By Angelo Lynn
A generation or so ago, the American Dream was writ large in our cultural DNA. Symbolically, the dream came to mean owning an adequate house, having a family, a car and a job to pay for it all. In the 1950s-60s-70s, that seemed to be possible for a majority of Americans. The mantra was that if you graduated high school, worked hard, and kept your nose clean you’d get to that dream in your 30s, start building equity and have enough to retire on Social Security by 65. That was “the life.”
Today, that dream seems like a long shot for many. A high school diploma is no longer a ticket to a good job, but rather a ticket to poverty if that’s all the training one gets; higher education is mandatory but can leave you deep in debt; because both parents must work to support a household, the costs of childcare are a major expense today; and housing costs are higher than ever.
It’s no surprise that elections are more about reaching that dream than we might realize. In talking to area candidates following this year’s election, two observations became clear:
First, campaigning is hard work; many representatives and senators who won went door-to-door in their districts — five, six and seven days at week toward the end — visiting district’s households over a three-to-six month period; second, what they found were lots of people who were just barely getting by.
Many folks are working hard but having a hard time making it; many young families have child care costs that eat up a quarter or more of their income; Vermont lacks housing; businesses struggle with health care costs; and wages too low to pay the bills.
As newly elected Sen. Cheryl Hooker of Rutland said of her door-to-door visits, “what most people want is just to be able to live, work and play here and not go broke.”
To that end, Gov. Phil Scott has been right on target with his campaign mantra: making Vermont more affordable. But he has the wrong answer.
Much of his first two years were devoted to staving off tax increases, which also prevented more progress on the issues that could help lower-and-middle-income Vermonters. The policy issues that must be addressed include wages, housing, health care, childcare and the high cost of higher education.
But Scott is opposed to raising the minimum wage; has not taken the lead on health care; created a few programs to create affordable housing but the dollar investment is too small; and talks about funding higher education and early childcare, but refuses to add the money to make a difference. He has had a “no new taxes” pledge, which in effect translates to keeping the programs Vermonters most need underfunded – all for the sake of a campaign slogan.
What Gov. Scott should do is visit the 1,400 homes that newly elected Rep. Stephanie Jerome did over the past four months in her district of Brandon. Sudbury and Pittsford. Out of the 1,500 homes in her district, she gained crucial insight into the real need that is out there.
What she knows is that creating affordable health care is not a campaign sound bite. It’s the number one concern on Vermonters’ minds. Affordable housing is not a checkmark on a campaign brochure, it’s seeing families flee to other states when no affordable options here are in sight. A higher minimum wage is not just some progressive ideal, it’s what would allow many Vermonters to just get by and not go broke. When you actually visit the people in need, inaction is not a viable option.
We know no administration can pay for every program that offers a benefit, but Gov. Scott must also recognize that he can’t cut his way to success. If the state is to grow, just as with a business he needs to invest in the state’s best assets. And he must remember that the bills coming from the House and Senate are coming from the representatives and senators who have just spent the better part of six months meeting and talking to Vermonters on their doorsteps. What they learned is that while Vermonters don’t expect a lot, helping them achieve the most basic of dreams should not be too much to ask.
Angelo Lynn is the editor and publisher of the Addison Independent, a sister paper to the Mountain Times.