Remember when you were a kid and your grandma or your Uncle Joe asked you, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” Do you remember what you said? How you felt? We try on lots of hats as kids, often literally. When I was a kid, our next door neighbor was a pilot in the Air Force. He flew a jet fighter and one day he gave me a plastic version of his own flight helmet – complete with Air Force insignias, visor and oxygen mask. I spent hours playing pilot at the living room window, flying my imaginary plane into the wild blue yonder of our front yard. Being a pilot was a prestigious job in 1960, whether military or civilian, and I loved the imagined excitement of flight and the status of the job. It didn’t matter a whit that women then weren’t allowed to become pilots in the Air Force – the whole world was open to a five year old kid. Maybe you wanted to be a fireman, or a doctor, or a teacher. Work has always provided us with a sense of identity and the pride that comes with service to our communities and families. Having a job means we’re somebody, and that we can take care of ourselves.
So now, at 55, I look around and see an America that feels foreign to me. During the recent battle in Wisconsin over collective bargaining rights I heard media pundits call state workers like nurses, teachers, fire fighters and police officers “bottom feeders” and “freeloaders.” Really? I can tell you stories in which my life has been touched by someone in every one of those professions and influenced for the better. These are people who have dedicated their lives to difficult, sometimes dangerous lines of work. Nobody gets rich being a teacher or a cop. They join these helping professions in order to serve. They deserve at least a decent standard of living, the tools to do their jobs, a safe working environment and perhaps most important – our respect. Because without it they lose the support they need to do the jobs they do for us and sadly, that’s seems to be the situation we’re now faced with.
Today President Obama delivered a speech about the budget in which he expressed his hope for the future of an American Dream which is not quite dead, but certainly on life support. That hope is based in “a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. Part of this American belief that we are all connected,” he goes on to say, “also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us. ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ we say to ourselves, and so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, and those with disabilities. We are a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further – we would not be a great country without those commitments.”
He speaks to a mean-spiritedness that seems to have taken hold in America, one which says that there isn’t enough to go around because working people, the sick and elderly, children and the poor expect too much. Never mind what they do successfully in Sweden or Japan or Australia – we can’t afford to take up the slack for people who don’t pull their own weight; as Neil Peart once famously said: “Live for yourself, there’s no one else more worth living for, begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more…”
In the America I grew up in one income could sustain a family. You could graduate from a four-year university without debt. You could retire without worry because you probably had a pension, Social Security and health care. Now working people are suffering home foreclosures, bankruptcies due to catastrophic illness, eroding worker safety regulations and declining wages. Pharmacists are not immune. In the 1960’s pharmacy began to reflect on its role in health care. In those days pharmacists just filled pill bottles as ordered by physicians and were not allowed to interfere in the doctor-patient relationship. As pharmacists questioned their limited role, a whole new horizon, the pharmacist as clinician, began to open up. Pharmacists were re-defined as participants in drug therapy decisions and regarded as drug experts and specialists. The profession gained new responsibilities and the kind of status and pay that come along with them. Today pharmacists work 12 hour days without lunch breaks. They double as the managers of technicians because the companies they work for don’t want to hire enough professionals to do the job. They’re on the phone all day sorting out 100 sets of rules with 100 different insurance providers. And the most counseling they get to do is directing customers to the toilet paper aisle.
Somewhere along the line our priorities have shifted. The billions we spend on the military, corporate subsidies and tax cuts for the wealthy tell me there’s still plenty of cash in this country; it’s just not being spent on the common citizens. Every dollar that’s picked from the working man’s pocket reinforces the idea that teachers, nurses, firemen, cops, physicians and pharmacists deserve less and that their contributions and sacrifices don’t hold much value. “For much of the last century,” the President said today, “our nation found a way to afford these investments and priorities with the taxes paid by its citizens.” If we did it then we certainly can do it now. We owe workers, and that means we owe ourselves, no less.