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We will broadcast special coverage of both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, starting with the RNC tonight at 8.

Commentary: Family values and no health insurance

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 29, 2010 - If you share my fascination with the absurd, you will find perverse pleasure in the delicious illogic through which a prominent family values politician has concluded that it's OK to deny health insurance to, say, diabetic or asthmatic children. At the recent values voter summit, Mike Huckabee explained his rationale: 

"How would you like to be able to call your insurance agent for your car and say: I want you to insure my car," Huckabee intoned. "Well, tell me abut your car." "Well, it was a pretty nice vehicle until my 16-year-old boy wrecked it yesterday." Using a similar analogy about post-fire home insurance purchases, Huckabee suggested that people who have the audacity to develop chronic conditions when they have no health coverage can justifiably be denied insurance for those diseases, until death do they part. 

It's hard to know how to respond. One can marvel at the sheer inventiveness of Huckabee's analogies; his courage in going where few Republicans have publicly gone before. One might highlight the chutzpah of using a values summit to argue that sick people should be denied health insurance or puzzle over the ritual cheers of a values-oriented audience. 

But more instructive insights reside in a brief history of family values. 

From the end of World War II until the late 1970s, families could live austere but comfortable lives on one working-class income. For better and worse, family values implied traditional stay-at-home mothers and employed fathers. Working-class salary structures were sufficient to ensure your mother's touch as full time day care. 

But that was then. That was when only a quarter of the mothers of small children worked outside the home. That was before "government is the enemy" and "don't tax the rich" politicians saw political gold in a marriage between trickle down economics and values voting. Through that marriage, programs like government supported day care came remarkably to be anathema to family values acolytes. 

By the 1990s, our revised value system had compelled more than 60 percent of the mothers of small children to work outside the home. In part, it reflected enhanced opportunity. But mostly, women worked because they could not afford to stay home. Since the late 1970s, real income for most Americans has been stagnant or declining. In 1980, the richest 1 percent of families earned less than 10 percent of total income. Today, that figure exceeds 23 percent. 

This unprecedented income redistribution has transferred trillions of dollars from ordinary Americans to the wealthy. With the support of political and corporate elites who feign deep concern about families, it has occurred for multiple reasons that include: 

  • In the 1960s and 70s, a third of private sector workers were union members. Because that figure is now about 7 percent, the wage and job protection unions provided is a historical relic for millions.
  • Between 1960 and 1980, CEO pay remained steady at about 50 times average worker salaries. That ratio has increased seven fold to more than 350 today. With lower-level executives reaping similar bonanzas, there is far less money for workers. Because the rich save their money and often invest it abroad, this upward income redistribution implies less money and therefore fewer jobs at home, and fewer jobs enhance downward wage pressures.
  • Revised tax laws have enriched the rich by halving the 1980 marginal income tax rate on high incomes, reducing taxes on investment income, and steadily increasing regressive social security taxes.
  • For decades, income-strapped Americans' quality of life has been artificially sustained by borrowing. But the burst bubble prevents borrowing from cushioning the impact of eroding salaries. So we are left with two workers per household, with overtime or second jobs as the only potential sources of added income and, frequently, with no affordable child care.

That is the context within which Mike Huckabee suggests that denying health insurance to the sick is consistent with family values. It's where values voters join small government advocates in arguing that we must avoid class warfare policies that redistribute wealth. It reflects a cosmic denial of the vast upward income redistribution that has been ongoing for 30 years, aided and abetted by the reduced salaries of values voters who are blissfully unaware that they are supporting their own impoverishment. 
Former labor secretary Robert Reich argues that income redistribution has been so extensive that, as in the 1930s, a wholesale reorganization of the economy is necessary because the middle class no longer has enough buying power to rejuvenate the economy. 

Overstated or not, Reich describes our central economic challenge: to define policies that recalibrate our distorted income distribution; to put money in the hands of hard-working lower and middle class people who will spend it. No family value is more urgent.

Ken Schechtman is a freelance writer and a professor at the Washington University School of Medicine.