Cover image for An even better place : America in the 21st century
An even better place : America in the 21st century
Gephardt, Richard A. (Richard Andrew), 1941-
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : PublicAffairs, [1999]

Physical Description:
246 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Reading Level:
1420 Lexile.
Added Author:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HD5660.U5 .G47 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Representative Richard Gephart, a leader of the Democrats and a possible presidential contender, is little known considering his 30-year career in public life. Aiming to ignite national debate, the message of this book is that the new economy isn't necessarily making American lives better; that by neglecting children, everything good about America is put at risk; and that Americans should think like owners when it comes to how to thinking about the government.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Richard Gephardt won't be a presidential candidate for the 2000 race, so his book can be read as a reflection of his genuine concerns rather than a political platform. It still reads like a platform, but the concerns are no less valid. As minority leader in the House, Gephardt led the failed Democratic effort to halt the impeachment of President Clinton. That sordid process (and the affair that precipitated it) crystallized public disgust and loss of interest in politics. Gephardt laments the unfortunate outcome of even greater distancing between the public and lawmakers. He cites important trends that need serious attention: lingering feelings of insecurity even as the economy continues to grow, job shifts from manufacturing to "knowledge" industries, increased globalization of the economy, unresolved trade issues, health and education issues, and so forth. He profiles companies with policies that make workers stakeholders and decision-makers and programs that actually deliver on social promises. He's best at describing the shifting political landscape, from his own entry into grassroots Democratic politics in St. Louis to the current bleak partisanship that promises little cooperation in dealing with issues of concern to Americans. Gephardt ties the growing partisanship to the rising influence of extremist groups. He is troubled by the growing incivility of politics, the personal nature of "slash and burn" campaign tactics. He advocates campaign reform and making the process of voting simpler and easier. Gephardt also chides citizens to stop disparaging politics and to get more involved in local politics, highlighting the risks to democracy when citizens become disenchanted with the political process. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

The man who would be the next Speaker of the House presents readers with a thoughtful, earnest book in which he reflects on his 23 years in Congress and articulates what he believes needs to be done to make America an even better place. After an obligatory call for leaders in Washington to stop the "politics of personal destruction," the Missouri Democrat reviews his career, discussing what he's fought against (NAFTA) and what he's lobbied to pass (the Patient's Bill of Rights, a higher minimum wages) in Congress. Addressing the needs of the future, Gephardt identifies what he calls a "quiet crisis" brewing in this country: a crumbling Social Security system, millions of people who are overworked and underpaid, millions more without adequate health care. The only way to fix these problems, Gephardt states, is for the American people to renew their sense of civic duty and to help government help people help themselves. Perhaps because he is not running for national office (he declined to seek his party's presidential nomination in 2000), Gephardt is far less self-promoting in these pages than the average pol is in the average campaign-season book. While the book has its share of bland platitudes, Gephardt offers some real insights into such issues as American trade policy (he's not nearly the protectionist his critics claim) and welfare reform (he hates the reform bill Clinton signed on the eve of the 1996 election). Most of all, he comes off as an honorable career politician trying to redefine what it means to be a labor Democrat in a post-industrial economic and political landscape. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One "We're All in This Together" I suppose most people are deeply influenced by their childhood experiences. I'm no exception. I grew up in St. Louis during the 1940s and 1950s, as part of a working-class family very much in the economic mainstream for the time. My attitudes and beliefs about work, family, community, and basic fairness are still shaped by my memories of those years.     We baby boomers sometimes look back on those postwar days through a haze of nostalgia, as if they were a golden era of prosperity and happiness. But like most rose-colored memories, that's at best a half-truth. I remember how my family struggled financially. Almost all of the clothes I wore as a child were hand-me-downs from relatives who were better off than we were. We had a beat-up used car, a 1937 Ford two-door, that Dad constantly worked on to keep it going. But our primary mode of transportation was the public bus and streetcar system in St. Louis. We took the bus everywhere. I remember many days and nights standing out in harsh cold or oppressive heat, waiting forty-five minutes, sometimes an hour, for a bus to come.     