Our Kids Aren’t the Only Ones Suffering From Inequality. We’re Failing Our Parents Too!

You wouldn’t know it to read the news these days, but the Baby Boomers are in trouble.

Rarely does a day go by that the Baby Boomers aren’t blamed for something. They’re bankrupting Social Security. They caused the Great Recession. They’re hogging all the money.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you’ve got the wrong culprit. Most Baby Boomers don’t have nearly as much money as you think they do. You’re rounding up the many to prosecute the few. That’s just bad police work.

This is a plea for the parents out there. They raised us and fed us, they taught us and nursed us, they brought us into this world, and for the most part, they tried to make it better for us. And we are failing them.

We are failing our parents.

We have a strange sense of obligation in this country. We talk a lot about what we owe our children but very little about what we owe our parents. The future is sacrosanct; the past quickly forgotten.

And we should talk about our children. Because we’re failing them too.

Pick up a copy of Robert Putnam’s new book Our Kids, and you’ll see all the ways we’re failing them:

  • More and more kids are growing up with one parent instead of two. The single parent is less likely to find a job. They have less time to spend with their kids. As a result, their children perform worse in school, exhibit more behavioral problems, and experience more anxiety and depression.
  • More and more kids aren’t eating dinner with their family. They aren’t having conversations with their parents. They don’t know the alphabet when they start school. And they never catch up!
  • More and more kids are living below or near the poverty line, where they “experience severe or chronic stress,” making it harder to concentrate, “cope with adversity, and organize their lives.” They are more likely to be neglected, discouraged, abused, and traumatized. And they have permanent brain damage!
  • More and more families can’t keep up with the rising cost of childcare. They send their kids to low-quality daycare. They have less time available to spend with their kids. And when they do spend time with them, their financial worries make it harder for them to be patient, focus, and nurture.
  • More and more students are falling behind their peers in school. Their parents don’t have the time or knowledge to help them. Their schools don’t have the fundraising capability to make up the difference. Their teachers are demoralized. Their classmates are disruptive, discouraging, and even violent. Extracurricular activities are either unavailable or too expensive to participate in. College is even more expensive. And if they do make it to college, it’s one with lower graduation rates and a future of higher unemployment and lower earnings.
  • More and more kids don’t trust people. They don’t have mentors to teach them about life. They don’t have youth organizations to keep them safe and healthy. They don’t have programs to show them how to apply for college or budget their money. They don’t have contacts to help them find a job. And they think their vote doesn’t matter, so the problem just keeps getting worse!

For Putnam, this is where the story ends. And who can blame him? Kids are an easy sell. No one can blame them for their lot in life.

But what happens when they become adults? We don’t like to talk about that part. Affordable housing, food stamps, incarceration, labor unions, mandated health insurance, Medicaid, Medicare, the minimum wage, paid leave, progressive taxation, public jobs, Social Security, unemployment insurance, welfare — that’s the controversial stuff. Better not to touch those subjects. Kids deserve a helping hand, but adults? We’re not so sure.

The problem is, those adults were kids once upon a time too, and when they were, many of them had it just as bad. And now, after heaping disadvantage upon disadvantage on them for twenty years, they’re expected to compete on the same playing field as everyone else. It’s as if they were running a race, and their peers were given a twenty-year head start — and we criticize them for not catching up!

These adults deserve equalizing policies every bit as much as their kids.

Long-Term Unemployment by AgeThe young and the old aren’t so different after all. It’s the wrong contrast. Even if we wanted to take money from the old and give it to the young, it wouldn’t work because they don’t have it!

The Baby Boomers are trillions of dollars short of the wealth they need to retire without a “drastic lifestyle change.” Over half of them will get most of their income from Social Security, and one in four will have nothing but Social Security. For those who got laid off during the Great Recession, they’re having a much harder time getting rehired than younger generations. And because they were the ones who were holding mortgages when the bubble popped, their homeownership rate has nosedived so badly that Trulia’s chief economist Jed Kolko calls them “the lost generation of homeowners.”

Clearly, inequality affects Americans of every age — and that is why you cannot cure what ails the children without treating the parents, for the ailment is not generational. It is economic, and it perpetuates itself down through the generations.

So, yes, by all means, let’s talk about inequality of opportunity for our kids because that’s where it all starts. But let’s also remember that those kids grow up, and when they do, it doesn’t get easier. The scars of childhood last a lifetime.

We tend to overlook those scars and place blame on those who have fallen behind in the race. But for those of us who have been given a head start and don’t reach back to offer them a hand, the real failure rests with us.

