Michaelene Pendleton

In the 1970s, a senator was quoted as saying, “A million here, a million there, before long, you’re talking real money.”

Today, you need to change million to billion. Our national debt has climbed back into the trillions. If you count one dollar bills at one per second, it would take you about 32 years to count out a trillion of them. Yet we spend $100,000,000 each for the F-35 jet fighter that took 15 years of development before it could even fly, and $40,000,000,000 for Homeland Security.

These figures have no relevance to the majority of the public. While Congress spends tax money like water, we have to figure out how to pay a $200 heat bill.

It was undoubtedly a rich fellow who said, “Money doesn’t buy happiness.” Granted, but money will buy peace of mind when it comes to things like health insurance, decent housing, a car that actually runs, money to feed and clothe the kids. Last year, members of Congress cut the Social Security Cost of Living Adjustment, while at the same time giving themselves a raise. This year, there was no COLA at all. Will they give themselves a raise this year?

There is something wrong with this picture.

Congress is out of touch with life among the lower classes. Especially since Citizens United, money wins elections. Abe Lincoln, poor fellow that he was, would never make it to a national slate in today’s elections.

We need to require another qualification for election. Currently, a senator or representative must live in the district she or he represents. This is a good idea, but it needs to be taken a step further.

What if, to qualify to run for election, the candidates had to live for six months at the poverty level for their districts? The candidate and family would live in substandard housing, the children would attend local schools, the adults would work at minimum wage jobs – if they could find them. They could learn how far food stamps really stretch and see how tired they get of living on rice and beans, and try not to notice how people stare at their food baskets to see if they are buying anything expensive. They could experience firsthand what happens when poor people visit an overcrowded emergency room. They could try to buy prescriptions at retail. They could do without dental and vision care. They could try to scratch together the money to pay for school recreation programs, and then wonder what their kids are doing while they’re working two or three jobs and getting home at midnight too tired to do anything but fall into bed.

Six months isn’t too much to ask from the people who claim to represent us. They can go back to their multi-million dollar homes, full health insurance, country clubs, white-tie soirees and private schools. We will still be here, scraping and scrounging to exist. But just possibly, that elected representative will remember where that tax money comes from, and remember how hard it is to exist at the bottom of the heap.

Who knows, maybe then we can discuss equal public funding for any candidate who gets a required number of signatures. What if a modern day Abe Lincoln had a chance? Imagine.

One more thing: Publicly funded elections could last for only three months. Anything a politician can’t say in three months hasn’t been thought through in the first place.

It’s not likely, though, that Congress would agree to these conditions. So what could we do on a local level to even the playing field?

How about raising the minimum wage in Grand County to $15 per hour? Or making the developers who promise low-income units build those ahead of market-rate units? Or requiring employers with more than 40 employees to guarantee housing? Or starting a scheduled bus line so people living farther out in the valley in cheaper housing can get to work without having a car, or even a bicycle?

And most important of all, how about tying raises for county or municipal salaried employees to the same amount that Social Security raises the COLA each year?

I know, I’m a dreamer; but if we could put a man on the moon in less than a decade, why couldn’t we create a society with a little less financial inequality right now? Where every worker can make a living in 40 hours a week? Where parents have time to spend with their children and friends? Where each person is given respect for their abilities, and business people understand that without their employees, they don’t have their second homes in Palm Beach, or their expensive European cars. Happy employees make happy customers, and everybody prospers.

It’s a worthwhile dream.

Michaelene Pendleton spent most of her working life as a psychologist and has written fiction and nonfiction for more years than she likes to count. Bouncing between Alaska and Moab, she seems to have settled here, for better or worse.