Hard times prompt us to re-examine our priorities
By Anne Stanton
Our country was pretty much founded on the competing doctrines of capitalism and Christianity, and it can feel stressful. Get rich and horde your money, the little devil on one shoulder says, while the little angel urges you to give your money to the poor, although not specifically mentioning Medicaid, public assistance, and Head Start.
The friction seemed evident in spades last week, beginning with a book review I read in the New York Times of an Ayn Rand biography. Shes the author of Atlas Shrugged, the shrug being a metaphor for the workers of the world who must carry the load of moochers and lootersthe lazy bums and government bureaucrats who cut away their bottom line.
Galt, an inventor in Atlas Shrugged and the fictional voice of Rand, has had enough. He believes that government should provide police, an army, and courts, and nothing more.
We have granted you everything you demanded of us, we who had always been the givers, but have only now understood it, Galt said. We have no demands to present you, no terms to bargain about, no compromise to reach. You have nothing to offer us. We do not need you.
Like Rand, I believe in self-reliance, hard work and an honest government, but, whoa, this is Scrooge on steroids.
Kirsch wrote that Rand is a newfound hero of the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
Sales of the book have reportedly spiked. At tea parties and other conservative protests, alongside the Obama-as-Joker signs, you will find placards reading Atlas Shrugs and Ayn Rand Was Right, wrote Hirsch.
As it turns out, Rand might be admired by pure capitalists, yet her morals would make some of them squirm. At the age of 44 and married, she took up with a 19-year-old admirer, and inserted herself as a third lover into his marriage.
We do not need you.
On Monday, I rode up in an elevator with social worker Mary Sue Wilkerson. Several months ago, she pleaded with Northern Express to write something about the severe cuts in the Great Start program, a state-funded preschool program for at-risk children. At the same time, Express was getting bombarded with similar requests for stories on the slashing of mental health programs, Medicaid for nursing homes, and the Promise scholarship program for 96,000 college kids. I invited Wilkerson, who works for the program, to write a letter to the editor, but I didnt do a story.
I wish I had. I remember a little boy in kindergarten some years ago, who lived in a saggy-roof shack that I drove by each day to school. The little guy yelled and hit a lot, and apparently went home to an alcoholic dad who did the same. A lot of damage can be done in five years. Wilkerson later mentioned a Rand study that said 85 percent of the brain architecture is built by the age of three.
So I asked her on our elevator ride what happened to the preschool money. She told me that the 10-county area lost all but $27,200 of its annual $612,000 grantthere was only enough money left to teach 8 children, down from 180. A silent and gigantic money suck that not too many people heard.
Even Scrooges should see Great Start/Head Start saves money. A 40-year study by the High Scope Foundation in Ypsilanti showed that at-risk kids attending preschool programs are more likely to become successful, tax-paying adults. At the other end, kids who graduate from college make $1 million more in their lifetime, on average.
We do not need you.
My father-in-law drives a shuttle for a local car dealer and passes a lot of story ideas along to me. He gave a ride to a woman, who needed a lift to the mall while she got her car fixed. She mentioned having a little trouble with her 11-year-old daughter, and Derald, my father-in-law, said hed rather raise four sons than one girl.
She said, well Im in a little different circumstance. My husband died of brain cancer two months ago, and I have an 11-year-old, a nine-year-old, two twins who are six, and a threeyear-old.
Her husbands brain tumor caused seizures and bizarre behavior. Ultimately, he had to separate from the family. Along with her husband, this woman lost the friendship of her in-laws. She didnt appear to have a job, having to spend the last few months trying to get permits for the house her husband was building so her family would have a place to live.
What really impressed me was her personality, her grit, Derald said. Her husband had been dead just a short while, and to have her disposition she was very upbeat and normal. I told her, I cant believe how well youre dealing with all this. You should have lived 100 years ago. She said, things are better now than when he was alive. It was a real relief.
When she arrived at the mall, she hopped out of the car with her three-year-old, and opened the door for someone else coming out of the mall. She said good afternoon, as if she didnt have a care in the world. I went to her blog, and it was clear that her strength and endurance came from her belief in Jesusthe same guy who preached at length about giving to the poor. Because sometimes brain tumors happen.
We do not need you.
