Rebates can help offset state’s cuts

Along with many other Minnesotans lucky enough not to need our tax rebate checks to help keep a roof over our heads and food in our bellies, I have been pondering just what to do with the money. I know I’m not alone in feeling uneasy. It seems to me that we hired the government to do things that needed doing, yet when I look around me, I feel rather like a homeowner who hired a contractor to renovate my house and ended up with a leaky roof, rotting floorboards and a check for a refund.
Rather than taking back the money, I’d rather spend my fair share as a citizen who benefits — as middle- and upper-class Minnesotans overwhelmingly do — from a state that works pretty well to help make the state work better, especially for those who are less fortunate. I want, for example, to know that the next generation is well cared for, well fed and well educated. It is especially important because their opportunities and choices will make my life safer or more dangerous, not to mention that I’ll be dependent on them for my social security benefits.
Charity is part of the answer, but it doesn’t really get at my uneasiness. We’re often told, by those who argue for tax cuts and a weakening of the tax-supported safety net, that charitable giving is a moral and social good. When it comes to responding to natural disasters, I think that’s true.
But it’s not an appropriate response to injustice, such as the legacies of slavery and continuing racism; an economic system that requires unemployment to keep inflation down; the massive Robin-Hood-in-reverse transfer of wealth in recent years from the poor to the rich; the benefit of low prices resulting from minimum-wage jobs that leave full-time workers in poverty; and the continuing exploitation of sweatshops and child labor here and around the world.
Injustice has the effect of putting those of us who are its beneficiaries — however unintentionally — in receipt of stolen goods, and it’s hardly an appropriate response to dole out charity to those whose poverty partially accounts for our affluence. No matter how hard any of us works for our money, we are all dependent on the social, economic and physical infrastructure that makes it possible for us to benefit from our labor. When that infrastructure is manifestly unjust, those benefits and the burdens they require are unfairly distributed.
Part of what we ought to want the state to do is rectify the injustice in a way that charity never can. But if the state won’t take on the task — because too many influential citizens have decided they like things fine the way they are — then it falls to those of us who want to live in a fairer, more just and, hence, far safer and more sustainable world, to do what we can to help empower others to better their lives; to get out from under the structures that trap them in poverty. And being thoughtful about what we do with our tax rebates, the refund we got from a state that left us with a leaky roof and a crumbling floor, is one way to do that.
There are lots of choices: Progressive Minnesota, for example, is a political party committed to a vision of democracy that doesn’t start and end in the privacy of the voting booth, and the Cooperating Fund Drive is an umbrella agency that funds groups that empower individuals and communities. But I would like to highlight the program that will get at least a sizable chunk of my rebate: the Student Parent Help Center in General College at the University.
As a faculty member at the University for 20 years, I have been impressed by the work of General College to make access more than a buzz-word. The faculty and staff there take seriously their twin missions. One, they make it possible for people who have not just graduated from high school with high grades and good test scores to benefit from a first-class university education. Two, they enrich the intellectual life of the University by increasing the diversity of life experiences that inform our teaching and research — at least for those of us who are lucky enough to know how to listen.
The center makes it possible for people — most of them women — with young children and more ambition than material resources to get the education that will help them achieve those ambitions. Graduates of the University who were served by the program testify in glowing terms to the personal and academic support that enabled them to move from poverty to positions of security and community leadership.
But in its zeal to “reform” welfare, the Minnesota Legislature declined to count participation in a degree program combined with job training as falling within the guidelines that are supposed to be moving people off welfare. It is better, we’re supposed to believe, to coerce people into taking dead-end minimum-wage jobs than to support them in getting the education that will allow them to break the cycle of poverty.
Speaking selfishly, I find it frightening to live in a world where large numbers of people feel, with good reason, that they have no stake in law and order; that the game is stacked against them. I assume that the unfairness of my affluence is as at least as obvious to them as it is to me, and it certainly seems a more rational, and moral, response to that situation to attempt to rectify the injustice than to lock them in jail and myself in a gated suburb.
I wish I could expect rationality and morality from the government I hire in order to make my world safer, but until that happens, my hope lies with those who refuse to give up even when the game is stacked against them, who do not turn to crime and violence, who persist in dreaming and working to realize those dreams.
The Student Parent Help Center still exists, serving students as well as it can within the irrational and immoral constraints imposed on it. I can think of nothing better to do with my tax rebate than to help the helpers and nothing better to do with my voice than to argue for the government to allow them to help us all.
Naomi Scheman is a professor of philosophy and women’s studies at the University. She welcomes comments at [email protected]