Pence, Pre-school and the Right-Wing Base

In case you were wondering why on earth Indiana’s Governor would refuse to apply for 80 million dollars in federal funds for preschool development, I point you to the most recent newsletter from the Indiana Family Association’s Micah Clark.

After urging his readers to “thank Governor Pence” for refusing that terrible, intrusive federal government support, Clark wrote

I disagree with the Governor and many others who support state preschool programs. I have yet to be convinced from the research that any benefits from the expensive programs attempted in other states are lasting and, therefore, the best use of Hoosier’s taxdollars. However, I completely agree with Governor Pence telling the federal government “no thanks.”

Here’s a key point. If the government offers “free” preschool only to those it approves, then churches, homes, and private alternatives are crowded out of the market. Over time, parents could actually have fewer choices.

As I heard one inner city pastor say, “the governor saved our preschool with this move.” AFA of Indiana supports parents having as many choices as possible, not just a one-size-fits-all. government dictated option.

It doesn’t take a lot of skill to read between those lines. Just follow the money.

We’ve seen this movie before. Every time the state legislature tries to pass minimum health and safety standards for daycare and preschools–usually, after a tragic accident at some unregulated, unsafe facility– conservative churches mount a hysterical assault on “big government,” and claim a religious right to be free of pesky (too-expensive) rules about nutrition, fire safety, minimum ratio of caregivers to infants and the like.

Churches operating daycare and preschool operations that don’t want to comply with health and safety standards are a big part of Governor Pence’s base. Those churches clearly didn’t want federal money funding safer competitors, and the Governor just as clearly got the message.

If poor Hoosier families lose out, so be it.

Ironically, the usual message of AFA of Indiana is: we don’t need no stinking preschool. Mothers should be home (preferably barefoot and pregnant) taking care of their own children, like God intended.

But if some mothers absolutely must work, and really have to leave their kids somewhere, it needs to be in a “bible-believing” facility that makes us money. If accepting federal dollars might threaten that business model, Indiana should refuse those dollars.

It’s always instructive to follow the money.

In this case, you can follow it to the other states whose children will benefit from 80 million dollars that our bible-belt state was too “pure and independent” to accept.


Politics as Usual

Contemporary politics has a lot in common with tantrums in a nursery school classroom. So it is understandable, although not very helpful, to see every dispute between the City-County Council and the Ballard Administration characterized–and dismissed–by local pundits as “politics as usual.”

Not every difference of opinion between the Council and the Mayor–or between Congress and the President–can be dismissed as “playing politics.” Some reflect genuine disputes over what constitutes good policy.

Take the current dispute between the Mayor and Council over funding for expanded preschool. That dispute is not over the value of preschool or the need for expansion; it is about identifying a funding mechanism that is both reliable and fiscally responsible. It is about how, not whether. Both sides have principled arguments worth weighing; it would be nice if we had local journalists willing and able to help readers understand the different perspectives.

Instead, we get naive admonitions to “play nice.”

Which brings me to yet another unfortunate consequence of lawmakers’ decision to constitutionalize property tax caps.

A couple of weeks ago, this particular dispute sparked a friendly argument. I didn’t understand the Council’s reluctance to approve the Mayor’s funding proposal by eliminating a local property-tax credit. Why not? I asked. It’s not a biggie, and if it would fund preschool, great. My friend insisted that elimination of the credit would cause a revenue shift that would end up costing both IPS and the Library significant revenues, and would cost township schools nearly 3.9 million. But he couldn’t explain why.

I couldn’t see how that would be true, and refused to believe him, so he sent me an analysis by the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute that confirmed those shifts, which are a result of whether individual property owners have or have not hit the cap.

Here’s the thing: I read the analysis, and another posted by Ed Delaney, several times. Call me dense (many do), but the operation of the tax caps on local property taxes is so complicated, I am still at a loss to understand precisely how it works. I gave the analyses to a colleague whose area is Public Finance, and he patiently explained it–but only after even he’d struggled to work through the formula.

When the operation of tax law is so complicated that even former lawyers and professors of public finance have trouble figuring it all out, you have a prescription for mischief–and worse. Transparency in government doesn’t only mean that citizens need to know what their elected officials are doing, it also requires rules that are comprehensible to most of us.

Until I looked at the issue, I simply did not believe the Councilors who said the proposed funding mechanism would shift money–would create winners and losers. Now, it may be that funding preschool expansion is worth doing even if it does take revenue from other units of local government, but that is a very different argument than the “should we/ shouldn’t we have preschool” debate portrayed by local media.

The moral(s) of the story:

In the absence of clear and understandable laws, We the People simply cannot make intelligent decisions about policy and policymakers.

In the absence of a local media capable of analyzing and reporting on the reasons for disagreements, we lack any basis upon which to render democratic judgments. We the People are not well-served by a media that characterizes even legitimate differences over policy as “playing politics,” and fails to do the hard work needed to understand and explain the arguments .


Betraying the American Dream

When I was growing up, the accepted description of America was “land of opportunity.” It was commonly believed that the American Dream could be attained by anyone willing to work hard; social mobility was the name of the game.

Knowing that poverty isn’t necessarily permanent is hugely important in a capitalist system. Inequalities are inevitable, but they need not be paralyzing, they need not engender the sorts of simmering resentments that lead to social unrest, because they are seen as temporary and (fairly or unfairly) a reflection of the effort and entrepreneurship of the individual.

We are beginning to see what happens when it becomes apparent that Americans can no longer work themselves into the middle class. Thanks to short-sighted and mean-spirited public policies, such social mobility as previously characterized our economic system (it was probably never as obtainable as national mythology had it) is largely a thing of the past.

In a column addressing the need for high quality early childhood education, Gail Collins put it bluntly: “We have no bigger crisis as a nation than the class barrier. We’re near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to upward mobility. A child born to poor parents has a pathetic chance of growing up to be anything but poor. This isn’t the way things were supposed to be in the United States. But here we are.”

In his recent book on inequality, Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz underlined the current lack of social mobility in America–and its unpleasant consequences.

We have a problem, and it isn’t temporary, isn’t a result of the recent economic downturn. Social scientists have documented the characteristics of stable democracies–the attitudes and institutions that keep societies from erupting, that strengthen the social fabric rather than tearing it. A perception that the government “plays fair” and a belief in opportunity for advancement–a belief that effort and diligence will be rewarded–are among them.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama proposed two measures–universal access to preschool and raising the minimum wage–that would begin, however modestly, to address the problem. There is ample research connecting early childhood education to later economic well-being. There is equally persuasive research rebutting the proposition that a higher minimum wage means fewer jobs. (The latter proposition seems so logical, I used to believe it was self-evident; a copious amount of research, however, shows otherwise.)

The “usual suspects” met the President’s proposals with their usual screams of “socialism.” Those usual suspects, however, should rethink their support of the status quo. When poor people lose hope–when the belief in the possibility of bettering their condition disappears, and they face the fact that social mobility is rapidly becoming a myth and the American Dream is out of reach–they become people with nothing to lose. Eventually, they take to the streets and threaten the comfortable.

What’s that old line? Pigs get fed, but hogs get slaughtered.