On Wednesday, I went to the waiting room of the Father Fred Foundation. Kathy Gibbons suggested I do that. A former Record-Eagle columnist and editor, she had been working half-time at Father Freds, but recently left for a full-time newspaper job in Grand Rapids.
I went into Father Freds waiting room, asking various people what went wrong with their lives. They had all pretty much hit their financial bottom, although each had taken a different way to get there. One was a 60-something woman, lets call her Alice, who was caring for an elderly woman with Alzeimhers for $500 a month. But Alice had to find a new place by January because her patient had to go into a nursing home. Along with taking care of the older woman, Alice had also taken in her adult son and his young child. So they all needed a place to live.
I asked, well why didnt you just save your money, since your housing and food were all provided for. Turns out she had $8,000 on one credit card at a 27 percent interest rate, and $2,000 on the other with 10 percent interest. She originally put the money on her two credit cards to pay legal fees for another troublesome son, whos in prison for drunk driving charges. He gets out next month, and needs to live with her while he gets on his feet, but thats not likely since people arent exactly hiring felons. On the bright side, she has her faith, which is why she is giving her two sons a helping hand.
Another person seeking help at Father Freds was a Vietnam vet who lost his disability pay a few years ago from the military, after getting it for 20 years or so. He was seething over the bureaucrat who got it pulled. From the conversation, I gleaned he scares a lot of people with his rage and profanity. He was nice to me, though.
Another 30-something guy, was out of jail for drunk driving and living in a transition house. He was a U-M grad, having majored in economics and philosophy. Now he was calling a temp agency for work each morning, but theres not much out there. Hes determined not to drink again since its pretty much ruined his life.
As I jotted down my notes, I noticed everyone seemed to walk away with a bad limp, including the vet and Alice. They told me about their health problems, but theyre too numerous too list.
One woman, 38, was upbeat. Shed lost her plastics factory job two years ago in Port Huron, but had nailed a job interview for the next day. Her advice was upbeat: Dont get discouraged, your luck will change!
We do not need you.
On Wednesday night, I coached some debate teams at the high school. Each team had to come up with an argument for how to alleviate poverty using government services. I really liked the plan from the West Traverse City High School team that would help high achieving kids pay for college.
One way (although not surefire) to wrench yourself out of crappy wages and Father Fred waiting rooms is to go to college or a trade school. But as the debate team pointed out, tuition has escalated drastically. A single year of tuition would easily eat up an entire year of a low-income salary.
With no education, the poor stay poor. The elite kids go to $40,000 a year colleges and stay elite. Heres something to think about: The combined wealth of the richest one percent of U.S. households is more than the bottom 90 percent of households, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
The Wests debate team proposed matching a kids college savings with federal dollars. I loved that idea!
END OF THE WEEK BLUES
On Thursday morning, there was an interesting column by former editor Ken Winter. He reported that newspapers could no longer afford to keep reporters in Lansing like they used to. We dont even know what we dont know. But if we did, we probably wouldnt like it.
Case in point. Tax exemptions for corporations from 1994 to 2002 resulted in a total loss in state revenues of $85.7 million in 2002 alone.
If the public were aware of this, would there be more pressure to remove tax exemptions before cutting $54 million from the education budget and looking for additional tax increases to raise state revenues? he wrote.
So we have a state government thats dishing out tax exemptions to those offering the best bribes and then we cut money for public educationand too few reporters. How far will this go?
The Record-Eagle itself has cut its salaried writing staff by 25 percent, along with numerous freelancers in just the last two years.
Later that day, I did a short article on Archie Kiel, a medical marijuana caregiver from Rapid City who was busted for growing more than his legal limit of plants. If convicted, he could face a prison term of 14 years.
Even if he only gets a year in prison, taxpayers have to ante up $40,000.
By the end of the week, Im thinking its time for tough decisions. Do we stop putting pot smokers in prison for years on end, or do we give our kids a chance for a decent life? Do we stop giving tax exemptions to corporations who bribe/lobby our politicians, or do we give a uniform tax cut to all businesses? Do we give out a $700 billion bailout to banks with no oversight, or do we ensure that the money is spent the way its intended.
The fact is we need everybody, and wed better start acting like it.
The Michigan House of Representatives just passed a bill to reinstate 50 percent of the states Great Start funding, which still needs approval by the state Senate. If you support early childhood education, give Sen. Jason Allen or Sen. Michelle McManus a call.