Last Saturday I felt proud to be a Minnesotan as I sat in the crowded auditorium of Minneapolis’ Southwest Public High School to hear Professor John A. Powell, founder of the Institute on Poverty at the University of Minnesota, and Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkley and former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, speak about the ills of our economy. This one day conference was held by Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, a non-profit organization that spearheads a coalition of organizations devoted to building an economy that works for all Minnesotans. I could have been in the audience of any popular candidate running for political office as the atmosphere was electric with people clapping, ushering whistles, praising sounds of “oh yeah and uh –huhs,” and giving standing ovations to the speakers. What these men spoke so eloquently about is a subject that affects all of us: our spirit towards the human condition, and the moral fabric and future of our society.
We are all well aware of the current dire state of our economy. We have massive federal and state budget deficits, a high national unemployment rate, thousands of people in foreclosure on their homes, stagnating wages and falling median incomes, large disparities in racial and income inequality, and increasing numbers of woman and children living in poverty. It’s down and outright depressing, considering we live in one of the most prosperous nations in the world. The plain reality of it is that it’s bad and getting worse since the on-set of the “great recession”, which most people will argue we’re still in. Woe the heavy heart as I hear or read about the gruesome daily statistics of our economy. Today the U.S. Census Bureau said the number of Americans who have fallen into poverty increased to 15.1% in 2010 from 14.7%, and the number of children under the age of 18 who have fallen into poverty increased to 22% from 20.2% a year earlier. As I commiserate with friends and relatives who bemoan our current state of affairs, a sense of cynicism, futility, and hopelessness shrouds our conversations. We blame presidents, Democrats, Republicans, a specific government leader, administrations, legislative bodies, corporations, Wall Street, unions, governmental regulation and de-regulation, the global economy, minorities, men, and women for our economic ills.
All of this talk is divisive and counter-productive as are the myths about the roots of the problems perpetuated by the powers that be. We often hear that our problems stem from the following: we don’t have a jobs problem, we have a debt problem; this is a jobs crisis, not a deficit crisis; we are having a personal deficit crisis, and government should spend more; government needs to be shrunk, taxes cut, and the revenues will trickle down; the underlying problem is a wage problem not a jobs problem.
So how do we even begin to tackle such huge problems in a 15 trillion dollar economy? It’s mind boggling. I came away from this conference feeling hopeful and energized we can do it. Not only were we inspired by the keynote speakers, but we broke into focus groups to discuss specific economic issues and how we can work to resolve them. I got to toss around ideas with concerned citizens and individuals working for labor unions, faith based organizations and community organizations all working to impact positive economic and social change. Sitting next to me was a friendly elderly gentleman named Vern. I learned he was a retired Lutheran pastor. He worked for Local Mission Partners, a faith based organization, helping minorities in New Brighton find work. He stated, “We’re getting out of the charity mode and into the empowerment mode through prayer and presence.” In separate break-out sessions, facilitators led discussions on topics such as creating quality jobs, responsible banking, raising revenue fairly, solving the housing crisis, educating our kids, strengthening social insurance, and reforming health care. In each workshop we discussed current issues, ways to make change, and how to come up with a plan to affect change.
Back in the auditorium listening to keynote speaker, Reich, he informed us he couldn’t refuse to accept this speaking invitation, because it was in Minnesota. Reich reminded us Minnesota has been a model of Progressivism throughout the nation. Our own DFL and admired leaders Eugene McCarthy and Paul Wellston heralded progressive notions of social and economic reform. Together we can address these ills. Reich stated, “Nothing good happens in Washington unless people outside of Washington get organized and mobilized to affect change.” He urged us to do our part in the upcoming election, but to think beyond that and urge our government leaders to make major reforms with better campaign finance laws, more stimulus spending to create and retain jobs, more progressive taxation to address wide income inequalities, and greater investments in infrastructure and education. ”By coming together today, Reich inspired us “We represent a formidable powerful movement…..Make Minnesota a model for the rest of this nation……This is our moment in history.”