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This op-ed was originally published on the Huffington Post.

The Minimum Wage Shows Why (and How) We Should Vote Today

It is time for the states to lead.

Every once in awhile in the history of this great country of ours, the federal government just can’t get the job done. Partisan gridlock, constitutional uncertainty, public distrust all play a role. But one of the great strengths of the American system is that the states — those laboratories of democracy, as Louis Brandeis called them — can act when Washington will not. Abolitionism, women’s suffrage, health care reform, gay rights: All started at the state level.

This is one of those times. Our national system is inert. Our national leaders are mired in the muck of inaction.

And yet there is hope. For today is Election Day, and on this day, we will elect 36 governors. This is no time to stay home when the polling places are open. This is a time to choose leaders who will act where Washington has not.

I can think of no better example of the choice we face as a country today than the minimum wage.

After World War II, Congress set the minimum wage at approximately half the average wage in the country. In today’s dollars, it was over $10 an hour. Earning the minimum wage, one full-time worker could support a family of three above the poverty line.

Today, the federal minimum wage is $7.25, less than 36 percent of the average wage. It’s so low that it can’t even keep a family of two out of poverty.

Unlike Social Security or Medicare payments, the minimum wage is not indexed to the cost of living. Only Congress can raise it. The last time they did so was 2009. Democrats proposed raising it again earlier this year, but the majority of senators opposed it.

The feds have failed to act. It’s time for the states to lead.

And we have ample evidence that they can. Twenty-three states already have minimum wages higher than $7.25. Five states — Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska, and South Dakota — have an initiative on today’s ballot to increase theirs.

But not everyone is onboard.

“I don’t think it serves a purpose,” said Wisconsin’s Republican governor Scott Walker last month.

“I don’t think as governor I want to be the cause of someone losing their job,” said Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor in Texas, in explaining his opposition to raising the minimum wage. Pennsylvania’s Republican governor Tom Corbett made a similar argument when stating his opposition last year.

At least they pretended to know what they were talking about. When Republican Governor Rick Scott was asked what Florida’s minimum wage should be, he said, “How would I know?”

These men are on today’s ballot in four of our nation’s largest and most influential states.

And they are tragically out-of-step with the lessons of economic history. In a recent study, the economists Hristos Doucouliagos and T.D. Stanley survey the vast research that economists have done measuring the impact of the minimum wage in recent decades — 64 papers in total — and they find “little or no evidence” that minimum wage increases caused job losses.

On the contrary, raising the minimum wage is a clear boost to the economy. In another recent paper, the economist Arindrajit Dube found that raising the minimum wage significantly reduces the poverty rate, a finding that is consistent with the other 12 studies economists have published in recent years measuring the same effect in different ways.

Only a politician severely out-of-touch with the modern economy could think otherwise. Today’s corporations don’t have to cut back jobs when wages rise. They have to cut back profits, which are at an all-time high. In the long run, they might not have to cut back anything. Higher wages lead to higher productivity, better health, fewer strikes, lower turnover, and higher consumption, which in turn leads to more demand for their products and therefore higher profits.

Individual companies may not want to raise wages if their competitors won’t, but when everyone does it, everyone benefits.

Trying to save money by keeping the minimum wage low is like trying to improve your health by starving yourself. It’s classic shortsighted behavior, hardly the visionary leadership that we’d like to see in the governor’s mansion.

That’s why today’s election matters. In this age of do-nothing politics, it’s easy to despair, but we must remember the intent behind the design. The same founding fathers who created a federal system that resists radical change also created a state system that encourages experimentation. Today we celebrate their creation, and we direct its attention to the challenges of our time.

If the feds do not act, the states will. We the voters will make sure of it.

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This op-ed was originally published in the Huffington Post.

How Obama Cut the Deficit in Half — and Made Us Pay the Price

U.S. Budget Deficit Over Time

Remember when everybody was talking about the budget deficit?

It wasn’t that long ago. In fact, it was one of the biggest factors in the 2012 presidential election. After all, it was over $1 trillion at the time.

Today, it’s $500 billion. And falling.

This, of course, is one of Barack Obama’s legacies. He raised taxes on the rich and cut spending across the board. Even with strong growth in mandatory programs like Social Security and Medicare this year, the federal government is going to spend about the same amount of money it spent in 2012 — and less than it spent in 2011. Adjusted for inflation, the government has shrunk.

But it has come at a cost.

Case in point: We have run out of money to fight wildfires.

