of, say, $3 million?
Jill Nelson, writing in The Nation about the death of Tupac Shakur, asks another telling question: "How did we as a culture get to the point where we no longer notice or question the proliferation of guns, unemployment, violence and despair in black and poor communities until someone famous dies, and then only for a moment?"
Have we convinced ourselves that nothing can be done about any of it? That's not true. We know which programs work and which don't; we see programs that work all the time. We just don't have enough of them.
Have we convinced ourselves that we don't have the money? Say we put some unheard-of sum into a renewed war on poverty — $100 billion to tackle housing, education, job training and day care all simultaneously. Where could we get a sum like that in an era of tight budgets? Well, in 1995, we spent $167 billion on corporate welfare, according to the Center for Responsive Law. The Pentagon wants to spend $1 trillion for a new generation of jet fighters, even though we already have the best in the world. That comes to about $10,000 per household. We only need 10 percent of that.
Perhaps the most useful question of the year came from media critic James Fallows back in January. "There are moments in history on which we look back and say, 'What were those people thinking?' Year in and year out during World War I, generals ordered their troops to scramble up from their trenches and run across no-man's land toward enemy machine-gun nests, only to be mowed down. What could they have been thinking? During the first year of the Reagan administration, many politicians and commentators acted as if there were a reasonable chance that cutting federal taxes, while increasing federal spending, might balance the budget. What were they thinking?
"A generation from now, people will look back on us, especially at today's Democrats, and wonder what we were thinking on one fundamental issue. The issue is the role and purpose of government. ... Democrats have done very little to challenge the modern Republican proposition that government is simply evil, that it is wasteful, oppressive, misguided and inefficient. Therefore, the contest boils down to who can hack the most out of this evil presence in the shortest possible time. What can the Democrats be thinking? Not only are they doomed to lose any government-hating contest, they are also ignoring the history of their growth — and the country's."
Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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