My dad set a family pattern of frugality. He always used to say that the only way to have money was to not spend it. All during my childhood, Dad kept a big garden and canned the vegetables he grew there for our family to eat. Growing up, he'd been deeply affected by the Depression and always talked about how the only way his family had survived those hard times was by feeding themselves from their garden.     When I was little, Dad supported our family by driving a milk truck. He didn't make a lot of money, but he always told us that he would have been paid a lot less if he hadn't been a member of the Teamsters Union. He often talked disparagingly about the "big shots," about how people with wealth took advantage of the "little guy." The union, he felt, was the worker's best friend and ally.     Dad wasn't bitter about the occasional harshness of life. There was a sense that this was just the way things were. Anyway, he wasn't the only one working hard. Everyone pitched in. My mom worked as a secretary, and my brother Don and I usually worked weekends and summers. Life was similar for other families in the neighborhood. Everyone we knew took it for granted that you worked hard and shared rewards as a family and as a community. I can never thank my parents enough for the sacrifices and struggles they made for me. My views on work and unions and the struggles of working families were shaped in this period. From these experiences I knew I wanted to someday help families like mine. I never will forget where I came from and how much my family meant to me.     So I was raised to believe in the dignity of work, even though we didn't always talk about it in that way. I now understand that it's a central value to the American way as well as to my Baptist tradition and my wife Jane's Catholic faith. Like most Americans, I believe that there's an inherent value in all people's efforts to do something useful to support themselves and their families. And although times were sometimes tough in postwar America, there was a concrete commitment to the idea that work was to be honored and rewarded. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, wages were rising. People in our neighborhood were always buying new things--their first car, TV set, or washing machine--things we take for granted today but that were luxuries for the time. Our bit of the American dream included our family's first house. Dad bought it in 1942 for $4,000 and made only interest payments on it. He eventually sold it in 1965 for all of $13,000--a pretty good return on his investment, we all agreed.     As the postwar recovery turned into a great economic boom, average American families in St. Louis and around the country had the feeling that all of us would share some of the benefits. What made that possible? There's no single answer. Dad was right about the role of strong labor unions--they certainly played a part. So did government guarantees, such as the minimum wage, workers' compensation, and Social Security. But an unspoken ethic of respect for the worker largely permeated corporate America as well. Even as a kid, I understood that the big St. Louis companies like Anheuser-Busch, Monsanto, and McDonnell-Douglas generally treated their employees with decency and fairness. It was a world in which aerospace workers and electricians, steelworkers and stenographers, truck drivers and teachers could all hold their heads high, a world where kids were proud of their parents. Many hoped to follow in their parents' footsteps--in fact, many parents helped their kids get a job at their workplace and then worked side-by-side with them, in a genuine family atmosphere.     If people today consider the 1950s the good old days, then I think it's because of a shared belief that we were in it together--that other families in our neighborhood faced the same problems and enjoyed the same opportunities we did. We shared in the successes and supported one another throughout the failures. I remember how the whole neighborhood turned out when the first car arrived outside someone's house. There was pride in what they had accomplished, and little jealousy, because we sensed that in time and with hard work all Americans could achieve the good life. The Devaluing of Work Today, in too many ways, work and working people are being devalued. Many have come to feel that the good life comes only to a fortunate few--those who inherit a family fortune or those blessed with exceptional talent in business, entertainment, or sports. Hard work at an everyday job looks like a sucker's bet to many of our youth. Though we've nominally increased the minimum wage, its actual value has eroded to the point where many of the working poor would do better on welfare. In the words of Raul Yzaguirre, president of La Raza, America's largest grassroots Hispanic organization, some must make the terrible choice "between their children and their pride." And blue-collar and white-collar Americans, with relatively few exceptions, have seen their earning power stagnate, despite steady increases in the length and productivity of their working hours.     Furthermore, many Americans have become ambivalent in their attitudes toward work itself. Shortly after I was first elected to serve in Congress, I began what I called "work days"--days spent back home in St. Louis, doing different jobs. I was a garbage collector for a day and a bagger at a grocery store; I rode around town in an ambulance, working with emergency medical technicians.     My campaign staff saw these days as opportunities for the people of my district to relate to me person-to-person, as an ordinary Joe, rather than on a pedestal as their congressman. (We midwesterners don't appreciate it when anyone gets a little too big for their britches.) But for me it was a chance to learn from the people I worked with and met. Hanging on to the handrails of a garbage truck you quickly learn that people ignore or avoid trash collectors. To them, it's an undignified occupation most people don't want their kids to follow. Only when the sanitation workers go out on strike does the public fully realize how vital a role they play.     