On Saturday, I'll have the privilege of addressing more than one hundred thousand people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the One Nation Working Together rally to send the message that we want the change we voted for in 2008. This gathering of progressives will bridge many issues: jobs for all, comprehensive immigration reform, civil rights, environmental justice and education, all worthy and important concerns.
Yet, at its core creating one nation is about the values of inclusion and generosity. Sadly, the last few months have been divisive ones for our nation: immigrants scapegoated in Arizona, Muslims targeted in New York and a refusal by our elected leaders to see or hear the suffering in our communities brought on by the economic crisis. Some now say that America's best days are behind us, that we can't afford the values that made us great: compassion, inclusion and a commitment to the common good.
America is truly at a turning point, and we have to answer these questions: How big is our heart? Do we have room for everyone? Are we one nation working together or two Americas at war? Notably, we will gather tomorrow in the same spot where in 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. once dreamed that "we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood."
I will stand in that spot representing my organization, the Center for Community Change, which was founded in the memory of another fallen champion of building one America, Robert F. Kennedy. Economic inclusion was a center piece of Kennedy's courageous and ill-fated 1968 campaign. For RFK, or Bobby as he was affectionately known, America's economic divisions were not an issue so much as an outrage. Bobby shined a light on America's invisible poor. He was willing to stand and declared un-apologetically that "America can do better."
Unfortunately, in the last 40 years we have not done better. This was confirmed just a few days ago when the census bureau released numbers demonstrating that the income gap between the richest and poorest Americans grew last year to the widest amount on record. Poverty in America is growing faster than ever, and nowhere are America's divisions as a nation more starkly drawn than the economic inequality tearing us apart. Consider that:
- 44 million Americans, nearly one in seven of us, are living in poverty (defined as a mere $22,000 in annual income for a family of four).
- One in five children and more than one in four African Americans or Latinos is now poor.
- The poorest poor are at record highs. The share of Americans below half the poverty line, $10,977 for a family of four, reached 6.3 percent. It is the highest level since the government began tracking that category.
How can this be? Why are we not outraged? How is it possible that every one of America's political leaders did not issue a statement declaring a new found commitment to addressing the horrible reality that America's economy is now built on a vast chasm of inequality?
There are many reasons why we casually accept the broken lives of millions of our citizens as simply a rational consequence of the unregulated market. For instance, too often we embrace the myth that wealth is created by heroic individual entrepreneurs rather than all of us together, and therefore that extremes of inequality and wealth are justified. Too often we value the private accumulation of wealth over our shared quality of life. Too few of our leaders are courageous enough to stand up and say that inequality in wealth and income beyond a certain point -- and we are surely well beyond it -- is bad for democracy and bad for the economy. We've been cowed by our opponents' use of the race card into ignoring that racial inequality is not separable from economic inequality in the United States. They are part and parcel of the same set of structures. Finally, we ignore one of the crucial historic lessons of our democracy that broader participation by workers and communities improves rather than impedes economic productivity, innovation and growth.
There are many false ideas that have contributed to acceptance of widespread poverty and extreme inequality. But ultimately our acceptance of terrible poverty amidst such extravagant and nearly incomprehensible wealth is possible because we underestimate the heart of our nation.
Let's be clear: America has a big heart. According to Gallup data some 60 percent of Americans give to charity and nearly 40 percent volunteer their time. The outpouring of support by Americans after the Asian tsunami, the earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Katrina was truly historic. In an earlier time, our nation lifted millions of seniors out of poverty when we created one of the most successful government programs ever in Social Security. More recently, we moved to cover nearly all kids and health reform will expand coverage to more than 30 million Americans.
How big is America's heart? Big enough that together we can and must seize the initiative to again make inequality and division a moral outrage. This nation has a heart big enough to employ every person looking for job. It's big enough to let every immigrant in America have a chance at the American dream. It's big enough to say 1 in 5 children living in poverty is simply NOT acceptable. America's heart is big enough to say that all in our communities are our brothers and our sisters, and we must advance together as one nation.
Ultimately, that's what tomorrow's One Nation march is about: standing together united as one country and declaring that we will not be divided and turned against one another.
America's heart is big enough for everyone.
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