One could be forgiven for hoping, even believing, that 9-11 would serve as an emergency wakeup call to conservatives. After all, the most destructive attack on the United States in history was sure to draw us all together. It was raining fear, heavily, and we all could fit under the umbrella of "Americans." Money left Washington by the planeload to comfort the bereaved. And for the rest of us, everything had changed. The chasms between us (rich and poor, black and white, male and female, even young and old) didn't seem so wide. They could at least be bridged with star-spangled bridges. The patriotism was palpable. Anything, it seemed then, was possible. All of the freshly planted flags that abruptly bloomed in the spring, the spring of our emotional reaction, were each a testament to all of this. One could be forgiven for hoping, even believing, that the poor among us might be looked upon with more concern. But the summer of our anguished soon came. And fall finally. Here we are over seven months later; the red, white and blue bloom is off the flagpole. And conservatives have returned to the same hard-line positions they never left.
Conservatives continue to deride welfare as encouraging apathy and indolence, as if that young single mother of three living on the 15th floor in the housing project enjoys the audacious rats, the drugs sold openly in the hallways, the sounds of personal violence at all hours and the pervasive heavy feeling of hopelessness. It has been reported that over 700,000 people have lost their jobs since September 11. Still, conservatives disparage welfare of every sort, except for the corporate. Enron brought this to the fore. Least we forget, the captains of that vessel skulked to the lifeboats with fresh millions from stock sales months before the ship went down into a sea of red ink.
And now with the news that the poverty rate has fallen to well below 12%, conservatives are sure to find no reason to address this nation's poor. We're doing just great, aren't we? A couple of years ago the rate was close to 13%, so shouldn't we just turn our attention to more important tasks, such as bailing out the airline industry? Belgium's poverty rate is 4%. We have the largest, strongest economy in the world and close to three times the rate of poverty. And let's not forget who the majority of these people are: children and their single mothers. Could we not have taken some time, post Sept. 11 when we all felt at least some sense of connectedness, to address the least among us? It seems our savagely free-trade Republicans in congress were too busy finding ways to insulate Big Steel from international competition.
Just looking at the poverty line and those who fall below it, however, is too shallow of an analysis. There is a new, higher line that might best be called the basic budget line. It is $33,511 a year for a family of four. The Economic Policy Institute recently found that 29% of families with young children below this line couldn't earn enough to sustain themselves at what is considered to be a comfortable level. About 70% of families below this line at least worried about the very necessities of life, such as food and making rent payments. The struggling poor in this country certainly should not be thought of as just those living below the poverty line.
All of this goes on in a country where Alex Rodriguez plays baseball for $22 million a year. The average salary for a major league baseball player is up to just over $2.3 million. No doubt these millionaires, along with the rest of this country's wealthy, don't lose sleep at night on lumpy mattresses worrying about making next month's rent. The chasm, that is honestly too weak of a word, between rich and poor in this country appears to be ever-widening now. That is why we should do something that might seem radical but is sound and rational: limit earned income. We need a national maximum wage. It could be as high as a million dollars per year. Is someone going to work harder and longer because he is making $1.1 million a year as opposed to just a million dollars? The motivation money provides us tops out long before a million dollars per year, anyway. And much could be done with that money over the million-dollar mark taken from the rich.
Obviously, the best thing to do with it is to give it to the people who need it most. Surely conservatives understand the value of investing in human capital. The more of that money that reaches the poor, the more of them who will rise out of their condition and contribute to the economy and society. Not only that, but limiting the rich itself is economically beneficial. It is inconceivable that Alex Rodriguez spends that $22 million efficiently. How could he? It would take a team of accountants just to explain to him where his money is. The poor spend their money much more efficiently than the rich, and limiting a person's earnings to a million dollars per year would ensure that more of the overall expenditures in this country would be done efficiently. One doesn't need a Ph.D. in Adam Smith to know the worn-out conservative lines about how taking from the rich and giving to the poor hurts our economy. But conservatives have it wrong coming and going. Limiting the rich helps; investing in the poor helps also.
Furthermore, investing in the poor is more is than this take-from-the-rich-and-give-it-to- the-poor income redistribution. In an excellent article in Social Science Review Howard Glennerster describes how the United States has gone from "targeted income transfers" in the 1970s to a much more fine-tuned approach in the 1980s and 1990s. We are also told that Medicare, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, unemployment compensation, workers' compensation, and Social Security have "significantly reduced the scale of poverty." Our poverty rate isn't 4%, but with more money and more attention to who gets it and for what, it certainly could be.
The tug of war for our country along this capitalist/socialist continuum has been going on for well over 100 years. And for all of that time conservatives, under one moniker or another, have kept us, compared to the rest of the world, tenaciously pulled to the right. Perhaps the only positive about the events of 9-11 is that they offered us an historic chance to take stock of just how far right we are on that continuum and do something about it. But we in this country continue to sacrifice our humanity on the alter of capitalism. We had our chance at redemption. We had our chance to sacrifice for the least among us. But nothing's changed. We are still praying to the wrong god.