Diminishing Expectations: For Whom?

In a debate with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Senator Sanders referred to the achievements of the Nordic countries in providing such things as universal health care and free higher education as models for the United States. Secretary Clinton responded by saying, "I love Denmark, but the United States is not Denmark." What does that mean? The allusion is not to insufficient economic resources but to unrealistic political expectations. Sometimes the excuse or barrier is our "diversity." In the final analysis, one might infer from that explanation that we would extend these benefits if it didn't mean that they would be provided to persons of color, immigrants or other groups somehow regarded as alien and undeserving. Or, one could also infer that such proposals are unrealistic because they run counter to the interests in low taxes of the one percent whose expectations have continued to rise and, moreover, to be achieved. Michael Moore's new film, Where to Invade Next, shows that other industrialized countries accept as a matter of fact and right -- adequate vacation and sick leave time, universal health care, free higher education, healthy food, a prison system that rehabilitates -- the benefits that we consider to be "unreal," and "impossible." Just who are the "realists?"

The Democratic party establishment also seems to have adopted the mindset of diminished expectations. Why else, when it had the majority, did it cave in on supporting the public option when the Affordable Care Act was being debated? Why has it consigned the accomplishments of the New Deal to the dustbin of history? It was not always so. In the 1960s, when new frontiers in civil and economic rights were seriously contemplated, conservatives worried about "rising expectations" -- that the discovery of poverty and the talk of waging war on it would lead the down-and-out to expect and demand too much. In that decade, however, under Democratic leadership the frontiers were indeed pushed forward with such advances as health care provision for the elderly through Medicare and Medicaid. The same year saw the passage of the far-reaching Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that sought to shorten the achievement gaps between students "by providing each child with fair and equal opportunities to achieve an exceptional education." Not to mention the civil and political rights that were at last extended to those long denied them. Since the mid-1970s, expectations have clearly fallen. In a nation that once expected an ever-rising standard of living, wages have stagnated and work has become precarious for increasing numbers of people. As David Bensman, professor at the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations, points out, many people who previously worked as employees are currently working under contract and as a result lack the legal rights of employees, as defined by previous federal legislative gains-- such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Equal Employment Opportunities Act. No longer employees in the traditional sense, contract workers lack retirement benefits and are not eligible for employer contributions to social security, unemployment insurance, and workers' compensation. Work, in short, is not the opportunity it once was.

Paradoxically, expectations have diminished in tandem with rising national income. So why would Senator Bernie Sanders' proposals for basic rights -- to health care, paid family leave, and a college education -- seem too far out for the world's economic powerhouse? In a recent radio interview on the daily news show, "Democracy Now," Nobel Laureate in Economics, Joseph Stiglitz, surely no impractical dreamer, agreed with Sanders that we should not tolerate a level of inequality that denies such basic rights to the people of this nation. Was President Franklin D. Roosevelt so unrealistic when, in State of the Union messages in 1944 and 1945, he proposed and charged Congress with implementing an Economic Bill of Rights that would guarantee to all Americans, regardless of station, race, or creed, such rights as a living-wage job, adequate medical care, and a good education? The definition of a "good education" changes over time. In a recent debate, Senator Sanders pointed out that in the nineteenth century, this nation committed itself to providing what was then deemed a good education -- twelve years of schooling or high school for all. Why, when we are much wealthier as a nation do we find it unimaginable to pay for today's equivalent -- a college education?

Senator Sanders has been criticized for harping on the issues of income inequality and the stranglehold of economic elites on the democratic process. Leaving aside the foundational importance of these problems -- as barriers to the provision of rights that are essential to well-being in contemporary society -- one can point to an overlooked outcome of Sanders' campaign. By proposing policies commensurate with an equitable society but off the table in our present, inequitable one, the Senator from Vermont has begun to reverse the process of diminishing expectations that serve, in turn, to diminish social progress.

Sheila D. Collins and Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg are authors/editors of 'When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal,' Oxford University Press, 2014, selected for the 1945 Roosevelt Reading Festival of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. They are co-founders and serve as Chair (Goldberg) and Secretary (Collins) of the National Jobs for All Coalition, www.njfac.org Goldberg is Professor Emerita of Social Policy and former chair of the Ph.D. Program in Social Work, Adelphi University. Collins is Professor Emerita of Political Science, William Paterson University.

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