Individuals reap benefits when communities unite

Halloween rules in my neighborhood. From a pumpkin on the porch to front lawns transformed into graveyards, almost every house is decorated this year.

Some have always gone all out with seasonal displays, but this near unanimity seems new. Maybe it’s the recent influx of younger couples into the neighborhood. Or maybe it’s the recession.

Halloween as we traditionally celebrate it unites two strands of the American character that are often in tension — especially during political campaigns. Trick-or-treating both rewards individual enterprise and requires community. The kids who wear the most creative costumes, plot the best routes and work hardest knocking on doors will get the most candy. But enterprise only pays off because adults are willing to stock up and give candy out to any kid who comes to the door. A jack-o-lantern on the porch on Halloween night is a sign that we’re a participant in this community event.

In economic boom times, it’s easy to fall into believing that anyone can make it if they try, that we’re better off on our own. But when layoffs proliferate, banks collapse, and home values and retirement portfolios take a dive, we turn to the security that comes from banding together.

Some argue that systems of mutual support undermine individual enterprise. But in fact, it’s strong networks and universal supports that allow individuals to go beyond the circumstances of their birth to develop their full potential and pursue their dreams.

We’ve long recognized that universal schooling is essential to preserving democracy. Now it’s becoming increasingly evident that building an educated citizenry in the 21st century will require more than a 20th century K-12 system. It requires a greatly expanded and improved system of early learning that will assure all kids enter kindergarten with the grounding they need to succeed in school. We need enhanced math, science, language and critical thinking curricula in the K-12 system. We also need to expand access to higher education so all young people who have adequately prepared can go to college or technical school, and so workers who want retraining for an emerging industry can get it.

Once we offer those universal educational systems, it’s still up to each individual to study, do their homework, and take advantage of opportunity. But not providing comprehensive universal education is counterproductive to both the workings of democracy and of private enterprise.

Social Security is another program where the community provides certain guarantees to individuals and their families who contribute. The collapse of financial markets and stock values underscores how essential Social Security is not only to the economic security of retirees and working families, but to preventing spiraling economic calamity.

Labor unions provide another example where community and individual prosperity intertwine. Collectively, working people have far more ability to negotiate for a fair share of the fruits of their labor than each individual on their own ever could. During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt transformed the approach of the federal government from union busting to protecting the rights of workers to organize. That change allowed the century-old labor union movement to take off.

The strength of unions through the mid-20th century was a key ingredient to the rise of a large and prosperous middle class and a prolonged period of shared economic prosperity. The decline in unions for multiple reasons since the 1980s has contributed to rising inequality and growing economic insecurity for all working families, whether unionized or not. Still, today, union workers have higher wages and benefits than similar non-union workers. Washington is a relatively high-wage state in part because more workers are covered by a union here — 21 percent compared to the national average of 13 percent.

It’s looking as though the Boeing Machinists’ strike may succeed in putting a larger share of corporate profits into the pockets of thousands of local families. Our whole region will benefit as a result, with more prosperous local businesses and more economically secure families.

There’s been a move to privatize Halloween in recent years, sticking to parties of known friends, rather than risking opening the door to someone else’s kids. This year, let’s reward the superheroes and princesses who venture out into the neighborhood, and let them know we’re in this with them.

Marilyn Watkins, policy director of the Economic Opportunity Instititue (www.eoionline.org), writes every other Wednesday. Her e-mail address is marilyn@eoionline.org.

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