By Dan Cornfield
Democrats need to redefine themselves to win the White House in 2008. The Party‘s leadership change is an opportunity to develop a bold platform that restores the American Dream to working families left behind by the Bush Administration.
As a labor sociologist writing from a blue city in the middle of a red state, I propose that a work-and-family platform would resonate with an increasing percentage of voters and could be a successful response to the demand for moral leadership. It could also shift a sufficient number of Southern votes to the Democrats.
No amount of moral crusading can hide that low- and middle-income families were left behind during Bush‘s first term, and there‘s no reason to expect this trend to abate. The wealthiest 5 percent of households are richer than any time in the last 30 years; growth in real hourly earnings ground to a halt; the percent of households living below the poverty line soared 10 percent; and the number of discouraged workers who gave up looking for work altogether increased 82 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of Americans lacking health insurance grew by 10 percent.
Also, in the last election, CNN exit polls showed that low- and middle-income Southerners were virtually split in their preferences and decisively divided along racial, religious and rural-urban lines.
Democrats cannot respond by only offering the middle class a tax break.
So what would comprise a work-and-family platform? It would increase accessibility, security and safety of good private-sector jobs with decent dependent-care, health and retirement benefits. It would ease commutes between home and work with efficient and affordable public transportation, provide workers a greater voice through collective bargaining and build safer, cohesive neighborhoods with more recreational facilities.
A national corps of professional work and family counselors would be created and its members drawn from the ranks of our nation‘s professional providers of social, educational and health services to help crisis-laden, low- and middle-income families gain access to vital employment services, mental health services, healthcare and other social services that revive suffering families.
It would raise the quality of family life by encouraging more young adults to enter careers as professional service providers through incentives to those who enroll in graduate training programs for careers in the social, educational and health services. Social service agencies, schools, clinics and hospitals would be induced to provide internship and training opportunities for future generations of professional service providers.
A work-and-family platform would appeal to working families in all regions – particularly those in the South who, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, are poorer, more prone to divorce, more likely to lack health insurance, and more likely to die in infancy, an automobile crash, a violent crime or by suicide compared to families in the blue states.
It would also play well among blue-state families, whose higher quality of family life does not come easily. Blue-state workers are more likely to hold multiple jobs and to belong to labor unions than Southern workers. The platform would resonate among the loyal Democratic following of labor union households, urban minorities and progressive middle-income voters who delivered these states to the Democrats.
Democrats need to secure the home front by championing a bold platform to reverse the divisive deterioration of family livelihoods. Such a platform would unite families of different racial, regional and religious backgrounds, and for millions make the American Dream a reality. Only with a commitment to helping the nation‘s working families will Democrats earn a mandate in four years.
Dan Cornfield is professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and editor of the quarterly journal Work and Occupations.
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