Gross Injustice: State Legislatures, Inequality, and Why it will get worse

Some social workers blog as a form of personal therapy, a way to release at least some of the frustrations and heartaches that accumulate from trying to do enough with far too little, and feeling like we’re always losing.

I don’t. I think that’s because I have the world’s most supportive husband, who finally looked at me the other day and said, “Honey, I don’t like Kris Kobach either. I didn’t vote for him. I don’t think he’s a good Secretary of State. I promise.” And I promised to keep the ranting down to a minimum.

Instead, I try to use this public space to think outloud, to process what’s always running through my head, about how problems are connected and how we can be part of the solutions, about how to build power for the people we care about, about how to leverage that power into policies that begin to approximate a just and right society. And I try, although I may not always succeed, to plant ideas, and hope, to cultivate more momentum for social justice by helping people to feel part of a community, and to contribute to the essential conversations about how we can best get there, from here.

But this one, I’ll just admit, isn’t hopeful.

See, in the Kansas Legislature this year, they went after our Earned Income Tax Credit. Yes, our state’s EITC, the same one that has been proven to be the single most effective anti-poverty policy we have, the one that “encourages work”, just like they say they want to, that has very little administrative cost (making it highly efficient), and that, every year, makes it possible for families to pay down debt and purchase reliable cars and even save a little for their futures.

The attack on Kansas’ EITC wasn’t about cost savings. If it was sheer budget balancing they were after, they would have examined the other (much larger) tax cuts from the 1998 tax package.

But no, just the comparatively small part that goes to low-income working people.

It’s bad policy. And, what’s making me even more pessimistic, today, is the realization that bad policy is what we’re likely to get, from a seriously unequal process.

Because it’s not accidental, after all, that people in poverty are the targets of Kansas’ budget reduction efforts, the same way that working people around the country are bearing the brunt of the fiscal “belt-tightening” everywhere: in threats to collective bargaining rights, elimination of funding for Community Services Block Grants, and reductions in Pell Grants. The Missouri Legislature had a bill to abolish the state’s restrictions on child labor, for crying outloud, which would have been funny if it wasn’t so ghastly. When those who make the decisions are removed from those who pay the price, it’s natural that bad things happen.

It’s the reason that my four-year-old son can’t know which ice cream bowl will be his when he’s dishing it out. He divides everything more equally behind that veil of ignorance.

And, today, our state legislatures seem more distant from the lives of real people than ever before. It was quiet, many days, in the Kansas Capitol. There’s an air of inevitability, and of resignation, that’s translating into carte blanche to destroy people’s lives. And it’s what we see in Congress, too.

I really do believe in people power, really, but this chart depressed me a ton:

Image credit, Mother Jones magazine

That kind of distance has tangible policy consequences: regardless of party affiliation, all 10 of the richest members of Congress voted to extend the Bush-era tax cuts in late 2010. And then we end up with a debate like this, which looks utterly ridiculous (and, yet, again tragic):

image credit, Center for American Progress

In state legislatures, what separates the governors from the governed is often not money; it’s a preoccupation with ideology over impact, with politics over pragmatism. That sounds cynical, I know, and I’m really not a cynic. But it’s hard to sit through a committee hearing about how “tough times call for really tough decisions” on, say, cutting Early Head Start, and then go to another committee meeting where we’re adding new administrative positions with six-figure salaries in the same cash-strapped state government, and not start to feel disenchanted.

In Kansas, we know that the worst is yet to come, and we’re probably not alone. Some of our state senators spared us from the worst of the attacks, and they’re all up for reelection in 2012. We know that they’ll be targets, and that we’ll all have to suffer through test votes designed more for campaign postcards than for real policymaking. That means more attacks on those seen as easy targets: people with mental illnesses, low-wage workers, immigrants, little kids, older adults.

Of course, you know that I can’t end a hopeless rant like this without some admonition, as much to myself as to anyone, about how all of this means that we need to work even harder, and smarter, to level the inequalities within the process, so that we can achieve far more equal results. That means working now to prepare for the 2012 elections, and it also means refusing to allow ourselves the luxury of extended bemoaning.

So this is where it stops, or, rather, starts, for me. To a far more just future.

4 responses to “Gross Injustice: State Legislatures, Inequality, and Why it will get worse

  1. I had to laugh when I read the part about your husband. I find myself in this same situation: going into long rants about officials and current events while my husband is on the receiving end. It is a fustrating time. Watching the deep cuts and multiple changes to our schools is disheartening.

    I agree it’s only going to get worse for awhile. And part of me is thinking of finding a nice cave to hide in until this blows over. And then part of me remembers that we must all stay involved to minimize the problems.
    But I can’t help but hear a nice beach down south calling my name.

    • Of course, Lesa, the beach could be closed b/c of budget cuts, too! The recent figures about Kansas’ reserve funds, after the devastating cuts, were further evidence that the pain inflicted today has a lot more to do with politics than economics. How do you keep yourself going?

  2. That’s a good question. There have been many days lately that I feel very much beaten. We’ve had some major changes to the gifted program in SMSD. And our kids are getting shifted to another classroom w/different teachers again. This will be the third shift in three years and its due to cutbacks. And then we’re losing our principal and getting another first year one. Sometimes it just feels like the North area schools get the short end of the stick. But enough of the pity party…

    The best way I find to continue on is first by taking a break and find a way to laugh. “Bridesmaids” was a good mindless movie w/a good friend. Secondly, I try to keep perspective. Which with all the devasation and loss from tornadoes, is easy to do. My kids are bright, healthy and I’ve got a wonderful home, friends, family and pretty much a good life.
    Thirdly, I take a deep breath and look for ways to make a difference in smaller ways. Maybe just making a connection with a elected official and offering information. And definitely by being with like minded folks where I reminded that I am not alone and give me hope.

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