Paul Ryan’s firing of the chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives has cast a bright light on the absence of any kind of public ethics in public policy coming out of the Trump administration and Congress.
The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank writes: “Praying for the poor is now apparently a firing offense in the corridors of power…Only in this perverted time could a priest lose his job after committing the sin of crying out for justice for the poor. But then, look around: Everywhere are the signs of a rising kleptrocracy. The $1.5 trillion tax cut did make winners of corporations and the wealthy. And actions since then show that the Trump administration is making losers of the poor… If you preach about the poor in today’s Washington, you don’t have a prayer.”
Writing for the Post’s “Morning Plum Line” on Friday, Greg Sargent reported: “House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R. Wis.) has dismissed the House chaplain, outraging Catholics in the lower chamber, and this morning’s speculation has centered on a prayer offered by the chaplain that was critical of the GOP tax law. In that prayer, Rev. Patrick J. Conroy urged members of the House to ensure that ‘there are not winners and losers’ under the new law, but rather ‘benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.'”
Sargent continues: “Ryan has declared himself an apostle of the radical individualism of Ayn Rand. In 2009, he claimed that Rand’s achievement was to explain ‘the morality of capitalism,’ which he described as ‘the morality of individuals working towards their own free will, to produce, to achieve, to succeed.’… Ryan has long believed, as many liberertarians do, that taxes and the safety net are paramount threats to individual liberty, both because redistribution is confiscation from the productive ‘makers’ and because… the safety net squelches individual initiative, turning them into ‘takers.'”
Even before Ryan dismissed Rev. Conroy, the NY Times‘ Paul Krugman penned a scathing column last week about Trump’s War on the Poor: “I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like the collection of petty grifters and miscreants surrounding Trump. Price, Pruitt, Zinke, Carson…. The perks many Trump officials demand—the gratuitous first-class travel, the double super-secret soundproof phone booths, and so on—are outrageous, and they tell you a lot about the kind of people they are. But what really matters are their policy decisions. Ben Carson’s insistence on spending taxpayer funds on a $31,000 dining set is ridiculous; his proposal to sharply raise housing costs for hundreds of thousands of needy American families, tripling rent for some of the poorest households, is vicious… That war is being fought on multiple fronts. The move to slash housing subsidies follows moves to sharply increase work requirements for those seeking food stamps. Meanwhile, the administration has been granting Republican-controlled states waivers allowing them to impose onerous new work requirements for recipients of Medicaid….”
The writers of all three of these fine columns about the decline of classic public morality miss one important additional issue, however. There are children in the picture. When libertarians cut food stamps or triple the rent for a publicly subsidized apartment, or deny Medicaid to unemployed parents, and when they design punitive policies that will, they say, force adults to take initiative and be productive, the children are hurt every single time.
Krugman does acknowledge the long term economic consequences of denying the needs of millions of children: “(T)he creation of the food stamp program didn’t just make the lives of recipients a bit easier. It also had major positive impacts on the long-term health of children from poor families, which made them more productive as adults—more likely to pay taxes, less likely to need further public assistance. The same goes for Medicaid, where new studies suggest that more than half of each dollar spent on health care for children eventually comes back as higher tax receipts from healthier adults.”
I am delighted that Krugman remembers children, but his argument makes me think about the comment of Jonathan Kozol in one of his books about the children of the South Bronx: “Even groups that advocate for children do not seem to feel it’s safe to make an argument their behalf without convincing us that being kind to children will be cost-effective. Money invested in nutrition programs and pre-natal care, we’re told in countless publications, ‘saves hundreds of thousands of dollars’…. Advocates for children, most of whom dislike this ethos, nonetheless play into it in efforts to obtain financial backing from the world of business. ‘A dollar spent on Head start,’ they repeat time and again, ‘will save our government six dollars over 20 years’ in lowered costs for juvenile detention and adult incarceration. It’s a point worth making if it’s true, although it’s hard to prove; and still, it strikes one as a pretty dreadful way to have to speak of four-year-olds… Why do our natural compassion and religious inclinations need to find a surrogate in dollar savings to be voiced or acted on? Why not give these kids the best we have because we are a wealthy nation and they’re children and deserve to have some fun while they’re still less than four feet high?” (Ordinary Resurrections, pp 137-138)
As our children are forgotten, so are the schools that serve them—especially schools overwhelmed by concentrations of children living in extremely poor neighborhoods and therefore zoned into particular schools. The Schott Foundation for Public Education, however, has been calling attention to child poverty and to the needs of public schools punished in our accountability-driven times because they are serving concentrations of poor children. In a column published by the Learning Policy Institute as part of the recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report, John Jackson, President and CEO of the Schott Foundation, declares: “The ideology of the 1980s, ’90s, and today has primarily focused on elevating ‘personal responsibility’ and blaming the economically disadvantaged or the community workers who provide services to them instead of recognizing the systemic inequities in opportunities that exist and creating systems in which each child and his or her family have the supports to achieve high outcomes… (P)arental income remains the number one predictor of student outcomes—not the type of public school, the particulars of teacher labor contracts, or the brand of assessment used. Decades of robust debates on education standards, assessments, accountability, labor contracts, and traditional vs. charter public schools have focused narrowly on the role of schools, classrooms, and teachers, while ignoring inequities in students’ neighborhood living environments. Research shows that those inequities—such as lack of access to affordable housing and health care—are reflected in unequal student outcomes and rates of success. Simply stated, every child needs both healthy living and learning climates to grow academically and to have a fair chance at succeeding.”
Jackson continues: “(S)egregation, in conjunction with unfair school funding formulas and disinvestment in historically Black and Latino neighborhoods has created separate and unequal living and learning environments where children do not have access to even the most basic resources and supports they need to learn and thrive… In February 2018, Schott launched the Loving Cities Index to outline and analyze the system of supports needed to affirmatively heal communities from the damage caused by decades of racialized policies, criminalization, and segregation.” In all of the cities the Schott Foundation has studied there are “high levels of people working full time who are still earning 200% below the federal poverty line. They also show a housing market crisis in which the majority of residents cannot find rental options affordable at their income levels. Fair wages, along with affordable and safe housing are part of a system of supports that are critical to providing children and families with stable living environments…”
Dana Milbank is correct that “The poor don’t have a prayer in today’s Washington.” I am delighted that John Jackson and the Schott Foundation for Public Education are calling attention to the needs of poor children in these appalling times. For when Trump and Congress beat up on poor parents for lacking initiative and being “takers,” it is the children who really suffer.