Commentary

Saunders: Sen. Rubio, don’t belittle government programs that helped you

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJanuary 13, 2014 

Now, it’s personal.

When U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida attacks President Barack Obama – or even votes against his own bill – that’s typical political posturing. No big deal.

When, however, this same Marco Rubio ignorantly assails one of the greatest programs his parents’ adopted country has ever produced, it becomes a big deal. Really big.

The Republican Rubio, who has as legitimate a chance of becoming president as my big toe, is calling Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty program a bust, a failure, a waste of trillions of dollars.

I respectfully disagree. Scratch that: I disrespectfully disagree. Who can have respect for some kowtowing, know-nothing politician whose every utterance drips with contempt for the people who are in the same position his family and he once were?

Not I.

Revisionist Rubio

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the start of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, and revisionists such as Rubio are rushing to belittle or deny its accomplishments. The argument is that the poor are still with us and that government programs that aid them create a culture of dependency and laziness, of generations content to sit back and suck contentedly on the government’s teat.

I am a beneficiary of many of the maligned government alphabet programs that were part of Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty, yet I haven’t sucked on the government’s teat for 35 years, since finishing college.

I have, though, helped replenish that teat with the taxes I’ve gladly paid. Those programs provided entree to a better life for a generation of Americans who’d previously been denied opportunity. That generation, for the most part, became taxpayers and provided a better life for their children, who also became taxpayers.

That’s why we should all oppose any Marco-come-lately trying to boost his presidential cred by attacking programs that helped millions, including my friends and me.

And him.

Helping his parents

Oh yeah, haven’t you heard? The government and government programs that he now so heartily denigrates are the same ones that he benefited from. Medicare, he confessed reluctantly, provided the means for his father to die with dignity. “And,” he said in a television interview, “it pays for the care my mother receives now.”

By attacking that War on Poverty staple, though, it’s obvious he doesn’t want it to pay for anyone else’s parents.

Rubio had not yet been born – and his parents had only been in this country for five years – when Johnson kicked off his program to eradicate poverty in 1964. I, on the other hand, was there for the opening salvo in the War on Poverty, when boxes of government-issued toothbrushes, toothpaste and little red pills that let you know when you’d thoroughly brushed were delivered to my second-grade class.

I was no prodigy, but at least I knew how to brush my teeth. Some of my classmates didn’t – not until a government worker or teacher showed them how.

Thanks, Uncle Sam.

For many of my teenage friends and me, our first real job was through the federal Comprehensive Employment Training Act, or CETA program, working at Palisades Park planting trees, mowing the field and ensuring that the pool was clean.

How, you ask, did that prepare Jeffrey, Ghoul and me for real life, especially when Mr. Watkins caught one of us napping in the wheelbarrow daily for the first week and threatened to fire us all on the spot?

It taught us, among other things, that to be at work by 7 a.m., you couldn’t hang out in the poolroom all night.

It also taught us the pride that comes from earning a paycheck, from opening a checking account.

Even more importantly – and this is a conclusion reached only years later – it taught us that government cared about us. Does it now?

That’s doubtful to the teens who’ve never had a job or the young adults leaving college today with thousands of dollars in debt or who couldn’t even get into college because there are no federal grants and few loans to help them.

During my senior year of high school, when it became obvious that neither Dean Smith nor Norm Sloan was interested in offering a basketball scholarship to a slow-footed point guard, another War on Poverty alphabet program helped me get into college.

The Basic Educational Opportunity Grant – BEOG, now known as the Pell Grant – provided $1,600 per year ($800 per semester) for tuition and room and board. That amount, along with government-backed loans, allowed me to attend college, get an education, and earn more money than I would have had the loans and grants not been available and had I ended up at the local poultry plant pulling craws from chickens for minimum wage.

Over four years, I received $6,400 in federal grants for educational expenses. You’d have to call that a good investment, considering the taxes I’ve paid from jobs for which that education qualified me. I came out of college owing less than $500; a Fidelity Investments survey in Money Magazine reports that the average student debt for 2013 graduates was $35,200.

Just as I do, Rubio admits that he couldn’t have gone to college without government-backed financial aid. Unlike me, though, he says “More government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It’s going to hold you back.”

Wow. I wish the president, in addition to creating a jobs plan, would declare a war on ignorance such as Rubio’s.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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