A time-honored and moving scene unfolded on the steps of the very clean, well-guarded State Capitol last Thursday, the second day of the convened 2006 Minnesota Legislature—a simple and powerful demonstration by the poor. These poor people had the nerve to talk about a subject that has not only lost favor over the past 15 years, but has been so vilified, so demonized by many law- and opinion-makers that academics or street activists who still see its value end up on somebody’s whacked “Most Dangerous” lists.
The subject was welfare—for the people.
Organizers of the demo, the Welfare Rights Committee and the Minnesota Welfare Rights Coalition, wear the moniker proudly, and its main message is simple: “Fund Children’s Needs, Not Rich People’s Greed.” As tax cuts for the rich and loopholes for corporations have become so alarmingly common while welfare has slowly deteriorated into an unjustified political embarrassment, one wonders why policymakers think money in the hands of the rich is more attractive than money in the hands of the poor. Analysts can’t even think about the concept ‘public welfare’ without first looking around surreptitiously, and candidates have contorted themselves in more ways than a limber Pilates instructor trying to avoid being labeled passé or weak if they have concerns beyond free market enterprise.
How did we morph into a Milton Friedman incubus on meth-amphetamine? Should we blame only the neocons, set on the course of a capitalistic jihad? Are they putting something in our Diet Coke that makes us gloss over how uncomfortable it feels to listen to reactionary tales that poor people are lazy, that the middle class isn’t in trouble, that God is somehow behind the idea that rich people deserve even more money, and that it should come from us in the form of lower wages, fewer or no benefits, fewer or nonexistent services. We are being played, and thankfully, some of our elected officials are waking up to the damage this nonsense has caused.
In the last legislative session, Rep. Matt Entenza (DFL-St. Paul) helped to orchestrate a political ultimatum for Gov. Pawlenty that resulted in restoring part of the $2 billion cut from health care and welfare programs in 2003. Results included stopping an additional 30,000 people from being cut from MinnesotaCare, and restoring cancer and heart disease benefits for 36,000 people, as well as protecting programs for Medicaid recipients.
That’s a good start, say advocates for the poor, but it doesn’t go far enough. Entenza said legislators also tried to raise state income taxes for families making more than $250,000 a year to compensate for tax cuts for the rich made in 1999, but Gov. Pawlenty said he would veto it as part of his no-new-taxes forever-and-a-day plan, one that allows for “user fees”
Entenza favors bringing the “tax the rich” proposal back to the table again, and “we want to restore funding for LGA [Local Government Aid] and for counties, to fund more social services,” Entenza said. “We got $46 million of it back last year; we’re looking for another $100 million this year,” to bring back funding to previous levels.
The most recent budget forecast for Minnesota was released last week; it shows we have an $88 million surplus. (The report actually shows a $181 million positive balance, but $93 million of that amount is dedicated to repaying a school aid accounting shift.) The report, prepared by the Minnesota Department of Finance, says that the surplus is the result of lower-than-expected spending and higher-than-expected tax payments. The Legislature put together a two-year budget of $30.5 billion last session, and last November finance officials informed legislators that there was also $317 million that wasn’t spent in the 2005 fiscal year—that money now sits in a tax relief account. All budget decisions are further complicated by the legal challenge over the $200 million a year the state continues to collect from the new cigarette “fee.” The state Supreme Court will rule this year, perhaps by the end of the session (expected by May 22 barring any special sessions).
The Welfare Rights Committee says that Minnesota’s budget surplus isn’t one to be proud of because it represents blood money forged from the suffering of the poorest Minnesotans. A more progressive approach to tax reform is one way to help the people who need it the most, and help the middle class at the same time, they say. The group will have a bill to raise welfare grants; Minnesota’s welfare grants for poor families have not been raised since 1986, while the cost of living has risen 78 percent since then.
2006 is an election year for state offices and legislators, and so Capitol-dwellers are especially attentive to which way the winds are blowing. Some think that Minnesota might get a new stadium for the Twins this year, and another one for the University of Minnesota Gophers, though precinct caucus resolutions against the use of millions of dollars in public money for representative-warrior stadiums, including any sales tax increases, were floating around. Though this is considered primarily a legislative session to deal with infrastructure and bonding issues, other budget issues will be tackled. Property tax relief may come up, with opportunities to shift away from the heavier burden homeowners carry, compared to the burden of commercial and rental property owners, who pay less of the total property tax burden since the Legislature has given tax breaks to them over the past 10 years, according to Carol Becker, recently elected to Minneapolis’ Board of Estimates and Taxation.
State Senator Becky Lourey (DFL-Kerrick), who co-authored the 1992 legislation creating MinnesotaCare (who’s also running for governor this year), accused Gov. Pawlenty recently of attempting to “stigmatize workers who enroll in MinnesotaCare as ‘health care welfare’ recipients,” while neglecting to put a serious plan together to broaden health care access and control costs. Based on a University of Minnesota School of Public Health study, the rate of uninsured Minnesotans has risen 24 percent from 2001 to 2004, and a 2003 study found almost 25 percent of Minnesotans had forgone medical care in the preceding year because of cost, neglecting serious medical conditions in more than half of those instances.
Rally-goers to help the poor wanted to call attention to these issues in a public way. The theater of protest rallies lends public legitimacy to what are usually private complaints—the governor sucks; you can’t pay the medical bills; when will you ever be able to pay back your student loans?
Crowd members were passed individual disposable diapers, on which to write their name, address and a message to Gov. Pawlenty—all the diapers were delivered to his office inside the Capitol by the crowd, which could be heard chanting through the myriad Capitol hallways, “Tax the Rich” over and over again.
