This year brought challenges from an uncontrolled global pandemic and resulting economic collapse, enhanced awareness of racial injustice, political partisanship, and serious derecho damage.
What it also brought was an outpouring of helpers for those in need.
It was as if an entire community suddenly chose to follow the Biblical command that we provide the needy stranger with food, water, shelter, clothing, health care — and chain saws.
But before the derecho, before COVID-19, there were many in America — including Iowa communities — who were, and still are, food and water insecure, homeless or in unhealthy housing, needing winter clothing, out of work, without reliable transportation, and unable to afford health care, let alone child care.
Why is it national compassion that blows into town with a derecho’s winds is soon gone with the wind? More precisely — because local helpers and their organizations remain — why do elected officials fail to see that “we all do better when we ALL do better?” Could it be the poor’s reluctance to make those $2,800 campaign contributions?
Let’s address the usual argument: “We can’t afford it.” Clearly that’s not true. There are billions or trillions for the banks, tax cuts for the 1 percent, defense-related appropriations greater than the next ten nations combined, and boosts to businesses during our virus-crippled economy.
Change is unlikely unless it will simultaneously further enrich the politically powerful. Progress requires we tie our reform to the tail of greed if we want to see it run off down the street.
We must prove to the powerful how they can still do well by doing good.
Exhibit One. Consumer spending is 70 percent of gross domestic product. This summer, “trickle up” proved a more effective economic boost than “trickle down.” President Richard Nixon supported a “negative income tax.” Presidential candidate Andrew Yang called it “universal basic income.” As conservative economist Milton Friedman once explained it to me, “there’s nothing wrong with poverty that money won’t cure.”
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Exhibit Two. Providing humane treatment can be cheaper. RAND studied Los Angeles’ program moving 3,500 homeless from streets to healthy housing. It saved the county $20 million — returning $1.20 for every dollar spent. Universal health care would level the playing field for businesses competing with foreign companies that don’t have to embed employees’ health costs in their prices.
Exhibit Three. Skilled work force. It is cheaper to put someone in a public university ($5,580 to $17,470) than prison ($33,274 to $69,355). Tuition-free community college, available in 17 states, could reduce Iowa’s skilled worker shortage while saving business the cost of finding and training workers.
Exhibit Four. Capitalism can’t provide everyone jobs. In 1933 2.5 million enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps; 46,000 in Iowa helped build our state parks. There are 250 million over 18 and plenty jobs to do.
Spread the word. We really can all do better by doing better for all.
Nicholas Johnson, former co-director, Institute for Health, Behavior and Environmental Policy. firstname.lastname@example.org