Still, despite the fact that they didn't have glamorous jobs, the sanitation workers I rode with were quietly proud of their work. They weren't getting rich, but they were getting by, thanks to their own efforts. I worked with a man who'd been collecting trash for the city for twenty-five years. He taught me how to lift the heavy trash cans properly, throw the contents into the truck, and toss the cans back onto the street--there's a craft and a technique to this work as there is to everything. As we drove around town, he told me about his four kids. "I don't have a great job," he remarked, "but I sure am proud of the education my children got. They'll never have to throw garbage like I did." Two of his children were lawyers, and two were doctors. His story speaks volumes about the importance and dignity of work.     Working women everywhere share these feelings. Some time ago, I asked Karen Nussbaum, who headed up 9-to-5, the organization representing workingwomen, to set up sessions for me with workingwomen in different cities. One woman in Boston spoke for millions: "I've got a job. I go out in the morning to work. I want my children to see that."     Every working person seeks and deserves respect for his or her efforts. Yet today there is a growing divide between people who work with their hands and so-called knowledge workers, the well-educated elite who are the vanguard of the information age. Clearly, the advent of new technology is revolutionizing the world and creating remarkable new career opportunities. But the fact is that there are countless jobs that need to be done that are neither glamorous nor stepping-stones to a better job. The increasing gulf between "good" jobs and "bad" jobs has demeaned the dignity of too many people. Every job should be considered a good job if you work hard and play by the rules, and all who work deserve our respect and our thanks. They don't always get them.     In 1988, I campaigned for the presidential nomination. Traveling the country, I met many workers who barely earned enough to get by, although they worked hard every day. Their courage and fortitude impressed me deeply. I remember the workers from a paper plant in Jay, Maine, who'd been on strike for more than six months. Many were working odd jobs, doing whatever they could to stay out of bankruptcy. Although they'd seen their regular jobs taken by scab workers--nonunion replacements--they refused to back down or cross the picket lines; that's how determined they were to keep faith with the union and their fellow workers.     In Boston I met a young man working as a mental-health aide in a hospital who expressed the emotions of many in today's less-prestigious occupations: "We always feel like we're the leftovers." It's a feeling the working-class people of St. Louis rarely felt back in the 1950s, and as a nation we need to address its social and economic causes.     Today the United States is experiencing its eighth straight year of economic growth. This should be unalloyed good news. Yet many families don't feel they're fully sharing in the benefits of that growth, and even economists are uncertain about what's really happening. For example, the president's Council of Economic Advisers claims that most of the new jobs being created in the current expansion are "good" jobs, defined as jobs in industries that pay above-average wages. Yet in many cases the new job at a fast-growing high-tech company may in fact be a low-paying secretarial, janitorial, or clerical position rather than a well-paying plum for a software programmer. Is that really a "good" job? You decide.     In 1996, former Senator Bob Dole pointed out during his second debate with President Clinton that the biggest employer in America today is not General Motors, Microsoft, or Wal-Mart; it's Manpower Services, a temporary employment agency: "Hiring people temporarily who've lost their jobs and they go to work for 30 days or 60 days. That's a good economy? I don't think so." Unfortunately, evidence from around the country largely supports Dole's view. For example, in Louisville, Kentucky, the largest source of new jobs is United Parcel Service (UPS), whose brown delivery trucks are familiar everywhere. The company has a large regional distribution center in town. The trouble is that a substantial portion of the more than 14,000 jobs at UPS are now part-time positions. Part-time jobs generally pay lower wages. The workers often have no real chance of advancement--rather, they're at higher risk for layoffs whenever the economy suffers a downturn. Part-time jobs also rarely offer any kind of health or pension benefits, increasing the financial and health insecurity of employees and their families. Two Sides of the Knowledge Economy In the expanding postwar St. Louis of my youth, manufacturing drove the economy's growth. Eager to enjoy all the new consumer goods of the day, Americans were buying cars, appliances, TVs, furniture, you name it--and millions of jobs were created to satisfy the demand. Today, that's changed. Since 1979 America has lost more than 2.5 million manufacturing jobs--many of them the kind of good-paying jobs that used to lift Americans up and into the middle class. Today, only about one employee in seven is in the manufacturing sector.     