A couple decades ago, wildfires in the western United States typically consumed 2 to 4 million acres in a year. Nowadays, they consume 6 to 8 million acres. As a result, the cost of wildfire suppression has more than tripled in that amount of time. And yet, Congress continues to allocate funding based on what it cost a decade ago, instead of what it costs today.

So it’s not surprising that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack ran out of money to fight wildfires this year, forcing him to divert money away from programs that preventwildfires — magnifying the problem in years to come.

Traveling to the other side of the country, a Pennsylvania official testified in court earlier this week that he and his fellow regulators didn’t investigate chemical leaks that were allegedly poisoning citizens’ drinking water near natural gas wells.

But this shouldn’t surprise us either. After all, the Associated Press recently discovered that 40 percent of new oil and gas wells haven’t been inspected in this country. The report described the regulators as “so overwhelmed by a boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that [they have] been unable to keep up with inspections of some of the highest priority wells.”

It’s not like those investigations really matter, right? The Pennsylvania trial revealed that landowners were drinking water with “explosive levels of methane.” Meanwhile, a new paper published this week by researchers at Stanford and Duke showed that even tiny amounts of fracking wastewater can contaminate drinking water with toxic compounds.

So I guess it’s no big deal that regulators are so underfunded that they’re neglecting almost half the country’s drilling wells.

You’d think we would’ve learned this lesson last year when the IRS scandal revealed that auditors were singling out political groups — conservative and liberal, by the way — for investigation without any apparent probable cause.

For years, the IRS has been underfunded. The National Taxpayer Advocate said so. A Boston Globe investigation said so. The Government Accountability Office said so. And they all predicted that underfunding would result in less enforcement and more cutting corners. In fact, they said taxpayers would lose money because every dollar in budget cuts led to seven dollars in lost tax revenue that they would’ve collected if they’d had the manpower to do so.

Then the scandal hit, revealing that IRS officials were so “overworked” that they felt they had no choice but to take shortcuts through the “flood of applications” on their desks.

These are only a few examples of the price we have paid for a smaller deficit.

Barack Obama deserves credit for delivering on his promise to shrink the deficit — a promise that Mitt Romney and his tax cuts would surely have violated — but Americans have to ask themselves whether they really want a smaller government. Do we really want millions of acres destroyed by fire, and drinking water contaminated with toxic chemicals, and government officials harassing the innocent? I know I don’t.

And I also know there’s a better way. It begins with the understanding that, for all its faults and inefficiencies, our government does many good, essential things in our society. And yes, those things come at a price. But that is a price worth paying.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Huffington Post.

Does Obamacare Infringe on Our Liberty? Or Does It Give Us Even More Freedom?

What right does the government have to make you buy health insurance?

That’s the question that riles Obamacare critics the most. It’s not the premiums or the website or the dropped coverage. It’s the infringement on their liberty.

Does Government Threaten Our Freedom?You hear it all the time: “This is a free country!” That’s what everybody says. But what do they really mean? Do they know what freedom is?

It seems obvious at first. Freedom is lack of coercion. Therefore, anything the government makes you do infringes on your freedom.

But there are different types of coercion, and the government isn’t the only one doing the coercing.

Let’s say that you want your daughter to attend the best school in America. But you can’t afford the tuition. Do you really have freedom of choice? If you choose the school you want, they won’t let you through the front door. If you force your way in, they’ll arrest you.

So you “choose” a more affordable school. You wanted a better school, but they forced you to settle for a different one. Sounds like coercion to me.

Let’s consider another example. You want to retire at the age of 65. You’ve worked hard throughout your entire adult life. Unfortunately, wages haven’t risen, and the bills kept piling up. You saved as much as you could, but it’s only enough to live off for a couple years. Oh, and one more thing: Social Security and Medicare don’t exist.

If you “choose” to retire, you’ll go broke. You’ll go without preventive health care. Your chances of dying early will increase significantly.

So you have a choice: Keep working or die young.

In this case, you actually have less freedom because the government is less involved. Without Social Security and Medicare, you do not have the freedom to choose a long, healthy retirement.

Freedom requires more than the absence of laws and taxes. True freedom of choice requires the capability to make that choice — and the free market doesn’t always give us that capability.

Jobs are scarce. Most of us don’t have the freedom to work anywhere we want. We take what we can get. For many of us, that means working at a company that doesn’t pay for our health insurance. So we “choose” to buy insurance on the individual market.

Before Obamacare, the individual market charged really low rates to healthy people and really high rates to sick people. So the people who needed insurance the most couldn’t afford it. They didn’t have the capability — and therefore the freedom — to buy it.

