Zillah Eisenstein, writing in 2016’s False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, a fantastic collection of feminist scholarship and critique on the life and policies of our presumptive 45th President, provides a critique of Clinton's political actions so far:
"Clinton uses her 'No Ceilings' initiative to advance women and girls around the world. She says that 'giving women the tools to fully participate in their economics, societies and governments' is the unfinished business of the twenty-first century. I am more interested in a 'No Basements' initiative: feminists need to work to empower from the bottom up where most women are found—hauling water, collecting wood, standing on assembly lines or at factory sewing machines, providing food, doing low-paid service jobs”. (157)
This is a critique that is too often pushed aside. Since the succumbing of LBJ’s “Great Society” reforms to the monetary demands of the Vietnam War, U.S. political culture has been too heavily focused on creating fewer economic ceilings rather than fewer economic basements. This was only exacerbated by the Clinton-era welfare reforms, which ripped out the foundations of the American aid system.
The definitions behind economic basements and ceilings are not difficult. A ceiling refers to a cap on the amount that one can be expected to earn. Your ceiling is lower, for example, if you are a women or a person of color, or lack a college degree, etc., etc. The basement describes the least amount that you can be expected to earn while still employed. The same rules apply for basements as they do for ceilings; the less privilege you have, the deeper underground you are. So why then, is it more important to raise the basement rather than the ceiling? Wouldn’t raising one have the same effect?
The short answer is no, it wouldn’t. High ceilings do not mean high basements. And this truth is painfully obvious. The U.S. currently has very high ceilings on wealth. In my lifetime, barring alien invasion/communist overthrow of the government, the U.S. will most likely see it’s first trillionaire. And yet, a raising number of U.S. citizens and denizens live in poverty and abject poverty while being gainfully employed. This is because high ceilings are hard to reach. To stretch the metaphor a bit further, it’s practically impossible to reach even the ground floor if you’re stuck in a subterranean basement.
Higher basements, on the other hand, provide a way for individuals to get out of the basement and into the building. By raising the floor instead of the ceiling, government would make it possible for a majority of the people to receive the benefits of a reform rather than limiting it’s effects to those who are able to take advantage of it. Instead of continually raising the limits of what is possible, why not let more people access what is possible?
This type of rhetoric is, of course, a hard sell—though with the rise of Bernie Sanders seemingly less so. For politicians speaking to their donors, it is much easier to sell them on ways they can increase their own wealth than on ways that could potentially take others to the same positions that they are in. This is true for middle class voters as well. Many do not want to vote for “basement-raising” bills if it means that their shot at a McMansion in a suburb is seriously hurt. But just because it’s a hard sell doesn’t mean that it’s impossible or shouldn’t be done. And a lot of the groundwork has already been laid in this upcoming election. All these policies need are a smart politician to guide them at a national level.
So, to finally and truly wring the last bit of use out of this metaphor, you don’t start building a house from the ceiling down, you do it from the basement up.