From the Inside Flap
So wrote Langston Hughes about the desperation of blacks in segregated America in the 1930s. Without a dream, the great civil rights victories of the 1960s could never have occurred. Although Hughes penned this poem primarily for his black brothers and sisters, these words ring true for all of us today, especially for the least privileged of our people: the unskilled single mother hoping that her child will move up a rung on the social ladder; the middle-aged man thrown out of work by a corporate "restructuring" and hoping to find another job with comparable potential; the elderly couple whose pension disappeared when the company went bankrupt or was bought out; and even the lower-middle-income, two-paycheck family that, despite having fallen behind over the last two decades, hopes it will catch up over the next decade. Minority and white, male and female, these people have at least one thing in common. Compared to the richest 40 percent of the population, their pockets are empty. And because their pockets are empty, their dream of economic security is fleeting. They cannot buy their way into the better neighborhoods, the better schools, the better health insurance programs, or even the better recreational clubs. If they are going to improve their neighborhoods, their schools, their health care, and their living environment, they need the help of government. But the idea of using government for these purposes today does not draw a whole lot of support from the richest 40 percent of the population who dominate the political system. And that is what politics is about. Deciding who gets to keep most of the income that is generated in the country each year. Deciding for what purposes that income will be used. And deciding what trade-offs to make between private consumption and public investments. Surely, some will argue, this picture is overdrawn. By most objective measures, the average American has better housing, better clothing, better food, better health care, and better schools than the average citizen of just about any sizeable country on the face of the globe. Maybe so. Certainly so for the richest 40 percent of the population. For them the past two decades have ranked among the best of times. They have enjoyed rising incomes, better health care, abundant consumer products, and the fruits of a complex of political-economic forces that redistributed income upward. The bottom 60 percent of the income earners, however, have not done as well. As we will see in coming chapters, average Americans get a smaller share of the national income today than they got 20 years ago. Their comparative advantage in standard of living over the West Europeans has shrunk. And there has been a decline in the ability of government to address effectively their real needs in areas such as public education, health care, and the safety of their living environment. Relative to the top 40 percent of the population, their pockets are emptier than they were 20 years ago. And so are their dreams.
In this book we will examine the relevance of American politics to this bottom 60 percent of income earners. We will probe especially the biases of the political system as it affects these people. What aspects of the system are biased to their disadvantage? And what other aspects give them potential for overcoming the system's biases? Chapter 1 lays out the thesis that the bottom 60 percent of U.S. income earners constitute a lower-status population and that the main institutions of politics today have a significant bias against the economic interests of lower-status people. If lower-status people are to protect their economic interests, they need to learn the nature of that bias and ways in which it might be overcome. Succeeding chapters apply this analysis of bias to the central institutions and processes of American politics. These are the Constitution, federalism, opinion formation, political parties, interest groups, elections, Congress, the presidency, and the courts. The stakes for America in coping with the bias of its political system are high. To function effectively in what promises to be a highly competitive twenty-first century, we need a nation of healthy, skilled, and well-educated people capable of working cooperatively together. If we fail to invest successfully in the health, skills, education, and neighborhoods of our large lower-status population, we will become instead a people who are torn by bitter ethnic divisions and who lack the belief that hard work and cooperation can lead to a better life for all. These words were originally drafted in the early 1990s when the national economy was making a painfully slow recovery from the 1990-1991 recession and a disabling crisis in the world of banking and real estate. When I turned the manuscript over to the publisher's editor, I commented that with luck there would be no need for a second edition of this book. The recovering economy would eventually raise everyone's standard of living, just as the rising tide lifts all the boats in the harbor, and the election of Bill Clinton would make the government more sympathetic to the plight of the bottom 60 percent of the population. My editor smiled and commented that this was a very naive sentiment. Looking back on that conversation several years later, I have to conclude that he was right. Today, in January 1999, the Clinton presidency is in disgrace; its great hopes for easing our national antagonisms are in a shambles. There has indeed been an extraordinary boom in the U.S. economy, but it is clear in retrospect that a few boats got raised higher than others by the rising economic tide, and some boats even seemed to sink. This economic boom created more jobs than ever before in history, but in the last analysis, there are still millions of people without health insurance, without secure jobs, and just as economically desperate today as they were at the beginning of the decade before the boom began. Rather than developing empathy with each other, we appear to be doing just the opposite. Antagonisms among different ethnic and ideological groups have grown rather than shrunk, and there is less patience with those people who, for whatever reasons, have not been able to use the boom to make themselves economically independent. A market philosophy of "every person for himself or herself" has gained strength, and there is less support for the idea of providing a safety net for the less fortunate of our fellow citizens. That, at least, is what I have come to believe after years of teaching about and researching American politics. In the first edition of Empty Dreams, Empty Pockets, I wanted to develop a succinct book that could address these ideas in a format useful for any college-level American government course. This second edition has kept the basic theme of looking at the American political system from the perspective of how well it serves the interests of the poorer 60 percent of the population. The presentation of the theme, however, has been reorganized so that the chapter sequence will fit in handily with the basic American government course. This edition also expands the use of a device that proved popular with adopters in the first edition. A "Personal Side of Politics" box in each chapter asks the reader to visualize how different aspects of American politics make a personal impact on someone described in the box. In sum, this is a book that is brief and to the point. It is brief in that each chapter focuses on basic, essential material that needs to be addressed in the American government course. It is to the point in that each chapter concludes with an analysis of how the subject matter of that chapter affects the poorer 60 percent of the population. My thanks go to political science editor Paul Smith of Allyn & Bacon for encouraging me to undertake this second edition. This edition also owes a debt to two individuals who reviewed portions or all of the manuscript: William Mishler of the University of South Carolina and John Monzingo of North Dakota State University. I appreciate the help of Fred Johnson, who brought the poem of Langston Hughes to my attention. My son Thomas helped draft the Instructor's Manual that accompanies this book. I am most grateful to my wife, Sandy, who endured many weekends alone while this project took shape and whose own trials as a social worker gave me a view of humanity I otherwise would never have seen. It is to her that I dedicate this effort. John J Harrigan St. Paul, MN January 1999
From the Back Cover
Written with the point-of-view that the bottom 60 percent of income earners in the United States constitute a "lower-status population," and demonstrating that the main institutions of government have a significant bias against the economic interests of this group, Empty Dreams, Empty Pockets, Second Edition, examines the relevance of American politics to a group frequently overlooked in American government textbooks. It examines each of our cultural institutions and processes in discrete, engaging chapters, demonstrating how so many aspects of the American system divide and maintain the status quo.