Obamacare outlaws that kind of discrimination. It requires insurers to charge the same rates to healthy and sick people alike, and that means that healthy people will have to pay higher rates. Some of them won’t want to, so they’ll stop buying insurance. When they drop out, they leave behind the sicker people who are most costly to insure, forcing insurers to raise rates even more. It’s a vicious cycle, a “death spiral,” that results in almost everyone being priced out of the market.

Virtually no one will have the freedom to buy health insurance on the individual market.

And that’s why we have an individual mandate. If the healthy people don’t drop out, there’s no death spiral, and the insurance remains affordable for the people who need it the most.

The government gives them a freedom that the free market cannot. It gives them the capability to purchase health insurance.

If we choose not to buy insurance, we pay a penalty. As Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has written, “it makes going without insurance just another thing the Government taxes, like buying gasoline or earning income.” Those taxes pay for our roads and Army and Navy and Social Security and Medicare — and those things give us the freedom to live a life that we often take for granted. Without those taxes, without those government-funded investments, we could not call ourselves a free country.

In the same way, without Obamacare, without the government making us buy health insurance, we would be condemning millions of Americans to lives without health care. We would be restricting their freedom. And what right do we have to do that?

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Huffington Post.

The Poor Don’t Lie and Cheat Any More Than the Rest of Us

Those no-good, dirty, rotten poor people. They lie, and they steal, and they spend our money.

Or so I’ve been told by readers since my last op-ed column, where I did the math proving that government benefits aren’t generous enough to make people want to be poor.

But you’re just doing the legal math, said one reader. What about what goes on under the table? Surely all that welfare fraud is proof that poverty can be the good life, if only you have the gumption to bilk the taxpayer.

Food Stamp Error RateFirst of all, the government has conducted investigations of fraud in programs like welfare and food stamps, and they’ve found it to be shockingly low. Less than 2 percent of the programs’ budgets get ripped off. That’s lower than the private sector, where the average business loses 5 percent of its annual revenue to fraud.

Second, and perhaps more surprising, investigators have found that the majority of government fraud is committed by the middle class and the rich, not the poor!

After Hurricane Katrina, for example, the investigative reporter Eric Schnurer discovered that most of the $500 million lost to fraud did not go into the pockets of the poor people who lost their homes but rather to the “shifty contractors” who were supposed to be rebuilding the homes.

Similarly, reports Schnurer, “Medicare and Medicaid fraud is largely committed not by patients — very few people are trying to rip off taxpayers to obtain unneeded spinal taps or root canals — but by providers: unscrupulous (or sometimes just incompetent) doctors and hospitals billing for procedures the patient didn’t need or didn’t receive.”

Throw in another $100 billion a year in defense contractor fraud, and you quickly find that fraud is more likely to make the rich richer than it is to make the poor want to be poor. It’s redistribution alright, but the wealth is moving up, not down, the ladder.

Once upon a time, I might have been surprised by these findings, but in writing my new book Letter to the One Percent, I found a consistent pattern in the research literature. Psychologists have conducted many experiments on the rich and the poor, and they’ve found that the rich are less likely to have empathy for other human beings. They’re more likely to break the rules and feel that they’ve earned the right to do so. They’re less likely to think of the moral consequences of their actions, especially when money is involved, and they’re more likely to put their own needs ahead of others’.

The notion that the poor are uniquely morally deficient, it turns out, is completely backward. They’re actually more virtuous, on average, than the rich.

And yet, we have politicians who assume that the poor are less trustworthy and therefore less deserving of our help. On the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, they took to the floor of Congress and criticized “single mothers” and “deadbeat dads” for dropping out of school and having babies and cheating the system. Then they proposed a budget that would cut government benefits for tens of millions of Americans.

Meanwhile, in Florida, they’re fighting a recent court decision that struck down a law requiring drug testing of all welfare applicants. But they don’t seem concerned about corporate executives who apply for billion-dollar subsidies. They’re not clamoring for drug testing doctors who receive Medicare payments or retirees who receive Social Security checks or Congress members who receive six-figure salaries.

Why? Because they assume that the poor are more likely to waste taxpayers’ money on drugs. Well, I’ve got news for them: The rate of illicit drug use is no higher among the poor than it is among the rest of us, and the rate of alcohol addiction is actually lower.

Human nature is human nature. There are liars and cheaters in every walk of life. But the facts are irrefutable: The poor are not poor because they lie and cheat, nor are they responsible for high taxes and mounting debt. If anything, they have contributed less to fraud and waste than the rest of us. The next time you hear Senator Marco Rubio and his Republican colleagues say otherwise, remember: That’s a stereotype, and it’s wrong.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Huffington Post.