When reflecting on 2013, it's easy to feel that the country is moving backward.
Economic inequality continues to widen, undermining America's once-unrivaled middle class. Voting rights are in danger of being rolled back after the Supreme Court made them harder to enforce. Cutbacks are being made to essential helping-hand programs such as food stamps and unemployment benefits. Abortion rights are under direct assault in Republican-controlled states. Heck, the entire notion of personal privacy is on life support now that it has been confirmed that the National Security Agency is in all our business.
It's quite a litany of bleakness.
But don't despair. There are tremendously hopeful signs, too. Despite the country's do-nothing Congress and solid pockets of resistance to progressive values, positive changes are occurring.
Here are some of them:
Health care For All. Everyone should breathe a huge sigh of relief. With the final pieces of the Affordable Care Act in place or nearly so, America has its own version of universal health coverage. Yes, the rollout of the online marketplaces was badly bungled — a self-inflicted wound for President Barack Obama — but the law will bring medical security to tens of millions of Americans who no longer have to fear that a job loss will leave them and their children uninsured. Now stand back and watch entrepreneurship explode.
Same-Sex Marriage. The number of states that allow same-sex couples to marry seems to change by the day. It's up to 18 states if you include Utah, which is incredible considering that it was in 2003, a scant 10 years ago, when the Supreme Court said states can no longer enforce laws criminalizing homosexual conduct within the privacy of a home. It doesn't take an avid court-watcher to know that a case will soon establish same-sex marriage as an individual right for the country.
Criminal Justice Reforms. The United States incarcerates more of its people than any other nation, often for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses. This has to change and it's starting to. The political interests of liberals who say sentencing is too harsh, and conservatives who don't want to pay more in taxes to keep building prisons, are converging. Commonsense alternatives to incarceration are gaining ground even in lock-'em-up places like Texas.
Meanwhile Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered federal prosecutors to avoid charging certain nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that carry hefty mandatory minimum sentences. And Americans seem to be losing their taste for the death penalty. There were fewer than 40 executions in 2013 for only the second time since 1994. The trends are promising.
Workers' Rights. Fast-food and other low-paid workers seemed to find their voice this year with demands to be paid a living wage. Nationwide they walked off the job in daylong demonstrations, bringing public attention to the way taxpayers are subsidizing poverty-level pay through public welfare benefits. The new awareness helped spark voters in SeaTac, Wash., a tiny suburb of Seattle, to pass the highest minimum wage in the country at $15 per hour — more than twice the federal minimum wage of $7.25. And the nation's nearly 2 million home health aides finally won a rule that brings them under the federal minimum wage and overtime protections beginning in 2015. It's a start.
Other Hopeful Signs.
This year, the rapacious banking sector was held to account a bit more. Not only did the Justice Department win huge dollar settlements for the misdeeds of banks in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, but a stronger version than anticipated of the Volcker Rule was adopted. Once in full effect, the nation's giant banks may no longer endanger taxpayer-backed deposits by making risky investments for their own profits. Now it just needs to be enforced.
On the privacy front, a presidential advisory group just issued a smart and thorough set of recommendations to rein in the NSA's snooping. On the long-sought goal of energy independence — we're slowly getting there.
But on rising levels of economic inequality, what Obama rightly named as "the defining challenge of our time" in a speech earlier this month, a sea change is needed and one is nowhere in sight. Income inequality might seem to be a result of structural economic shifts, but in truth it's a political problem with political solutions. Obama says he gets it; now he needs to act to give 99 percent of Americans a more economically secure 2014 and beyond.