Our job is not to think small. It is to think big.
The United States is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. Why are we so far behind so many other countries when it comes to meeting the needs of working families and the American middle class?
Why doesn’t every American have access to health care as a basic right?
Why can’t every American who is qualified get a higher education, regardless of family income?
Why can’t we have full employment at a decent living wage?
Why must many older Americans be forced to choose between paying for food, shelter, or medical care?
Why can’t working parents have access to affordable, high-quality childcare?
We should be asking questions like these every day. We have more billionaires in this country than any other nation on earth. We also have more child poverty than any other major industrialized nation. We have the highest rate of student debt. We have more prisoners, more homeless people, and more economic inequality.
It doesn’t have to be this way. These conditions are the result of deliberate policy decisions. We provide outrageous tax loopholes for billionaires and large corporations. The top tax rate is less than half of what it was during the postwar economic boom. The real minimum wage has fallen dramatically since the 1960s.
We can make better choices. Let’s look at some of the issues that matter most to the American people:
Health Care for All
35 million Americans still lack health insurance. Millions of others are under-insured, with high deductibles and copayments that can make needed medical treatment unaffordable.
We are the only major industrialized country in the world that does not provide universal health care for all its citizens. Medicare is much more cost-effective than private insurers, and could serve as the foundation for a single-payer system like those in Great Britain, Spain, Norway, Italy, Iceland, and Portugal. Other countries, including Japan, France, Germany, Canada and Denmark, provide universal coverage without a single-payer system but with better controls on costs and service.
If these countries can provide universal health care, why can’t we?
Tuition-Free Public Higher Education
Student debt has reached crisis proportions in this country. 41 million Americans are burdened with student debt. Student debt has surpassed credit card debt and is now the second-largest source of personal indebtedness in this country.
People who graduated in 2014 with student debt owed an average of $30,000 each. That’s unsustainable, and unforgivable.
College tuition is free in Germany, even for citizens of other countries. It’s also free in Denmark, Norway Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Iceland, and Mexico. If they can do it, why can’t we? Why do we accept a situation where hundreds of thousands of qualified people are unable to go to college because their families don’t have enough money?
Paid Family Leave
We are the only major nation in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid time off for new parents. Of 182 nations that do provide paid leave, more than half guarantee at least 14 weeks off.
In Great Britain, new mothers get 40 weeks of paid leave. 70 percent of countries offer paid leave to new fathers as well. Dads get two weeks of paid leave in Great Britain, Denmark, and Austria.
We are a nation that prides itself on its dedication to family values. Why can’t we ensure that new parents have time to bond with their children?
Even when working Americans face a serious disease like cancer, they have no guarantee of paid sick leave.
The average worker in other developed countries is guaranteed paid sick leave for long-term cancer treatment, for periods that range from 22 days in Canada to 44 days in Germany and 50 days in Norway.
We are the only one of 22 wealthy nations that does not guarantee some type of paid sick leave. When will we join the rest of the world in ensuring that ailing workers can get well without going broke?
We are the only advanced economy, and one of only 13 nations in the entire world, that doesn’t guarantee workers a paid vacation. Workers in France get an entire month of paid time off every year. Scandinavian workers are guaranteed 25 paid vacation days per year. In Germany the figure is 20 days, and Japan and Canada each guarantee 10 paid vacation days per year.
It’s common (although not guaranteed) for higher-paid American workers to get some vacation time. But half of all low-wage workers in this country get no paid time off at all.
Americans are overworked in other ways, too. Despite huge increases in productivity over the last 100 years, Americans continue to work some of the longest hours on earth. Vast majorities of working people (85.8 percent of men and 66.5 percent of women) work more than 40 hours per week. Compare that to a country like Norway, where only 23 percent of males and 8 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week.
Every year Americans work 137 hours more than Japanese workers, 260 hours more than British workers, and 499 hours (62.3 days) more than French workers –despite the fact that productivity has risen 400 percent since 1950!
Other countries are moving in the opposite direction. Spain, Norway, and the Netherlands have all shortened their workweeks to 35 hours. Interestingly, those countries have higher productivity than those with a 40-hour workweek.
We’re also spending more years of our life at work. Millions of Americans are delaying retirement – and, in some cases, working until the day they die. Polls have shown that a third of Americans are afraid they will never be able to retire.
We’re lagging behind in other areas too, ranging from childcare costs to internet access. We can and must do better. That means addressing the great economic, political, and moral issue of our time: wealth and income inequality. We have more inequality today than at any time since 1928. That is unacceptable.
We must send a simple message to the billionaire class: You can’t have it all.
They will argue, of course. So will the politicians who serve them. They will insist that we can’t do better, that we can’t have the same basic rights as citizens of other countries.
It’s time to ask them, and ourselves, a simple but very important question: Why not?