The main reason I attended the rally was to shoot photos for this story—attending to my assignment started out as a top priority, finding the proper angles, the right moment. At several points during the speeches and chanting, the details of my task dematerialized, and my tears flowed instead. I lost it. I can’t even remember the last time I cried—it could be months, even years. No one seemed to notice the woman with the camera with tears streaming down her face because they were focused on the speakers, on their own emotions. Then as I was wandering around trying to compose myself, I ran into a few people I haven’t seen in a long time—Sisters Jane and Brigid McDonald, whom I know from doing peace work.
Sister Jane noticed immediately that I had been crying and gave me a big hug. She was holding one of the diapers, and, pointing at the Capitol entrance said, “Babies have holy sh—, but this is bullsh—.” I immediately brightened up; Sister Jane always seems to say the right things.
Later that day while talking with a friend about the rally, I half-jokingly wondered out loud if I had cried because I had finally realized that I am poor, and that it took being with “the people”—most of whom have been hit by the cuts and the rhetoric much worse than I have—to make me realize I haven’t allowed myself to grieve about this, and that I haven’t spoken up enough. My government has systematically tried to destroy what I value in a community. Maybe I thought I was hiding from that stark reality here in Minnesota—where we’ve tricked ourselves into thinking we’re safer from the cruel realities of becoming insignificant, safer from the realization that corporations now have more rights than people do. Our society is designed to keep us separate—a consumer culture that reminds us how we’re not keeping up if we don’t have the right stuff on us or around us—if we can’t keep up with that, well, we must be losers? No, we’re just getting screwed.
Right now, families making more than $250,000 a year pay income taxes at a rate of 7.85 percent; raising the rate to previous levels of 8.5 percent favored by Rep. Entenza and other would bring an estimated additional $223 million to the state. And closing corporate tax loopholes, such as those used by companies to hide funds overseas in FOC (Foreign Operating Corporation) income, would bring an estimated additional $230 million-plus to the state.
Jon Stewart, host of this year’s Oscars, made a comment about the films Capote and Good Night and Good Luck being about journalists who sought the truth—and then quipped that both films were obviously period pieces. He got a big laugh from the crowd. The reason for the laugh, of course, was what has been lacking in the so-called liberal media—who, for too long, have been shell-shocked like the rest of us who thought the strange accident of our own troubled democracy was just in our imagination, or would merely go away.
The mainstream press were complicit, for example, in not examining the lie of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And blathering fast-talking loud radio and television “news” have pounded on any ideas that have sounded too “soft,” arguing that all-consuming greed is an American trait that must not be stopped by “weaker” thinkers. It’s time for this crapola to be flushed. As Shalom Lappin writes in his essay “How Class Disappeared from Western Politics” in the winter edition of Dissent magazine, “The terrible tragedy that Hurricane Katrina inflicted on New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast this past summer exposed the realities of severe class difference and social dysfunction in a way that could not be concealed through the distraction of conservative cultural crusades.”
The images we saw on television were unforgettable: where was the help after the levees broke, why weren’t the levees repaired when the federal government knew they wouldn’t withstand a strong hurricane?
Lappin continues: “It put on stark display the role of poverty and racial exclusion in defining basic fault lines in American life. It remains to be seen whether the reawakening of large parts of American public opinion to these issues was a passing response to a terrible natural disaster or the beginning of a significant change in prevailing political perceptions.”
Governments in Western nations struggle with what it means to compete in a global economy. As part of that, the Left has, so far, been co-opted and “forced to discard their traditional concern with class politics and compete with conservative parties” on conservatives’ terms. If one accepts the idea that the market economy is indispensable for creating wealth on a large scale, but bad at distributing it equitably or rationally, Lappin suggests that the Left “[harness] its creative energy to serve the public good rather than the exclusive interests of a small corporate and financial elite.”
The welfare state surrounds us. It allows for public education, libraries, social work services, postal delivery, Pell grants, Medicare, and yes, funding for the poorest Americans who need health care, unemployment compensation, housing and child care. Ordinary working people understand the importance of those basic needs of a community. The working class of the right have, so far, not seen the light. By aligning themselves with a political party that has strayed into distressing demagoguery, they undermine their own working class interests. They, apparently, would rather be poor and “saved” from the marriages of gay people.
As Lewis H. Lapham wrote in his article “Tentacles of Rage” in Harper’s magazine, the right-wing provocateurs “sell the suckers on the notion that their ‘values’ are at risk (abortionists escaping the nets of the Massachusetts state police … farm families everywhere in the Middle West becoming chattels of the welfare state) and maybe they won’t notice that their pockets have been picked.” In his analysis of the neocons haunting our airwaves and our lawmaker’s offices, Lapham asks, “How does one reconcile the demand for small government with the desire for an imperial Army, apply the phrases ‘personal initiative’ and ‘self-reliance’ to corporation presidents utterly dependent on the federal subsidies to the banking, communication and weapons industries … match the warmhearted currencies of ‘conservative compassion’ with the cold cruelty of ‘the unfettered free market’ [and] know that human life must be saved from abortionists in Boston but not from cruise missiles in Baghdad?” Abraham Lincoln, founder of the Republican Party, foresaw the current crisis we now find ourselves in. It’s time for a big correction. ||
“I see in the near future a crisis approaching. It unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. The money powers prey upon the nation in times of peace and conspires against it in times of adversity. It is more despotic than a monarchy, more insolent than autocracy, more selfish than bureaucracy. It denounces, as public enemies, all who question its methods or throw light upon its crimes. I have two great enemies, the Southern Army in front of me and the financial institutions at the rear, the latter is my greatest foe. Corporations have been enthroned, and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in the hands of a few, and the Republic is destroyed.”—Abraham Lincoln, letter to William Elkins, Nov. 21, 1864 (after the passage of the debt causing National Bank Act [June 3, 1864])