Steps Forward, Steps Backwards

What a year. 2004 is not to be forgotten any time soon, mostly because of the historic presidential election that brought out 117 million voters – the most since 1968. And while many are chalking 2004 up to either victory or loss, red or blue, the situation is actually much more complicated.

More than most years in recent history, 2004 was a bundle of contradictions.

This year, we celebrated the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, passed forty years ago to rectify the blatant discrimination faced by African Americans in the classroom, workplace and voting booth. At the same time, we turned our backs on a progressive history in this country of using the constitution to expand not limit rights when voters in 11 states passed constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage in their state.

We celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision which mandated the desegregation of U.S. schools. Yet, half a century later, schools are more segregated today than they were at the height of the civil rights movement, one in two children do not graduate from high schools in cities through America, and 4 in 10 African-American and Latino children forgo a college education because it's simply too expensive.

Sometimes it was the voters who contradicted themselves. For example, in Florida and Nevada, voters approved a significant measure to increase the minimum wage that their choice for President would not. Florida's Amendment 5, which will increase the state minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.15 an hour and annually index it to inflation, won with 71 percent of the vote – an ever greater margin than the victory received by President Bush, who has sworn off any increase at the federal level.

More contradictions: In a time when concern about the safety of our homeland consumes the national dialogue, Congress allowed the assault weapons ban to expire. Meanwhile, as more and more working Americans are expressing concern about making ends meet, the Bush Administration changed the rules governing federal overtime compensation, limiting some 6 million white-collar workers' ability to qualify for overtime pay.

Federal inaction on one of the most important issues to Americans forced the governors of Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Wisconsin – three Republican and one Democrat – to issue executive orders directing their respective departments of health to set up Web sites to help residents seek prescription drugs from Canada - at prices as much as 60 percent less than in the U.S. Meanwhile, similar federal legislation has continued to be blocked by both the White House and congressional Republicans.

Governor Schwarzenegger, darling of the Republican Party, defied his party's stance, showing his political backbone by endorsing Proposition 71, a bond measure to dedicate nearly $300 million annually for 10 years to stem cell research in his state.

Why do we see this level of activity on the executive level and not Congress? Perhaps it's because there is little incentive for our nation's representatives to boldly pursue the policies that could improve the quality of life for their constituents. Out of 435 House races this year, incumbents lost only seven. While November brought the greatest national turnout since 1968, only slightly more than one in two eligible voters actually stepped into the booth. Almost one in two young Americans didn't vote and more than 4.7 million Americans who have served their time in prison and pay their taxes were barred from participating in this year's election.

While 2004 is sure to go down in the record books for all that took place - the presidential election, the war - it also deserves a spot for all that did not. More than 1.3 million people slipped into poverty, and we still have no plan to deal with the fact that literally millions of working families are expected to live on $15,670 – the poverty threshold for a family of three. More than 1.6 million people are newly uninsured - 40 percent of them earning middle-class incomes - and we still haven't figured out how to prioritize a solution for expanding access to health care. Yet another contradiction.

So, as we close the book on 2004, faced with such stark inequalities between Americans' social and economic realities, the goal is to prevent the United States from itself becoming a contradiction in terms.

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