Who you think about when you think about domestic policy affects your priorities and the conclusions you reach.
We know who Republicans are thinking of, their country club buddies and billionaire masters.
For other politicians, it’s people like the fictional “Bailey family” of Long Island, who are relatively well-off and seem to obsessively worry about the price of gas.
I have a different point of view. I am completely oblivious to the concerns of the billionaire and country club set, they can take care of themselves and will always find a way to come out on top. I am a little more concerned about the Baileys as they try to make their way through a world where very little is assured for them.
But when I think of domestic policy, I focus mostly on the cares of a 15 year old who finds herself in difficult circumstances. Perhaps her family is mired in poverty. Her community might be struggling with environmental destruction, economic malaise, opioid crises or destroyed infrastructure. Her schools have a few great teachers who are underpaid, but not enough of them. There are few or no public resources for guidance or counseling. Facilities are crumbling everywhere she looks. Her limitless potential will be squandered, unless the right healthcare, education and support reach her in time.
It’s with this young person in mind that I evaluate domestic policy. Her needs are a thought experiment that reveal policy intent. For example, when I hear a politician offer “tax-advantaged accounts” as a policy solution, I know they aren’t on her side. They’re thinking of the country club set, who can hire accountants and advisers to leverage these structures into tax avoidance schemes. It might benefit the Baileys, if they have managed to scrounge together some savings or have a sharp tax preparer. They sure won’t do anything for her.
When a politician tells me they’ll “means test” a benefit and require applicants to fill out multi-page forms processed by an impersonal bureaucracy, I know they aren’t thinking of her. She knows enough about the world to recognize when people don’t like her or think she’s unworthy. Chances are someone will try to shame her as she applies, or dismiss her application for minor infractions. She won’t trade her dignity for this benefit today.
When a politician proposes a simple, universal program, and frames it as a right, I know they are thinking of her.
If we can get the news to her that she has a right to health-care, she will be emboldened to ask for her rights. If we call it Medicare For All, she knows it covers her without question. It’s for everybody. The receptionist at the doctor’s office can’t try to shame her for being poor or using a “means tested” program. She’ll have the same card and coverage that everyone else uses to receive healthcare.
If we get word to her that tuition free college education is just as much her right as public school is, she will find a way to exercise that right. She knows what a right is, it’s for her, it applies equally to everyone. You cannot be shamed for exercising your rights, you cannot be made to feel like you don’t belong when you have a right to be there. She will know others around her who have gone to college tuition free, it’s not just for rich people.
In 2017, New York City instituted Universal School Lunch to remove the stigma attached to school lunch. Every child in the country’s largest school system has the right to receive a free lunch at school. When they made the case for this policy, teachers with the UFT estimated that one-third of New York City students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch would rather not eat because of the embarrassment of taking a free meal.
Around the time NYC was considering this policy change, the Urban Institute and Feeding America conducted a study in ten communities impacted by food insecurity. In both urban and rural communities, they invited teenagers to relate stories of how hunger impacted them and their peers. The children related stories of kids going hungry so their younger siblings could eat, about saving school lunches to eat later during the day, hanging out at the homes of friends or neighbors hoping their families would invite them to dinner. And also this…
Teens in all 10 communities and in 13 of the 20 focus groups talked about some youth selling sex for money to pay for food. These themes arose most strongly in high-poverty communities where teens also described sexually coercive environments. Sexual exploitation most commonly took the form of transactional dating relationships with older adults. [Impossible Choices]
There’s a chance she has seen or experienced something like this. I want politicians who are on her side. I want leaders who say clearly and unequivocally, that in a country as rich as the United States, it is unacceptable for children to go hungry. When Republicans talk about the “undeserving” recipients of social programs, I want politicians willing to publicly shame them for corporate and country club welfare. I want politicians who are willing to fight for her dignity.
LBJ is a complicated figure. But early in his life he spent a year teaching in a segregated school for Mexican-American children in Cotulla, Texas. The students were poor, as was the community. After signing the landmark Higher Education Act of 1965, LBJ went back to San Marcos county and said this:
I shall never forget the faces of the boys and the girls in that little Welhausen Mexican School, and I remember even yet the pain of realizing and knowing then that college was closed to practically every one of those children because they were too poor. And I think it was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American.
For all his faults, in his landmark Great Society programs I know LBJ was thinking of those kids. While he had control over the machinery of our government, he engaged in a mad, relentless, dash to use every lever he could for those kids.
Those kids were who he thought of when he thought of domestic policy. This is the best part of LBJ’s complex legacy.
So when I think about domestic policy, I think of her. I ask myself this:
Is the policy as simple to access and understand as Social Security?
Is it as universal as Medicare For All?
Is it a right like public school or college?
Is the law written for her, or was it written for the country club set?