G. Meeting Basic Needs in the U.S.

In this Chapter:

To be considered civilized, a society must, at a minimum, satisfy basic human needs.

Study Questions

  1. What are the main reasons that people in the United States cannot meet their basic needs?
  2. Does economic inequality in the United States indicate systemic oppression and exploitation or does it simply reflect the natural differences between people or the effects of historical happenstance?
  3. What promising social changes would ensure that everyone in the United States could meet their basic needs?

Overview Article G

15 pages total

“Changing How America Works,” speech by Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), AlterNet, November 2, 2006, 15 p.

What kind of an America are we living in today? Something’s wrong when only the rich are getting richer, and average folks are feeling the squeeze. We need widespread change.

Reading Set G1: Housing, Transportation

73 pages total

“Who’s Bearing the Burden? Severely Unaffordable Housing,” by Danilo Pelletiere, Mark Treskon, and Sheila Crowley, National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), August 2005, 11 p.

An examination of national and state affordable housing needs from the 2003 American Community Survey.

“The crisis in America’s Housing: Confronting Myths and Promoting a Balanced Housing policy,” prepared by a coalition of six organizations, January 2005, 20 p.

A balanced, comprehensive housing policy requires pulling a variety of levers simultaneously to address the broad range of housing needs and challenges facing low- and moderate-income families.

“Burlington Busts the Affordable Housing Debate,” by Daniel Fireside, Dollars & Sense, March/April 2005, 8 p.

The Burlington Community Land Trust’s radical 20-year experiment in affordable housing.

“Inclusionary Zoning,” Smart Growth Toolkit, Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, State of Massachusetts, 5 p.

Inclusionary zoning requires a portion of the housing units in certain real estate developments to be reserved as affordable to low- and moderate-income households.

“Zoning Currents Move East: Queens Goes Inclusionary,” by Jillian Jonas, CityLimits.org, August 21, 2006, 4 p.

A new inclusionary zoning program allows developers to build larger buildings than would normally be allowed by also agreeing to create affordable housing units.

“Fare-Free Public Transit Could Be Headed to a City Near You,” by Dave Olsen, The Tyee, July 26, 2007, 12 p.

The economics of free public transit, plus two examples.

“The Highway Lobby,” by Ralph Nader, CounterPunch, August 31, 2002, 3 p.

A brief description of how the automobile industry became dominant in the U.S., and what would be required for public transit to ascend.

“The Fare Way: Advocacy Strategies for Affordable Transit,” results of a survey by PolicyLink Research for the Fight the Fare Increase Campaign, Boston, December 5, 2003, 13 p.

Efforts around the country to fight public transit fare increases.

“Heavy Load: The Combined Housing and Transportation Burdens of Working Families,” Barbara J. Lipman, Center for Housing Policy, October 2006, 4 p.

Detailed data for 28 major metropolitan areas nationwide finds that moving further from work to afford housing may not mean more money in your pocketbook.

Reading Set G2: Healthcare

56 pages total

“The Moral-Hazard Myth: The bad idea behind our failed health-care system,” by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, August 29, 2005, 16 p.

Different schools of thought about health insurance: risk, waste, personal responsibility, and social benefit. Thoughtful article on different schools of thought about insurance

“Better Health Through Fairer Wealth,” by Brydie Ragan, Yes! Magazine, Fall 2006, 3 p.

Being poor may be as great a risk factor in personal health as the consumption of cigarettes or junk food.

“U.S. Health-Care System Gets a ‘D’,” by Catherine Arnst, Business Week, September 21, 2006, 3 p.

A report from the Commonwealth Fund points out shameful inconsistencies and inadequacies in the care given in the richest nation.

“Health Care Pains: Growing Health Care Concerns Fuel Cautious Support for Change,” by Gary Langer, ABC News, October 20, 2003, 7 p.

Results of an ABC poll.

“Has Canada Got the Cure?,” by Holly Dressel, Yes! Magazine, Fall 2006, 7 p.

The United States pays far more than Canada per capita for its health care services, yet Canadians get better care.

“The Number of Uninsured Americans is at an All-Time High,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), August 29, 2006, 9 p.

A record 46.6 million Americans — 15.9% — lacked health coverage in 2005.

“Medicare for All: The Only Sound Solution to Our Healthcare Crisis,” by Guy T. Saperstein, AlterNet, January 16, 2007, 11 p.

Our $2 trillion healthcare industry is not only unhealthy, it is unsustainable. Why universal Medicare is the way to get universal healthcare without collapsing the system.

Reading Set G3: Working Conditions and Consumer Choices

42 pages total

“The Wal-Mart debate: A false choice between prices and wages,” by Jared Bernstein and L. Josh Bivens, EPI Issue Brief #223, Economic Policy Institute (EPI), June 15, 2006, 9 p.

Can the economic benefits provided by big-box retailers be preserved even if their labor compensation is dramatically improved?

“The Costco Challenge: An Alternative to Wal-Martization?” by Moira Herbst, Labor Research Association (LRA), July 5, 2005, 7 p.

Costco finds a loyal, well-compensated workforce is a more efficient and productive one.