Of course, the diversity of new jobs being created is astounding. Many are found in industries that didn't exist a short time ago--software, fiber optics, biotechnology. Many are the kinds of high-skill, high-salary jobs we'd want for ourselves and our children. We need to aggressively promote jobs in these industries, expanding the so-called knowledge-based economy to include as many people as possible.     My own family is a good illustration of how the service sector--in particular the knowledge economy--is playing a more and more dominant role in our future.     Like all our kids, our son, Matt, graduated from public grade school and high school in Virginia. After high school, he applied to several universities, and we visited colleges around the country. We wanted Matt to realize that he could go anywhere he wanted to go. All I could think was that if my milk truck-driving Dad could help me go to Northwestern University I should be able to help my kids pursue their dreams almost anywhere.     When Matt was accepted into Duke University he was thrilled, and his four years there were terrific. Later, I encouraged Matt to consider law school, which I'd found to be such great training. But he ultimately focused on business school, attending his parents' alma mater, Northwestern.     Matt especially loved his class in entrepreneurship, where he and two of his classmates put together a business plan that their professor thought was terrific. I won't give away any secrets, but the idea is a new one in the sports-marketing field. Since graduating, the three of them have formed a corporation to try to bring their idea to fruition. Who knows? Maybe they'll match the achievements of Federal Express founder Fred Smith, who created a new business--and a whole new industry--based on an idea he developed as a student in business school.     Our middle child, Chrissy, followed in my footsteps, attending the Junior High School Institute at Northwestern and ultimately attending the Speech School there. Today, Chrissy is a manager at Southwestern Bell in St. Louis. She loves working with people and is putting all of her speech and group dynamics training to work on the job every day. We're very proud of her accomplishments. Her husband, Marc Leibole, a classmate of hers at Northwestern, is in medical school at Washington University in St. Louis.     Kate, our youngest, is now finishing up at the School of Education at Vanderbilt University. Kate has always dreamed of being a teacher, and Jane and I have done everything we could to encourage her. After graduation (May 1999), Kate wants to study early childhood education in graduate school. She's lucky enough to really love children; she enjoys nothing more than teaching them and watching them develop, and I think she has a wonderful future to look forward to.     Matt, Chrissy, and Kate--a budding entrepreneur, a manager in a telecommunications business, a future educator--all have been able to turn the advantages of a secure upbringing and a fine education into promising careers. All three are pursuing the kind of work that offers the greatest potential rewards in the new economy--demanding and responsible, learning-intensive, and long on "people skills."     Unfortunately, not everyone is faring so well in the knowledge economy. Many of the newly created jobs in the service sector don't pay very well and, in many cases, provide no benefits--jobs ranging from flipping burgers and caring for our children and parents to clerking in a department store or adjusting insurance claims. As manufacturing jobs have declined, the jobs that have replaced them haven't always been the quality jobs that promote a high and rising standard of living.     The U.S. Department of Labor publishes an annual assessment of job growth. In its 1998-1999 edition, the department lists occupations that will create the most new jobs over the next ten years. Among the top-growing professions are cashiers, retail sales clerks, home-health aides, truck drivers, nurses aides, and receptionists.     Make no mistake: These are important jobs in our economy. These are the people who make sure that our children are nurtured, that fresh produce reaches our dinner tables, that our buildings are safe, and that our elderly parents are cared for, among many other tasks. Yet these jobs don't receive the respect accorded to financiers, attorneys, or physicians. And on the most basic, most important level, they don't always pay a living wage. It's just not fair.     The Catholic Church has spoken out countless times on this issue. In their 1986 pastoral letter, America's Catholic bishops put it eloquently: "We have many partial ways to measure and debate the health of our economy--gross national product, per capita income, stock market prices. The Christian vision of economic life looks beyond them all and asks, Does economic life enhance or threaten our life together as a community?" For me, that's the crucial question.     Many of us feel that current trends in our economy are damaging rather than enhancing our life as a community. The statistics tell part of the story. Although our economy has been growing and unemployment is at historically low levels, not everyone is benefiting to the same degree. From 1989 to 1997, for example, the average income of the top 1 percent of families grew by 10 percent, whereas the income of people in the middle grew by only 0.2 percent and that of the people at the bottom grew by only 0.1 percent. In the years since then, the trend seems to have begun to change, but those at the top are still doing much better than everyone else. Hard work is simply no longer the ticket to a decent life that it used to be. (Continues...) Copyright © 1999 Richard Gephardt. All rights reserved.