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We need a new playbook, not the ‘good old days’
In the most recent Iowa legislative session, a slew of disappointing bills were proposed. The would-be laws targeted a favorite conservative scapegoat: the poor. Many of these bills were similar to legislation being proposed in other states across the nation.
Last week, I heard directly from Preston Brashers, a Senior Policy Analyst at conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. Heritage, recently in the news for hosting a dark-money strategy session to launch an assault on voter rights leading into the 2024 election cycle, purports to serve as a research body and information center from their D.C. offices. Its predecessor, the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, was cofounded by Charles Koch and the Koch brothers have been financially and organizationally supportive of Heritage since its formation.
Heritage has been associated with much controversy over the years due to racism, misinformation including contributing significantly to ‘The Big Lie’, climate change denial and more. The impact of their work is far reaching; Iowa’s own “anti CRT” law just preceded (and likely influenced) the model bill that Heritage released as a template for states across the country to follow suit; a tracker on their website allows the user to follow along as less and less teachers are permitted to discuss race, gender, systemic inequity and unconscious bias in the classroom.
Mr. Brashers’ topic of choice was taxes — namely, that they are too high as a percentage of income. He leaned into “wealth redistribution” as the problem. This is not a new or novel concept; the vague objection to taking dollars from the public and investing them in government-funded services for those of lesser means is a familiar refrain. The fact that those benefited by these programs are often of lesser means due to the very systemic inequities Iowa teachers are now forbidden to discuss is an unspoken truth. Beyond this, using vague language like “wealth redistribution” or “entitlement programs” while failing to identify exactly which services are being referred to leaves quite a bit of room for assumption.
Maybe when you hear “wealth redistribution,” you think about food or cash assistance programs, like FIP and SNAP. Maybe you even think about vouchers for child care or Head Start (a highly regarded preschool program that Heritage attempted to discredit in 2012 as a “failure.”) It is rare that during a stump speech we hear politicians demanding cuts to Meals on Wheels, funded largely by Older Americans Act dollars allocated each year by Congress. It is rare that we hear calls for planned cuts to or stagnation of Social Security. Very few people talk about WIC, providing critical nutrition to mothers and small children or LIHEAP, covering the costs of energy bills during the frigid winter months. The School Breakfast Program or the National School Lunch Program, offering a sliding scale cost structure for the kid next door to afford the school cafeteria each day. Who in their right mind would step on a stage in Iowa and suggest eliminating farm subsidies?
Instead we hear buzzwords and slogans like “cut the pork” or “make ‘em squeal” and the rest is left to interpretation … and bias. When you hear “wealth redistribution,” who is it exactly that the collective conscious calls to mind as beneficiaries? The reality of who is on the receiving end may surprise you. Racism and xenophobia have proved effective bait to demonize public spending on social services, and the coded language returns to us every election cycle. Poverty has been misidentified as a moral failing for eons, and when something becomes identified as a moral failing rather than a public issue or a communal responsibility, resources are allocated differently. There are mountains of research documenting an inverse relationship between preschool and prison that we push to the side when we speak in vague terms about “entitlements.” Research demonstrating improved overall well-being and decreased risk of injury when we send volunteers to the homes of older adults with a meal and a little friendly conversation. Research indicating that investment in, rather than extraction of, resources from public schools builds a community with a populace capable of maintaining it. Research that shows time and time and time again that investing in prevention and early intervention is a far more cost effective public policy strategy than addressing the challenges that face us if we let the effects of inequity and poverty run their course.
So what of those low tax rates Heritage would have us long for? Back in the old days, the tax rates were sensible! Things just seemed to hum along fine! This thinking fails to account for the massive influx of wealth to the United States made possible by the generations of free labor that was chattel slavery. It fails to account for the systemic exclusion of a signification proportion of U.S. citizens (read: Black people) from social service programs that did exist — including the G.I. Bill, SSI, and food assistance. It fails to account for the people who starved to death back in those ‘good old days’, who went uneducated, who froze to death in their homes or in the streets if they had none. The quality of life we consider so essentially American is largely due to the programs put in place to address public health crises of the past.
As people who know better, we have an obligation to exercise caution in our nostalgia. Expect something more from those who aspire to serve as your leaders than a talking head reciting chapter and verse from the same tired playbook.
Sofia DeMartino is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: email@example.com
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