Financial Independence Day

On this Independence Day, Americans should pause to consider what our founders meant by independence.

For the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, individual citizens were free if they had the ability to be industrious and succeed economically -- to be able to provide for their family at a decent level and, in turn, improve their level of living. This was what Jefferson and most other founders understood to be independence, which they believed was required for each individual to be truly free. Wanting the nation to be a conduit for independence, they hoped that such freedom would ultimately embrace all Americans.

Today in the United States, more than 25 percent of all workers fail to make a living wage, 45 million live without health insurance, and the cost of college education for the average student, the gateway to better paying jobs, has doubled the rate of inflation for three decades now. This certainly isn't independence the way the founders intended.

Meta-indicators, like the gross domestic product, may suggest that our economy is growing, but the best indicators of economic freedom and opportunity for the average family -- wages, health care and education -- are faring quite poorly.

Since 1973, the average hourly wage for all nonmanagerial employees, who comprise about 80 percent of our work force, has fallen 5 percent, from $17.65 to $16.79. Think about it like this: The productivity of our workers has grown by 75 percent per hour in those three decades, and the real GDP has fully doubled. Nonetheless, the median wage has not only failed to increase over all those many years, it has actually fallen.

One-half of all workers employed by Wal-Mart, the nation's top employer, are paid less than $10.50, widely considered to be the minimum living wage here. It is actually the minimum wage in nations such as Great Britain. More than 40 million fellow Americans work for less than this wage.

Depressed wages over many decades have real consequences for American families. Almost three-quarters of American middle-class families today lack adequate assets to support their essential living expenses for even three months should they become ill, disabled, or need to leave their job for other reasons. To make ends meet, individuals now work longer hours (15 full work weeks more per year than in the 1970s for parents with children at home), and still they go deeper into debt. Americans now owe $2 trillion in consumer debt, and, this year, the nation's savings rate turned negative for the first time ever.

John E. Schwarz is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Arizona, and distinguished senior fellow at Demos, a national public policy center. He is also author of "Freedom Reclaimed" (2005).

Uncertainties about health care add mightily on top of wage insecurity. Barely 57 percent of all jobs today provide any type of health care coverage, down about 20 percent from 1979.

For more than 45 million uninsured Americans, a serious illness or accident is all that separates them from bankruptcy or foreclosure, and a lifetime of struggling to recover from personal and financial losses. Not even those who are insured necessarily stand on secure ground, as millions have found out when their insurance refused to cover care and treatments that their doctors ordered.

Lastly, the cornerstone of economic opportunity and the American dream -- a college education -- is chipped away year after year by rising tuition costs. Even after adjusting for inflation, the cost of college has doubled since the 1970s.

At the University of Arizona, where I spent my career as a teacher, yearly tuition has risen from about $1,500 during the 1970s, in today's dollars, to $4,500 today. Pell Grants, the main federal financial support for college other than loans, once covered 75 percent of college costs but they now cover only 25 percent. As a result, students borrow an average of $5,000 a year, accumulating sometimes to mortgage-size amounts of $60,000 or $70,000, overall.

While we should take this time to commemorate the birth of our nation, we should also not forget the spirit of its founding. The new realities of eroding opportunity and increased hardship confronting America's families stand at odds with the basic principles of our founders, and of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. This July 4, we should demand of our present and future leaders that they return to the ideals that gave our nation its birth.

John E. Schwarz is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Arizona, and distinguished senior fellow at Demos, a national public policy center. He is also author of "Freedom Reclaimed" (2005).