Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Déjà vu – Creeping Clintonianism

When I compare living conditions in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where I have lived for the last 35 years, to those I knew as a child in Clinton, Illinois, I have to be thankful for the forward thinking men and women who made this a good place to live.

I know, of course, that “living conditions” aren’t the only criteria for a good place to live. Many choose to live where the amenities of life are spare and find great fulfillment there. But generally speaking the health, safety, and wellbeing of a community is a reflection of the kind of men and women who built it; a reflection of those things they value for themselves and their children.

I know, too, that there are limits to what any particular community can afford to do to make itself a safe, prosperous, and pleasant place to live. I just saw a bumper sticker that said, “No nation has ever taxed itself to prosperity.” Well, that is just not true, of nations, cities, or states. Often, in fact, prosperity is a “chicken or egg” proposition; if little is spent to improve a community there will be little incentive for innovative people or businesses to move there and help improve it and thus it remains stagnant, or worse, declines even further. Taxes, well used, are the main way we build strong and prosperous communities.

I wish I could say that conditions in my old home town have improved over the decades and that it is now a bright and progressive community like Eau Claire. It is sad to return to my home town and find whole sections of it just as it was, or more often, sadly diminished from what it was, when I lived there. It is easy – even somewhat enjoyable – to wax nostalgic about a rustic place where you once lived but no longer must endure. I have few regrets about the course of my life but I’m keenly aware that my start in that neighborhood on the north end of George Street determined much of what the remainder of my life would be; it set restrictions on my perception of who I am and my vision of what I could become. That may have implications for all the generations that follow me. Admittedly, I have had advantages not available to my parents. Sadly, my “advantages” came, not because I found opportunity to improve my lot within the community in which I grew up, but rather because I chose to leave that environment.

New neighborhoods have developed in Clinton built by those who are fortunate to have decent incomes and “respectable” employment. They can live in isolation from the decaying parts of town. Meanwhile little has changed in the neighborhoods I wandered through as a youth. Sidewalks crumble, streets are still uncurbed, houses sag and yards are filled with debris. Children living there have little incentive to raise their sights above that of their parents. At best, many of them will eke out a living, working for pay barely above minimum wage, and arrive at old age, sick and unprepared for retirement, requiring that society support them. At worst some will never even reach that level of sufficiency, requiring some measure of community support all their lives.

I don’t want to imply that Eau Claire, where I now live, has none of the problems my childhood town has in abundance. I do see, though, both a quantitative and qualitative difference in the life style of the two communities. I can’t help but attribute the better living standard in Eau Claire to the consistent willingness, over the years, of its residents, and the residents of Wisconsin in general, to provide the good schools, the well maintained streets, the sanitary systems, the progressive public policy that promotes good living.

I have almost no hope that fresh winds will ever blow again through the small towns of Middle America. There is instead, an anti-progressive spirit there that says, “Leave us alone, we’re doing fine. We don’t want the government to tell us how to live. No nation has ever taxed itself to prosperity.” Ironically, massive government subsidies, of which they are oblivious, support their fragile lives. Without free or subsidiesed school lunches, Medicaid, food stamps, SSI, WIC, Earned Income Tax credits, and more, many would be totally destitute.

But more frightening, the stale winds that have blown through the decaying towns of Middle American for decades are sweeping into formerly progressive places like Wisconsin. The politics of austerity is taking hold, convincing thousands that they are being robbed by the government to support unneeded public services and the greedy public servants who provide them. And so we see social safety nets shredded, public institutions threatened with reduced funding or even extinction. One politician recently declared that for years we’ve been content with requiring our public institutions to do more with less. That is no longer enough, he declared; now we must do less with less. “We’re broke.” He lied.

I may not live long enough to see Eau Claire, and similar progressive communities, decline to the level of poverty and cultural deprivation I saw, and still see, in my hometown. It takes time, even after the source has dried up, for all the water to drain out of the system. But the path we are on is a sad and dangerous one. If it is not reversed by progressive and far-sighted leaders, future residents of Eau Claire may find themselves reminiscing, as I have done, about their upbringing in the backward and deprived neighborhoods of a rundown community. That would be, though, the least harmful result of such neglect. The real tragedy is that our community would deprive its current and future residents of the opportunity to thrive, here in our midst if they so chose, or to go on to other places where their talents and skills could build useful things for the future.

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