The Power of an Idea

By Cuomo, Mario | Tikkun, May/June 1999 | Go to article overview

The Power of an Idea

Cuomo, Mario, Tikkun

The Power of an Idea

Mario Cuomo, the author of numerous books, among which are Reason to Believe, The Diaries of Mario Cuomo, and Forest Hills Diary, was governor of New York from 1983 to 1994.

America today is greater than the fondest aspirations of its Founding Fathers. We have the world's largest and most powerful economy and we have been the most generous engine of opportunity, ever. We have saved much of the world from oppression and currently stand as the free world's guardian. We have more billionaires, millionaires, and people who earn over $100,000 a year than ever before. All of this is reason to be grateful; certainly it is not a success to be offended by. But we are not nearly as great as we could be if we willed it, if we came together to achieve our full potential as a nation.

Today, as we know, more Americans than ever have made it to the "Shining City on a Hill." But there is a second city in America where the glitter doesn't show and where most Americans live. While 4 percent of our 270 million people earn over $100,000, the average American earns less than $22,000, and the average family less than $37,000. More than forty million of our people are poor. One child in four is raised in poverty, surrounded by the most corrosive aspects of today's culture: drugs, violence, broken families, diminished opportunities.

The gap between rich and poor is wider here than in any other country in the industrial world. Chairmen's wages were once forty times their workers'; now they are two hundred times. Highly skilled workers do well in this country, earning upwards of $90,000 in our high-tech industries. But we import many of those workers from overseas because our schools are not meeting our needs. Indeed just 20 percent of 160 million workers in the United States are highly-skilled, while over 120 million workers are only low- or moderately-skilled. The household incomes of these workers are less today than they were in 1989, while the costs of their health care, higher education, housing, and transportation are higher. There are 43 million Americans who do not have health insurance; they are not poor enough for Medicare and not lucky enough to have employer-provided coverage.

To create the opportunities that 80 percent of our work force begs for, and to fill the jobs American industries have generated, we must improve the education we give to our children. Tougher standards for our school systems, more discipline in the classroom, and increased accountability of administrators and teachers can be accomplished with little or no investment of dollars. It's a hoax, however, to assert that we can improve our education system sufficiently without making some additional investments. We need billions to repair school buildings, to provide every child with a computer, to reduce class size, and to hire more teachers. We need to extend our school year from 180 days a year to at least 210 days. We need to make both public and private universities more accessible. We need more federally subsidized loans, apprenticeships for unskilled youths, and vouchers for skills training.

The federal government must provide funds for such initiatives without raising taxes or increasing the deficit. We've found the money before and we can do it again. Ask yourself how we've funded things over the years--during the recession and with budget deficits--things like the space program, the Iraqi conflict, and across-the-board tax cuts. We had money available last year and the year before. And now we're expecting more than $4 trillion in surpluses over the next fifteen years. Where once there were "deficits as far as the eye can see," now there will be surpluses.

With those surpluses, we can do it all: create educational opportunities, provide health insurance, clean our inner cities. If we want to. The real question is: Do we? We must decide what kind of nation we will be. From our founding until 1932, the United States was guided by a philosophy of individualism. …

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