“Hey, Nice Clothes. But Are They Ethical?,” by Stephanie Hanes, Christian Science Monitor, October 13, 2006, 4 p.

There has been a huge surge in consumer interest in ethical fashion.

“Nike to the Rescue? Africa needs better jobs, not sweatshops,” by John Miller, Dollars & Sense, September/ October 2006, 10 p.

A critique of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s praise of sweatshops.

“Credit Card Pushers Pump Up Profits - and Risk,” by Abby Scher, Dollars & Sense, Issue #220, November-December 1998, 12 p.

In an era of fraying safety nets and increasing inequality, banks shamelessly peddle credit cards as the way for those left behind to live the good life. This is old, but the background is solid.

Reading Set G4: Poor and Working Class People

61 pages total

“Deciding Who’s Poor,” by Barbara R. Bergmann, Dollars & Sense, Issue #228, March-April 2000, 9 p.

Where should the poverty line be set? good overview, interplay of politics and economics

“U.S. economy leaving record numbers in severe poverty,” by Tony Pugh, McClatchy Newspapers, February 22, 2007, 10 p.

An analysis of 2005 census figures finds that nearly 16 million Americans are living in deep or severe poverty. Newspaper-type article on growing poverty, downward pressure in US: statistics, stories, different perspectives on causes.

“Poverty Remains Higher, and Median Income for Non-Elderly is Lower, than when Recession Hit Bottom: Poor Performance Unprecedented for Four-Year Recovery Period,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), September 1, 2006, 15 p.

A smaller share of the gains from the current economic recovery are going to workers’ wages than in all but one previous post-World War II recovery period, and a larger share are going to corporate profits than in any other recovery since World War II.

“Measuring the Full Impact of Minimum and Living Wage Laws,” by Jeannette Wicks-Lim, Dollars & Sense, May/June 2006, 12 p.

Workers who were earning less than the new wage floor are not the only ones who benefit from a higher minimum wage.

“State of Working America: Working Harder, Earning Less,” by James Parks, AFL-CIO blog, Sep 8, 2006, 2 p.

Facts from the State of Working America 2006–2007 by the Economic Policy Institute.

“Black Job Loss Deja Vu,” by Betsy Leondar-Wright, Dollars & Sense, May/June 2004, 9 p.

Black workers take the biggest hit in the job-loss economy - so what’s new?

“Low-Wage Nation,” Labor Research Association (LRA), June 22, 2004, 3 p.

A brief, statistic-filled look at the shift toward low-wage service jobs.

“Make a Living — With Dignity,” by Michael Ramos, Yes! Magazine, Winter 2006, 1 p.

The religious community, labor unions, and community groups have come together to sponsor 122 living wage ordinances in towns large and small throughout the United States.

Reading Set G5: Wealth and Inequality

45 pages total

Introduction to “Income Inequality in the Long Run,” by Thomas Piketty, RDB Lecture, Bocconi, March 21, 2002, 2 p.

A very brief summary of the research by Piketty and Emmanuel Saez on inequality in the United States.

“Geese, Golden Eggs, and Traps: Why Inequality Is Bad for the Economy,” by Chris Tilly, Dollars & Sense, July/August 2004, 10 p.

Conservative prescriptions are absolutely, dangerously wrong. In fact, inequality stifles growth.

“New CBO Data Show Income Inequality Continues to Widen: After-Tax-Income for Top 1 Percent Rose by $146,000 in 2004,” by  By Arloc Sherman and Aviva Aron-Dine, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), January 23, 2007, 9 p.

New data highlights the degree to which income gains over the past quarter-century have become increasingly concentrated at the top of the income scale.

“New Data Show Extraordinary Jump in Income Concentration in 2004” by Aviva Aron-Dine and Isaac Shapiro, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, October 13, 2006, 5 p.

A study from economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez show that income gains between 2003 and 2004 were particularly large for those at the very top of the income spectrum, resulting in a nearly unprecedented one-year increase in income concentration.

“What’s wedged between productivity, living standards?” by Jared Bernstein, Providence Journal (Rhode Island), February 28, 2006, 3 p.

Why GDP growth does not translate into increased workforce well-being.

“Numbers Show a Second-Rate U.S.”, By David R. Francis, Christian Science Monitor, August 28, 2006, 3 p.

The United States is the world’s only military superpower and has the globe’s largest economy. Yet, by some measures, the U.S. is a second-rate industrial nation - at best.

“Taxing wealth Swedish style,” by John Miller, Dollars & Sense, September/October 2005, 5 p.

The pros and cons of the estate tax and taxing wealth.

Abstract of Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches by Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal, MIT Press, June 2006, 8 p.

what’s our bitter partisan political divide really about? Class warfare.

Additional Resources


“The Prey and the Predators: Guided Tour of Class in America: An Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich,” by Tom Englehardt, TomDispatch.com, June 4, 2006, 23 p.

A look at economic class in the United States today. A very human, accessible look at where we are as a country in the present, with a particular focus on the disappearing middle class.

“Paul Krugman on the New Class War in America,” speech at “The New Class War in America” event, New York, Democracy Now! radio show, June 19, 2006, 11 p.

Putting our economic situation in the context of the last 100 years.


Next Reading Set Collection: H. Global Economics