Our country has no shortage of big problems. While big challenges are nothing new for Americans, how we deal with them has changed.
Fifty years ago, rising social unrest forced Congress to deal with big things — like voting rights, immigration, and access to health care and education. Over a seven-month period in 1965, Congress passed five significant laws that dealt with these pressing issues of the day. These laws forever changed life in America.
On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. It guaranteed the right to vote for black people in the South after decades of protests and boycotts by civil rights activists. The Voting Rights Act established federal oversight of elections in states with long-standing records of racial exclusion.
That same summer, Congress passed Medicare, the greatest single extension of access to health care and a more dignified life the country has ever experienced. Today, nearly 55 million Americans rely on Medicare for their access to health care.
Around the same time, the Immigration and Nationality Act ended quotas that were largely based on race and replaced them with an immigration system that relied more on skills and family ties. Our country became more diverse and prosperous as a result.
That year, Congress also passed two of the nation’s most important education laws.
One, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was a sweeping reform that invested federal funds in local schools for the first time, with an emphasis on improving the quality of school systems that served poor children.
The other, the Higher Education Act, increased federal funding of public universities and established the first low-interest college loan program to make higher education more accessible and affordable.
Congress passed these programs because the American people demanded them and backed up their demands with actions — demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, shutdowns. And we were willing to pay for our nation to advance.
Fifty years ago, a taxpayer earning the median income paid between a quarter and a third of their income in taxes, similar to how much today’s median income family pays. But the contributions of America’s wealthiest families and most prosperous corporations have plummeted.
The top income tax rate on the wealthiest Americans was 70 percent in 1965, but the top rate today is just 39.5 percent. Corporations paid a top federal tax rate of 48 percent 50 years ago, which has dropped to only 35 percent today. And after loopholes and deductions, neither the wealthy nor corporations pay close to the official tax rate, meaning they’re contributing even less to the programs and services on which we all rely.
Surveys show a majority of American voters still value public schools, higher education, Medicare, family unification, and the right to vote — and that they’re willing to pay their fair share. Yet Congress has obstructed progress and cut programs and agencies crucial to the nation’s well-being and prosperity.
If lawmakers can’t take a lesson from the Congress of 1965, the rest of us should send them a memo: Deliver on our priorities or we’ll vote you out of your jobs.
Scott Klinger is the director of revenue and spending policies at the Center for Effective Government in Washington.
This column was distributed via OtherWords.org