Checking the Health of the Middle Class
Ask any public official or private manager these days and they’ll tell you, “The increasing cost of providing health care access is killing us.”
It remains to be seen what the Affordable Care Act (the federal health care overhaul) can do for government budgets. Public health care is a larger part of Minnesota state budget that grows each year, partly to meet the needs of an aging populace. Meeting the disabled and the elderly communities’ growing needs often causes budgeting conflicts among policymakers, who argue health care spending is consuming the rest of Minnesota’s budget. Soon, they say, there’ll be a struggle to fund our children’s future just as we keep our commitments to Minnesota seniors and people with disabilities.
Why is this happening? Why are we in a situation where we, one of the wealthiest states in the richest nation in history, must choose between obligations to our parents and commitments to the future? In many ways just like the ‘debt ceiling debate’ or the meaningless argument that we must “Live within our means” it’s a false dichotomy forced on us by a successful campaign to shrink public services and change our economy.
In the 1930s, our country, in an effort to find our way out of the Great Depression, set a different course for our future. The “New Deal” created a fairer economy and built a strong and vibrant middle/working class. In 1933, the New Deal’s architect, millionaire Marriner Eccles reporting to congress said,
“The main concern of the American economy must be to assure maximum employment to its members … Government can and should insist on minimum standards of decency in the mode and conditions of life for its people … minimum income for its families; a minimum age for schooling and employment; a maximum age for retirement; decent and safe working conditions; increasing benefits for labor as productivity increases; adequate protection for the aged and unemployed; and adequate educational, health and recreational facilities … enforced and supported by the productivity of the business community itself.”
Today political forces are using an economic crisis to transform our country and our economy into “a leaner and meaner” engine. We are attempting to undo the very commitments that Eccles said must be our central concerns.
Under the new regimen the government will continue to transfer more wealth to the top 1% of wealth holders. They now own 40% of the nation’s wealth and with cuts to government will control even more.
Aided by the Supreme Court decision called “Citizen’s United” the nation’s super rich are able to buy whole legislatures and governorships.
This gives corporations an even bigger opportunity to control the public policy debate, thereby, funneling themselves more public and economic resources while shrinking public services for everyone else and forcing public worker layoffs.
A vast majority will live on the margins or be forced to live within our “third world means” as our wealth, property, wages and tax base continue to decline, leaving our children with a huge debt, without the institutions to create a decent future. We have abandoned our commitment to a vibrant middle class.
The health care debate accentuates the problem for state and local governments as it seems they must choose to throw one generation or another under the bus in order to balance their budgets because conservatives have managed to convince enough people that we must cut spending to save the economy and therefore can’t raise taxes.
You can’t survive and continue to have big players in the economy siphoning huge amounts of money and holding the government and the rest of the country hostage. This is in large part what has happened with our state health care system. When the decision was made to turn over management of our public plans to private interests, we guaranteed we would not be able to control them.
Recent news accounts have begun to tell the story, we’ve learned the most profitable part of the private HMO portfolios are the public plans they manage. Health providers suffer as they get squeezed, and taxpayers suffer as they see costs grow without commensurate results. Health care recipients suffer as they see access to care diminished.
David Cay Johnston says, “The deal to avoid voluntary default calls for squeezing Medicare and Medicaid spending even more while making sure the richest among us enjoy lower tax rates than the middle class do. A result will be more luxuries at the top, while pushing 40 percent of hospitals toward bankruptcy, though not until 2050 when about 40 percent of Americans living now will be beyond any benefit from hospital care” (Reuters).
Current policymakers must continue the work my legislative colleagues and I started toward implementing the Minnesota Health Plan to ensure we have a secure, affordable health system that could control costs and assure everyone had access.
Along those policy lines, a "Middle Class Amendment” would secure investments for future generations that make a middle class possible and protect our democracy.
An accessible, affordable health care system is an essential element to sustaining Minnesota’s middle class. We can no longer afford to have skyrocketing health care costs erode middle-class wealth and savings. It’s in all of our best interests to create a better and fair economy for present and future generations.
David Bly is an educator in Northfield and former Minnesota state legislator.