With inequality at its highest levels in nearly a century and public debate rising over whether the government should respond to it through higher taxes on the wealthy, the very richest Americans have financed a sophisticated and astonishingly effective apparatus for shielding their fortunes. Some call it the “income defense industry,” consisting of a high-priced phalanx of lawyers, estate planners, lobbyists and anti-tax activists who exploit and defend a dizzying array of tax maneuvers, virtually none of them available to taxpayers of more modest means.
One outcome of deepening income inequalities is unequal influence in the money-driven political system. This week, Demos releasedtheir report Stacked Deck: How the Dominance of the Affluent and Business Undermines Social Mobility detailing how exactly this happens.
We learn, for example, that
During the 2012 election cycle, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson gave a combined $91.8 million to Super PACs. It would take more than 322,000 average American families donating an equivalent share of their wealth to match the Adelsons’ giving. The Adelsons gave more to shape the 2012 federal elections than all the combined contributions from residents in 12 states.
We learn, also, of of stacked decks in lobbying and congressional testimony, even while the right so often disparages the influence of unions in Democratic platforms:
Indeed, after analyzing a massive volume of organized activity—including $3 billion in spending on lobbying and 12,000 congressional testimonies—the authors find that “social welfare” and labor organization accounted for just 2 percent of all activity aimed at influencing policymaking. Corporations, along with trade associations and business groups, accounted for 48 percent.
We learn also that low-income citizens are less likely to vote or to otherwise participate in public life, for complex reasons:
The scholars explain major differences in civic participation by socioeconomic status by pointing to the greater resources that affluent Americans bring to this sphere, including: knowledge and skills of how politics works; money to contribute to campaigns and location in social networks that can facilitate participation. The affluent also have a greater sense of efficacy and are more likely to believe that their voices will be heard in civic life.
Knowledge and skills for political participation is our work as educators. Teaching people the myriad of ways that voices can be heard — in and beyond the voting booth — is at the core of our work as educators.
We can at least begin there.
I’ve been reading Henry Jenkins’ Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (link to PDF here). Jenkins and his team at Project New Media Literacies speak of the need to prepare people to critically consume and — even more importantly — to produce new creative forms of media for broad distribution within new participatory technologies.
And simultaneously, I’ve been reading of the profound ways in which these participatory technologies are changing political life.
In the presidential campaign, the Obama campaign’s use of the web enabled them to bypass TV networks, party structures, and major fundraisers to build grassroots support and transparent communication in ways that will also now shape how the Obama administration governs.
And this past weekend, the user-generated website Join the Impact was central to rapidly organizing the international grassroots protests against California’s passage of Prop 8, “astonishing long-time activists with the power and speed with which [the web] gets their message out” according to the New York Times.
So when it’s with consternation that I read Jenkins’ warnings of new forms of the digital divide. Jenkins writes of the new “participation gap”: As policy makers have counted computers in schools toward the goal of providing “access” to technology to all kids, middle-class kids, with unfettered access to computers, adult support, and broadband at home are using computers in ways inaccessible to kids whose access it limited to public, filtered computer networks at schools and libraries.
More often than not, those youth who have developed the most comfort with the online word are the ones who dominate classroom use of computers, pushing aside the less technically skilled classmates. We would be wrong, however, to see this as a simple binary: youth how have technological access and those who do not. [Researchers] note, for example, that game systems make their way into growing number of working-class homes, even if laptops and personal computers do not. Working-class youth may have access some of the benefits of play described here, but they may still lack the ability to produce and disseminate their own media.
In these new political times, technological savvy is enfranchisement. And enfranchisement should not be dependent upon the resources that one happens to have at home.
And when I go to my teach my tech class tomorrow, I’ll again hear of computers gathering dust in the corners of classrooms in diverse schools, because no one knows how to use them, because they don’t work, because they’re considered an “extra”, because in schools, people have not yet caught on to the cultural shifts of this new participatory media culture.
In the State of the Union Address last night, Bush proposed a new “Pell Grants for Kids” program that would provide $300 million for poor chidren to attend private and religious schools, just as the “regular” Pell Grant program has enabled poor college students to “reach their full potential” via tuition support.
And the blogosphere has begun to weigh in:
The Mirror of Justice applauds the program as potentially stemming the closure of inner-city faith-based schools due for “financial reasons”, schools that he sees as providing vital alternative to children in chronically under-performing schools.
Other bloggers are far more critical:
The Carpet Bagger Report notes the obvious: that this is a voucher program that can’t be called a voucher program because the term “vouchers” does not poll well. He continues:
it’s ironic that Bush talked about the success of the Pell Grant program in helping “low-income college students realize their full potential,” given that his administration has repeatedly scaled back funding for regular ol’ Pell Grants.
The International Reading Association draws on the NYT’s reporting (as does The Education Policy Blog) that critics of the proposal wonder why, if NCLB is so successful, poor kids would need a program like this.
Greg Palast notes that given that there are 15 million poor children in this country, the $300 million for this program would provide only $20 per child. Accordingly,
George Bush’s alma mater, Phillips Andover Academy, tells us their annual tuition is $37,200. The $20 “Pell Grant for Kids,” as the White House calls it, will buy a poor kid about 35 minutes of this educational dream. So they’ll have to wake up quickly.
And The Engaged Intellectual asks whether this new initiative is intended to divert attention from the failures in NCLB in her scathing critique of each.
I’ll compile more here as bloggers continue to weigh in.
All eyes are on Iowa caucuses this week. I’ve read for years about the homespun democracy of the caucuses, where neighbors sit down together to deliberate face to face.
I had no idea that the process disenfranchises entire groups of citizens.
According to this article in today’s NYT, only those who can be physically present in the early evening can participate. Left out are night workers in restaurants, convenience stores, WalMart, or hospitals; parents without childcare; active military; or the elderly who find the frozen winter streets of Iowa treacherous. All of these are excluded from the process of selecting presidential candidates (and, if we trust the pundits, from the process of “building momentum” for the next primaries or even ending a campaign outright).
How is it that we can teach the children of night-shift workers — many of whom are likely to be workers in low wage service industries — that their voice also matters in a democracy, when formal processes so casually exclude them?