Men like Donald Trump come to power when their countries are already in deep trouble. And more than 100 days into his presidency, I'm hitting alarm buttons everywhere I can. But before we talk about how we fight back, let's talk about how we got here.
I grew up in an America that invested in kids like me. My family didn't have much. My daddy sold lawn mowers and fences, and he ended up as a maintenance man. When I was twelve, he had a heart attack. My parents knew what it was like living paycheck to paycheck, and when the paychecks stopped, our whole world turned upside down. Every night as I went to sleep, I listened to my mother crying in the next room. Finally, my mom, who was 50 years old, pulled on her best dress and her high heels and walked to the Sears to get a minimum-wage job answering the phone. She saved our home, and she saved our family. I learned early on about the deep-down fear that we could lose it all — and just how hard a woman could fight back. But my mom couldn't have saved us without a minimum wage that actually provided enough for our family to live on.
I didn't set out to be a senator. My own path had plenty of twists and turns. I loved my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Lee. She was wonderful, and when she told me I could be a teacher, too, I set my heart on it. I never let go of the dream. There was no money for college so I got a scholarship — but then I took a detour. At 19, I got married and dropped out of school. But I received a second chance: eventually I graduated from a commuter college in Texas that cost $50 a semester, and I reached that dream of becoming a teacher.
I'm the daughter of a janitor who became a professor at Harvard Law School and a United States senator — I'm the product of an opened door, and I'm grateful down to my toes. It was a set of policies that our country adopted that opened that door for me and for millions of others.
Today, it's a different story. For far too many people, those kinds of opportunities have disappeared. Our country has stopped investing in its young people, and stories like mine have become rare over the past 35 years.
In my new book, This Fight Is Our Fight, I talk about the long arc of America's middle class from 1935 to the present. I split this arc into two sections: 1930 to 1980 and 1980 to today. From 1935 to 1980, Washington focused on strengthening the middle class and building opportunities for more and more people. Progressive taxation gave us a chance to invest in education, infrastructure, and basic research, and careful regulation meant we could level the playing field, creating opportunities for a lot of families — including mine. These progressive policies worked, and our country built the greatest middle class the world had ever seen. From 1935 to 1980, 90 percent of America received about 70 percent of all the income growth in this country. The pie got bigger, and everyone had more to eat.
Then came 1980. It was a turning point where we began to follow a very different approach. Ronald Reagan was elected president and, piece by piece, the policies in Washington, DC, took a sharp turn. Our financial markets were deregulated, and the big banks and Wall Street giants were turned loose to do pretty much whatever they wanted. Taxes were slashed for those at the top, and investments in education, infrastructure, and basic research shrank. And what were the consequences? The top 10 percent of this country received nearly all the new income. The 90 percent — in other words, the huge majority of America — got zero. Zilch. Think about that: almost ALL of the income growth from 1980 to today has gone to the top 10 percent.