Who is worthy of federal aid? It’s time to ask different questions.
The debate over President Biden’s college debt forgiveness plan reminds me a bit of the flood wall that Davenport never built.
Quad-City residents know that Davenport stubbornly went its own way when it came to the Mississippi floods. Even after the catastrophic floods of 1965 and 1993, the city refused to implement a structural solution, although it did many other things to limit exposure.
Others followed a different path. Bettendorf and Rock Island, for example. They built flood protection systems. Davenport did not.
We argued over who made the right decision for years. Usually when it rains.
In 2001, Davenport’s pick put him in the national spotlight.
When the Mississippi River flood that year made national headlines, President George W. Bush’s FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh questioned why the city should get federal aid. “How many times will the American taxpayers have to step in and deal with these floods, which could easily be avoided by building levees and levees,” he asked?
Commentary did not go over well in waterlogged Davenport.
Then-mayor Phil Yerington defended the city. “We’re ready to do our part, but don’t make it look like we’re just sitting here with water in our shoes and outstretched hands for federal money,” he said in the Washington Post.
Both men were right.
In this country, we recoil at the idea of helping people who will not help themselves. But we also help those affected by misfortune.
We have a bankruptcy code, after all. Companies and individuals can obtain cancellation or restructuring of certain debts through the courts under the right conditions.
Here in Iowa, we know that. In the mid-1980s, a specific chapter of the federal bankruptcy code was created to help financially distressed family farmers who Congress determined were not adequately covered by existing laws.
Debt relief is a delicate political issue, and as an economist Washington Post says the story, it almost always boils down to the question: who is worthy?
We see a lot of that now in the student loan debate.
I can understand how angry someone with thousands of dollars in medical debt could be. Their payments are not canceled and their debt is often not a choice. And someone who never went to college might wonder “Where’s mine?”
So who is worthy?
The answer is difficult to separate from our human tendency to self-interest.
Unfortunately, many of us forget the help we have personally received from the government that is not available to others, even if it is not strictly debt forgiveness.
Subsidized mortgages and health insurance are two examples. Renters cannot get this kind of help, nor can some people who buy their health insurance on the individual market.
Agriculture is a major contributor to Iowa’s economy and it is subsidized by the government.
I don’t receive a direct benefit, but I feel the effects as a participant in the Iowa economy.
The federal tax code also contains tons of special provisions, many of which have indirect benefits for others.
As for student loans, I paid off mine without government assistance (if you don’t count the fact that the loan was subsidized by the federal government in the first place.)
I was lucky. A right in the late 1970s, we extended federally subsidized student loans to middle-income families like mine. Prior to this, student aid focused on low-income families.
So, am I disadvantaged by Biden’s debt cancellation plan?
I do not know. There were a lot of middle-class kids from the 60s and 70s who didn’t get the grant that I got when I went to college.
I also know that a college education, even adjusted for inflation, costs a lot more money today than it did in the early 1980s, when I got my loan, and the debt of Student loans are currently crushing some families who thought their college degrees would lead to greater prosperity.
Kind of like what was happening to farmers in the 1980s.
It’s also worth noting that in 2005 the bankruptcy code was amended to put in place big hurdles to repaying student loan debt.
So who is worthy?
Maybe we should ask another round of questions. Like, can we afford it? Or is this the best place for limited federal dollars? What societal objective does it serve?
With the federal debt exceeding $30 trillion, Biden’s plan certainly won’t help. But then neither will the past tax cuts and spending that have compounded the debt — debt that will largely be the responsibility of younger generations who typically did not create it.
Cost still challenges Iowa students despite federal debt cancellation
By the way, these are the same people getting the most help with Biden’s student debt relief plan. The White House said nearly two-thirds of its plan beneficiaries are under 39. (The plan forgives up to $10,000 of debt; $20,000 for low-income borrowers.)
As to whether it serves a larger societal purpose, Paul Begala, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, said on CNN that if we wanted to help the poor, those resources would be better spent on free pre-K education.
Unfortunately, rather than weighing priorities, we mostly see a lot of politicians pitting one group against another, fueling a fairly narrow debate about who is worth it and who isn’t.
It only increases division and anger, and we’ve had enough of that already.
Anyway, back to the Davenport flood wall.
In 2001, many people, even in Davenport, agreed with Allbaugh. The city did not deserve help, they said.
That’s not what happened. Allbaugh ended up coming here to tour the flooded areas and he even threw an arm around Yerington in front of the TV cameras. And Davenport got federal aid.
I don’t know if there have been many changes to the federal flood program since then. Critics say the government is still not pricing insurance correctly for flood-prone areas. And the Number recurring loss assets (those who receive help multiple times) has increased over the years. This has always benefited people in states like Texas and Florida.
The truth is, politicians of all stripes throw around federal money and favorable treatment when they’re in power. And it is generally inclined towards their supporters. Some are more defensible than others. Some, not at all.
But to varying degrees, virtually all of us benefit from it.
And we are all paying the price.
Postscript: An important step in journalism
There was a milestone in Quad-City journalism this week. The Tubbs family, owners of three newspapers in the area, sold them to a Wyoming man named J. Louis “Louie” Mullen.
Mullen already owns newspapers in communities in other states, including Iowa.
Newspapers sold in this region are: The North Scott Press, The Wilton-Durant Advocate News and The West Liberty Index.
The story was first reported in Wednesday’s North Scott Press.
Bill and Linda Tubbs have spent five decades in journalism in this community, so this is a big change.
In a column in the North Scott Press, Bill Tubbs, the publisher, said he was assured that the current staff would be retained and that he would also continue to be a contributor, including with his “Impressions” column. Linda Tubbs will retire fully, he said.
I have read The North Scott Press for over 30 years and like many people in Scott County, rural and urban, have found it to be an important part of my news diet.
I not only read the weekly, but as a former Quad-City Times reporter, I also competed against it.
When Scott County was looking for a new landfill site in the early 1990s, a lot of farmland was being considered. It was controversial and there was a lot of tension hanging over the decision. It was a story I covered for months – years, if I remember correctly. And reading the North Scott Press each week was important because its coverage was extensive and comprehensive.
Lately, the newspaper provided in-depth coverage of a zoning proposal that would make it nearly impossible to install solar panel farms in Scott County, according to industry officials and solar supporters.
I also regularly consulted Tubbs’ column. Sometimes it has been personal; at other times he has been a strong advocate for open and accessible government, including public records. He has always worked to build his community.
I assume there will be changes to the diary. As Tubbs said in his column this week, “many things will stay the same, but a new owner inevitably brings new ideas and energy.”
There will be a lot of people, rural and urban in Scott County, who will be very interested to see what it looks like.
— Ed Tibbets