Last week, in an example of what makes America beautiful, several strangers rushed to the aid of a New York City construction worker trapped in a burning fifth-floor apartment. The rescuers hoisted a ladder up a fire escape and extended it to the smoky windowsill where the victim clung.
One of the rookie rescuers risked his life clambering across the ladder-bridge four stories high and grabbing the victim as he dropped from the window.
A group of unrelated men cooperated to save the life of a fellow human. That is the best of America. That is what Americans aspire to be—participants in a human community that works together to benefit all, to advance everyone. But the American ideal of brotherhood from sea to shining sea is under attack.
A cult of the selfish relentlessly assails the value of American community. And now, the cult’s cruel campaign of civic meanness is achieving tragic victories. Just last week, for example, it succeeded in getting a bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives that would slash funding for food stamps by $40 billion—taking milk from the mouths of millions of babes in the richest country in the world. Also, it secured passage of a bill in the House that would de-fund the Affordable Care Act, thus denying health care—and in some cases life itself—to millions of uninsured Americans.
Denying food to the hungry, chemo to the cancer-stricken? That is not American. That is what ruthless dictators do. That is the stuff of Kim Jong-il. That is not how Americans treat each other.
It is, however, exactly what the cult of the selfish is seeking. It wants an America without community, where everyone is out for himself. Alone. Self-seeking. Self-dealing. In that world, the CEO who succeeds did it all by himself—no credit should be given to dedicated workers or community tax breaks or federal copyright protections. Similarly, in that world, the worker who is laid off has no one to blame but himself, not a crash on Wall Street, not the failure of a CEO to properly market products, not a technological transformation.
Decades ago, these scam artists tried to persuade Great Depression victims that their joblessness was their own, individual faults, not a result of the 1929 Black Friday market catastrophe. They’re resurgent now, trying to blame the 2008 Wall Street debacle on individual mortgage holders. They contend those working 40 hours a week for minimum wage deserve an income too paltry to pay for food and shelter. They insist that Social Security and Medicare be slashed, and if that means workers who paid into the programs their entire lives must live on cat food in retirement, well, that’s their individual fault.
What’s frightening is how close they’re getting to what they want—a country in which the rich get richer and everyone else blames themselves for falling behind.
Between 2009 and 2012, income for the top 1 percent rose 31.4 percent, climbing nearly 20 percent last year alone. Meanwhile, the non-rich suffered. A census report released last week showed that median household income declined by more than $5,000 between 1999 and 2012. Average Americans work as hard and as long as they did a quarter century ago, but they’re poorer, their net worth about 6 percent lower.
Income inequality has returned to 1928 levels. And it’s worst for the poor. Officially, 15 percent of Americans—46.5 million citizens of the richest country in the world—live in poverty. That’s a 2.5 percentage point rise in poverty since the recession began.
Americans know it. Fewer now describe themselves as middle class. Last year, a record high 8.4 percent of Americans called themselves “lower class” in the General Social Survey, conducted annually over four decades by the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.
This is happening even though America is rich. Even though American workers’ productivity continues to rise steadily. Even though American corporations are hugely profitable, with nine of the world’s 10 most valuable companies American. The middle class is getting crushed even as those at the top are getting richer.
The NORC survey showed a disquieting level of resignation to all of this—a tragic belief that it won’t change. Fewer than 55 percent of Americans, the lowest level ever, agreed that “people like me and my family have a good chance of improving our standard of living.” That is far too many Americans swallowing the argument of the cult of the selfish.
It does not have to be this way. America can afford to feed its citizens and provide them with health insurance. It can provide decent public education, good roads, Social Security and Medicare. Americans can help each other succeed. Americans want to help each other so the whole country can move forward together. That is the American way.
Americans can’t let the cult of the selfish prevail. As they did in the 1930s when Americans created Social Security, facilitated unionization and strictly regulated banks, Americans must demand that the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share and that social welfare retain primacy over self-interest.
Americans don’t turn their backs on fire victims. Americans don’t allow their neighbors’ children to go hungry. They don’t believe a fellow American should die for lack of health insurance. Americans believe the guy down the street who works 40 hours a week should be paid enough to house himself.
Americans believe in the responsibility and benefits of brotherhood. They must make true the words of their national hymn:
God shed his grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free!”
Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco's nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.