Core Values

Phoenix Magazine – March 2017

Mike O’Neil


What are the core values of American society?  That is, what are the things that we believe we should guarantee all our citizens, regardless of their cost? If our guarantee is conditional, equivocal, or based on available funds, it is a preference not a core value. We make decisions about preferences based on priorities. We can’t fulfill all our preferences, so we choose between them all the time.

This fact was brought home to me in a recent trip to Cuba.  This is not a full-throttled defense of a flawed system, but even though this is a poor country, that regime has made three fundamental commitments to its people. First, everyone gets fed, period.  Second, everyone gets medical care.  Third, everyone gets education at every level.  And these are core commitments, so all are free to the recipient.

That got me wondering: what, if any, are core American commitments to its citizens?

K-12 education comes to mind. Since education beyond the 12th grade involves tuition and seems dependent on resources available, it is not a core commitment. We were a world leader in instituting mass education in the 19th century but in recent years our commitment seems more equivocal.

Our Bill of rights guarantees certain rights: free speech, the right of association, free press (First Amendment). Gun ownership (Second Amendment). And other “rights” that are probably more constrained and situational (Amendments 3-10). These rights are mostly political in nature.  We can pretty much say what we want, associate with who we want, practice any religion, and carry a gun most anywhere, but if we are starving have no right to be fed. Many in other countries regard this particular combination of rights as odd.

Our attitude towards medical care is more nuanced.  Get hit by a car and we will be taken to a hospital and treated on an emergency basis, regardless of insurance or the ability to pay. But we might get hit with a bankruptcy-inducing bill on the back end.  But if we have a more chronic condition, like asthma we have NO absolute right to treatment. And if we have a life-threatening asthma attack, we can get emergency room treatment – but only if we get to an emergency room alive.  (Physicians I have spoken to confirm that asthmatics die all the time due to lack of treatment and never make it to the emergency room). And the very controversy about the ACA (aka, “Obamacare”) highlights how medical care is not universally seen as a right.


How do these observations relate to Education in Arizona?? We wrote last month about the Arizona Governor’s dilemma.  He faces immense public pressure to restore some of the funding cut from the education budget since 2007. He hoped that Proposition 123 would allay this public pressure. It did not. On January 9, he gave a State of the State address that paid homage to teachers and cited education as a very high state priority. Four days later he unveiled a budget that offered peanuts in the way of additional funding—including a teacher raise of about a dollar a day. There was a complete disconnect between the earlier rhetoric and his funding proposal.  He along with most of the legislature is banking on an assumption that maintaining public education is not a core value, but rather a preference, one that ranks somewhere below annual business tax cuts as a state priority.


Mike O’Neil is a sociologist and pollster who has analyzed public attitudes in Arizona and the nation for over 35 years. He is host of the public affairs program, The Think Tank, on KTAR-FM 92.3. Most of his recent articles are available at