Politics and Prejudices: Michigan, sailing down the drain

There's no doubt that a lot of people want to destroy the middle class. Ever since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, there's been a steady and successful push to transfer a vast amount of the nation's wealth from the poor to the rich.

This is, as has often been said, the most undercovered story in America. What's more, we seem intent on doing as much as we can to make it harder and harder for the disadvantaged to lift themselves out of poverty.

Lawmakers in Michigan seem even more enthusiastic about screwing over the people than most. This is largely due to two things: First, term limits, which since the 1990s have destroyed the legislature's institutional memory and power, giving far more clout to special interests and lobbyists.

Next, a terribly gerrymandered apportionment process. Thanks in part to bad luck, an increasingly right-wing Republican Party has been in charge of drawing congressional and legislative district lines after the last few censuses.

Rather than keeping communities with similar interests together, they have enthusiastically perverted the process, drawing the lines to elect large majorities of Republicans even when a majority of the voters choose Democrats.

These two factors have combined to ensure that most lawmakers don't give a damn about what the voters need or want, and are only fixated on pleasing the superrich in order that they can get jobs from them when their terms are up.

Take Paul Opsommer, for example, a Republican troll who used to be chair of the House Transportation Committee. Opsommer did everything he could to block a new bridge over the Detroit River. When term limits meant he had to leave, he was immediately given a job working for one of the companies controlled by Matty Moroun, who owns the Ambassador Bridge.

Opsommer ought to have gone to prison for this, but in Michigan, this is perfectly legal.

Gov. Rick Snyder, in one of his rare rational successes, did find a way to make the bridge happen, by completely bypassing our worthless legislature.

But mostly the evil and irrational forces win. Sometimes, you have to wonder whether some of them are playing with a full deck. Contrary to the popular myth, most teachers work very hard and way more than earn the money they're paid.

There's also a general consensus that we need to do better in terms of education. The governor and legislature have put more money into early childhood development — education before kindergarten — something that is vitally important.

Last week, the governor abruptly, and almost certainly wrongly, yanked the state school reform office away from the Department of Education, where it belongs, and put it under the Department of Management and Budget, which he controls.

That will probably turn out to be a political mistake, as well as an institutional and practical one. The governor now completely owns school reform efforts, and won't be able to blame their failures on anyone else. Given the lack of success of the Education Achievement Authority, the EAA, which he established to try to fix the worst Detroit schools, the odds of Snyder being able to "fix" schools statewide are not encouraging.

Meanwhile, back under the Capitol Dome, the legislature is doing everything it can to persuade every talented person to forget about being a teacher. They've attacked their unions and their benefits. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) is among those who want to completely eliminate pensions for new teachers, to save the taxpayers money.

This is sort of like not giving your baby milk to save money.

News flash: Unless, like Meekhof, you get yourself elected to the legislature, there are no more good-paying jobs anywhere for poorly educated and unskilled people.

No more line jobs at Oldsmobile or Mercury, good buddy, not many auto jobs at all, and what new ones there are pay only three-fifths what the old ones did. Get a skill, or forget ever getting a good house or a car. Years ago, in pre-Reagan America, you could screw up early and then recover.

College tuition was more affordable, and the government made scholarships far more available. Now, if you weren't born rich, well, that's your fault. There's a nonprofit outfit called the Michigan League for Public Policy, which does an excellent job of documenting Michigan's happy slide into decline.

Last week, it released a new report on working families that showed a huge racial divide. Most — 56 percent — of black and Hispanic families are low-income. We aren't talking single welfare parents with a long string of children.

We're talking about the working poor. However, 27 percent of white families are low-income too.

Gilda Jacobs, the league's president, noted that we could do something about this if we increased the minimum wage, made funds available to help with child care and adult education, and required employers to provide at least some paid sick leave.

But Jacobs, who served eight years in the legislature, likely knows that the Republican majority would sooner legalize child porn.

By the way, we evidently don't want poor folks improving themselves, either. Michigan allocated $185 million for adult education in 1996. That's been cut to $22 million now.

Less, once you factor in inflation. Yes sirree, we've got about 221,700 adults now in the state who lack a high school education, and only 7 percent are enrolled in adult ed.

We've got just about the same number — 225,000 — who can't speak English well enough to really function, and only 5 percent are enrolled in English as Second Language courses.

Yes, that's the state our elected leaders are giving us. You know, if I had children, or I wasn't in late middle age with a halfway decent job, the legacy of my lucky baby boomer life — I might be really, really mad.

One Silver Lining: The May 5 ballot proposal to fix the roads may not be perfect, but it is, as I will spell out in a later column, the only chance we've got.

But it has an additional, mainly unknown benefit: If passed, it will fully restore the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor. This alone is one big reason to vote yes.

Jack Lessenberry is head of the journalism program at Wayne State University and the senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio.
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