I was lucky — lucky to be born into a family that believed with hope in the best of ourselves and in our country. We knew there was injustice and unfairness but we believed that we could and would make positive change.
As a youngster, I was intrigued that President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a military man, urged us to reject the build-up of arms that he prophesied would distort us. While neither a member of his party nor a fan of his, I was moved when he noted that “every gun that was made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signaled in the final sense a theft from those who were hungry and not fed, those who were cold and not clothed.
“The world in arms was not spending money alone,” he continued, “but the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” He emphasized the collective, the public need to strengthen and respect the “work of our laborers, the genius of our people, the hopes of our children.”
To me that message was about building a better world — a place where there was room for everyone to be hopeful and generous of spirit. It was about believing we were more than tens of thousands of different individuals; we were the public. We were divided on many issues but we were capable of thinking of ourselves as part of a whole — not a bundle of atom-like individuals fighting only for ourselves.
In the following years, through the 1960s and ’70s, many terrible things happened, but we as a country and as a people, varied and middle class as most of us were — or thought or hoped we were or might become — made progress. We undermined some prejudice and improved society as a whole. Both medical science and social services worked together to save lives, support fragile families, extend life and well-being.
We began to provide supports to those who needed them, the old and the young, we stopped talking about welfare cheats and began strengthening the safety net. We worked on health care and food supports for those who were hungry. We opened our public schools to all our children. While our progress was part myth — it was an important myth — it helped define us as who we wanted to be.
I worry about our unwillingness as a nation to think or speak of these myths anymore.
There was a wholeness about our worldview — we were about improving our collective future — not a collective in the Marxist sense but one in Rabbi Hillel’s sense. We do have a duty to improve the world.
But the facts tell me that today we are slipping and slipping badly. I worry that the always unsettled grand bargain/compromise that is this country — individual success vs. general well-being; unbridled capitalism vs. general welfare — is falling apart. The top 10 percent of Americans last year took home half the country’s income while more people grew poor.
Many young people cannot afford college and many of those who do attend cannot find a job or pay off their loans.
Our healthcare compromise may result in a system whose complexity will not make it easy, accessible or understandable for many.
Our leaders are seriously debating how to deny more people access to food.
Our refusal to support good early child care to all makes the playing field harder for millions of our children.
Our public roads, bridges and transportation systems desperately need support as millions of people need work, but we cannot summon the will to respond to these goals.
Our schools should be the reflection of our best hopes, but instead are the reflection of the wealth of the families whose children attend them.
Low-income children do attend schools today that have no legal barriers regarding race, poverty or disability, but they face other huge barriers. Wealthier communities would not stand for what is happening in some of our schools today in Philadelphia, Coatesville and beyond.
The idea of raising taxes to provide decent education for all our children is something our leaders run from — but we should not let them!
The central issue of our time may well be whether we recognize our public responsibility to ameliorate and correct our nation’s growing inequality. It is time; it is way past time to reclaim the best in hope and reality in ourselves and our country.
Let us get on with it.
Shelly Yanoff, the former executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, recently received an award from the Greater Philadelphia section of National Council of Jewish Women. This piece was adapted from her talk there.