02/21/2012 03:57 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2012

Let's Comfort the Afflicted

A quarter century ago, when I entered the hallowed halls of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, we were taught a credo that sticks with me to this day: "Good journalism comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable."

This mission is a good one for politics and public policy, too. For too long, the wealthy cronies of politicians have rewritten the rules and gained an advantage that has allowed the "comfortable" to have too much power while the "afflicted" have remained just that.

Occupy Wall Street, now a quieter movement, has this type of message as its mission: the largest problem in our society is growing inequality that has essentially trampled the American dream of upward mobility.

Nowhere is this more evident than in New York. The number of people below the poverty line has increased in the past decade and is now above 20 percent for the first time. In children, it's more than 30 percent.

Shame on us. And our current leaders.

At the same time, the elite who run New York (aka "the comfortable") continue to thrive because they have elected leaders who gladly feed at the trough of their campaign contributions in their pursuit of even more power.

This must stop. We have to restore real democracy and reinvigorate the dream of upward mobility that this great city was built upon. A 15-year-old African-American woman in the Bronx needs to wake up each morning with hope that her future will be brighter than her parents. An 18-year-old Russian immigrant in Brooklyn has to feel that his parents move here a number of years ago was the right one: from a corrupt oligarchy to a city where hard work and equal access to quality education and high-paying careers is the pay-off.

How to do this? Radical reform of public education from universal Pre-K to expanded charter offerings to tax credits for private and parochial schools so ALL kids and their parents have access to great schools. We must marry secondary and higher education to growing industries like green energy and technology so that our children train for 21st century jobs that will be there when they graduate.

And we need to start by radically reforming our political system. The process of fundraising and non-competitive elections corrupts our system and our leaders. Elected officials, many of whom start off idealistically, veer off track as they try to climb the electoral ladder. They take donations as pay to play quid pro quo from the monied class of New York. They forget that their constituents need a hospital facility rather than another expensive luxury condo. They spend taxpayer paid time in boroughs outside of their purview, campaigning and fundraising when they should be working for their constituents.

They make deals with unions that garner big blocks of votes but don't serve the overall body politic because taxpayers become burdened with onerous pension costs that eat up an ever increasing part of our budget.

And they rush breathlessly from campaign fundraisers to public events and miss the fact that their staff and bundlers are actually skirting the campaign finance laws right under their noses.

Politics is such a brutal business that it has scared off the best and the brightest and has unfortunately become so devalued by citizens that we have low turnouts at the polls and little public engagement in crucial public policy issues.

But we can change that. Concerned citizens can insist that their local elected official stop worrying about their next job and stop paying disproportionate attention to New York's 1 percent.

Every vote is equal. The "afflicted" can catch up to the "comfortable." We just need to reform our 20th century, tired ideas -- and the leaders who perpetuate them.