First of all, let me congratulate
Richard Freeman on his cogent analysis of the crisis facing our nation, and
state my belief that Freeman's thesis is correct: The decline in the average
wages of 80 percent of working families and resulting increase in inequality
threatens the very foundation of American civil society. Which brings us back
to what Freeman correctly identifies as the most fundamental question, "What
do we do about it?"
But before we deal with that question, I believe we have to
try to understand why there is no outcry about the increase in inequality.
The leaders and organizers of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) have been
studying the decline in real wages and the increases in inequality for nearly
a decade. We know the statistics are true. So why is there no national debate?
How is it that we have just completed a presidential election in which there
was no credible discussion about the decline in wages?
I have come to the conclusion that at least three factors are
at work. First, the devastating changes in the economy of which Freeman so
eloquently writes, have occurred relatively slowly over the last two decades.
Second, the increases in economic inequality reinforce themselves. By this
I mean that as the gap between working families and the politicians and their
wealthy patrons continues to increase, the decision-makers become less capable
of understanding or even developing an awareness of those most impacted by
the economic devastation.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the institutions which
would have once brought these families into relationship with one another
and developed their capacities to articulate an effective public position
reflecting their common interests and concerns have all but disappeared in
most communities. The community-based institutions which once would have served
as the vehicles for public outcry about declining wages-the congregations,
the Settlement Homes, the workers' associations-these institutions have unraveled
to the point where they are at best service centers organized to deal with
the consequences of declining incomes.
By and large, the research conducted by the leaders of the
IAF supports many of the conclusions drawn by Richard Freeman about the inadequacies
of the strategies currently being pursued by elected officials. However, we
have a small disagreement with his assertion that increased government training
programs "cannot make more than a small dent toward reversing the rise
of inequality." While it is quite correct that a three- or even six-month
training program will not restore a 20 percent downward trend in real earnings,
our experiences with long-term job training programs indicate that 18 months
to two years of training for mid- to high-skilled positions currently available
in the local labor market can go a long way toward improving the economic
situation of participants. MIT professor Paul Osterman's study of Project
QUEST in San Antonio concludes that not only did participants make considerable
economic gains relative to their prior wage and income levels, but that Project
QUEST participants increased their wages at a higher rate than the average
increase for all employees in Bexar County. Other significant positive outcomes
include the opportunity for further education and training through employers,
as well as benefits such as health insurance and retirement funds.
In organizing communities around the well-being of families
throughout the United States, IAF leaders have reached a number of conclusions
that reinforce the proposals outlined in Freeman's five strategies for "raising
the bottom and reducing inequality." In particular we believe that redistributing
resources to support individuals earlier in their lives is critical to sustaining
a civil society in this nation. Our organizations have found that resources
invested in public education, after-school programs, preventive health care
for children, summer work experiences for adolescents, college scholarships,
and similar strategies greatly improve the chances of those children when
they become adults. Decades of experience have allowed our organizations to
see the adults these children become. These children have become leaders in
their community and the leaders of our organizations.
The Alliance Schools Initiative is a relatively recent strategy
developed by the leaders of the IAF. As described by professors Frank Levy
and Richard Murnane in Teaching the New Basic Skills, this initiative is a
strategy for increasing student achievement through the kind of school restructuring
that can only be created and sustained through the work of a broad-based collective
constituency of parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders. Not
only has student achievement increased relative to previous achievement at
these schools, but as Levy and Murnane outline in the September 11, 1996 edition
of Education Week, the Alliance Schools in Austin increased student achievement
and attendance relative to schools of similar socio-economic status which
received equal amounts of supplemental resources.
While it may be too broad, our interpretation of this information
is that resource transfers-particularly in terms of education-will improve
the health of the nation only to the extent that an organized constituency
is prepared to operate differently with those extra resources. To put it bluntly,
increased resources are necessary, but not sufficient to "raise the bottom
and reduce inequality." And I suspect this will hold true for all five
of Freeman's proposed strategies.
Which brings me to our only serious concern about Freeman's
very thoughtful and eloquent article. In the text, I noted only a very few
references to what the IAF believes is the most important strategy of all-the
organizing of a broad-based constituency for change. And as our experience
has taught us, it is the strategy on which the success of all the other strategies
depend. Yet organizing is the strategy that most progressives talk about the
Imagine what would happen if, in 75 congressional districts,
each candidate attended a meeting with 2,500 to 3,000 organized, registered
voters-each of whom was committed to turning out at least ten of their neighbors
on election day. What if at those public meetings each candidate was asked
to make specific commitments to support an agenda which included several elements
of Freeman's strategic approach: a commitment to extended day enrichment programs
for all children, universal health care, a family wage, long-term job training,
affordable housing-the elements necessary to reduce inequality. Imagine that
the agenda had been forged through a year-long process of house meetings,
small group meetings in churches and in schools, meetings where people's private
pain could be transformed into public action. Imagine the new leadership that
would be developed through such a process. Imagine the dignity of working
people and their families as they collectively forged a powerful role in the
governance of their democracy. This campaign of conversation would have created
a broad-based constituency with ownership of the agenda, a constituency committed
to doing the public business and follow-up work necessary to hold the candidates
accountable for their commitments.
A strategy of voter education, registration, and turn-out would
ensure that those candidates who committed would be those who were elected.
What would happen if, in 1998, at least 75 members of the House of Representatives
arrived in Washington with specific mandates from their well-organized constituency
to reduce the consequences of inequality and declining wages? And what if
it were 150 in the year 2000, plus a number of strategically important senators?
What would happen if those elected officials had direct experience with an
organized group of collective, genuine grassroots leaders in their communities?
I hope that progressives in the academic community will begin
to recognize and appreciate the need for broad-based institutional organizing
to create the political constituency necessary to carry Richard Freeman's
strategies forward. In fact, this is what the IAF organizations are working
to create in over 40 communities around the nation. Franklin D. Roosevelt
is reported to have said about the need for a specific policy initiative,
"Okay, you've convinced me. Now go out there and organize and create
a constituency to make me do it." I fear that too many progressives are
still caught up in the "convincing," when what we need now is the
constituency-and people who are willing to think hard about how to create,
sustain, and energize that constituency.