Even while we see jobs coming back, the tsunami created by the Great Recession is hitting cities and counties with full force. Suffolk County, one of the largest New York counties, has declared a financial emergency. Stockton, Calif., a city of 300,000, is on the verge of bankruptcy.
As the cities go belly up, the 1 percent are back. A new report by Emmanuel Saez, the nation’s leading academic expert on income inequality, shows that the top 1 percent captured a staggering 93 percent of all the real income growth in 2010. The bottom 99 percent captured only 0.2 percent after losing nearly 12 percent from 2007-09. For the 99 percent, the loses in the Great Recession erased all income gains since the last recession in 2002.
In cities, the crisis is forcing harsh cuts in services. As New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg put it, “Towns and counties across the state are starting to have to make the real choices — fewer cops, fewer firefighters, slower ambulance response, less teachers.”
Cities and counties could muffle the effect for a couple of years, but now, the day of reckoning is hitting — and hitting hard.
Lower property values, the result of the housing bubble crash, are now being registered in tax valuations. Millions were lost as the banks trampled the law while dodging recording and transfer fees on mortgages. Unemployment and poverty put greater pressure on budgets, particularly on health care through Medicaid. The losses suffered by pension funds force higher payments by public employers. The high unemployment economy generates lower sales and income tax revenues.
Across America, cities and counties are cutting muscle, not fat. Teachers and police are being laid off. Parks are closing. Sewer and road repairs are being put off. And brutal battles are beginning with public workers, forced to pay for a crisis they did not create.
America is a rich nation, but our wealth is now too concentrated among the few. As in Iraq, we squander trillions in foolish wars of choice abroad. The wealthiest Americans pay lower tax rates than their secretaries.
These should not be controversial statements. We can’t simply tell a young generation that the American Dream is a nightmare for them. We can’t have a prosperous economy if the middle class is sinking. We will not long be a democracy if the wealthiest pocket the rewards and check out of building the nation.
Yet it is striking how many in both parties are in denial. All of the Republican candidates call for more top-end tax cuts, more military spending and harsher cuts in schools and infrastructure. Congressional Republicans block even modest support for cities to keep teachers and cops on the job. Democrats like Steny Hoyer call for a grand bargain that begins by raising the retirement age on the next generation, a cruel reform that hits the poorest workers the hardest.
We can’t go on this way. Do we assume that a recovery that benefits the few will trickle down to the rest of us? Do we so hate government that we will starve vital services like schools and police? Are we so divided that we don’t care if poor children have health care or a fair start?
We face the reckoning. We can keep going on the path we’ve been on, or change our course. To do that, Americans will have to mobilize, take on the entrenched interests and demand a change.
We have to choose.