Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #041. First published in the St. Cloud Times Dec. 28, 2010

Contrasting stories in the Dec. 15 Times precipitated mental whiplash.

One story proclaimed: “Data: Area poverty rising.”  The article began: “New data released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau shows St. Cloud and its smaller neighbors have gotten poorer in the last decade.”

Reading further, we learned that “gotten poorer” is really “gotten a lot poorer.”  A decade ago 8.7 percent of residents of Stearns County and 7.1 percent of those in Benton County were living below the poverty line.  Today it’s more than 12 percent for each.

In Waite Park it’s much worse—12 percent in 2000, almost 20 percent in 2010.

And, finally, the scariest figure of all: “31.6 percent—nearly one-third—of St. Cloud families with related children younger than 18 had an income below the poverty level in 2009” (a statistic reinforced by a Dec. 21 story about a doubling since 2000—to almost 50 percent—of students in District 742 who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches).

The whiplash?  Another story reported Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s self-congratulatory talk the day before to the Rotary Club of St. Cloud and the Times Editorial Board.   “We have reined in government in a way that I think is historic,” he said.  He cast himself as “the taxpayer’s guardian.”

Pawlenty, whose “no new taxes” stewardship of our state through nearly all of this decade will come to an end next Monday, has been touring the state (when he’s not crisscrossing the country for his all-but-announced presidential bid), telling us we should be grateful to him for leaving us in the state we’re in.

Had Pawlenty spoken to the Rotary Club a day later, perhaps a resident of Waite Park would have asked him to comment on the Times story about poverty.  Is he proud of a record that includes nearly one-third of families with children living below the poverty line while the wealthiest 10 percent in the state pay a smaller percentage of their income in state and local taxes than the rest of us?  “Historic” as a descriptor cuts more than one way.

No governor is responsible for everything, of course, but Minnesota’s has a great deal of power, and Pawlenty’s policies have reversed an enviable tradition and set us on a path toward mediocrity.  Between 2002 and 2009 (prior to the Great Recession and covering much of Pawlenty’s tenure), Minnesota’s measures of well-being declined relative to other states—per capita personal income, median household income, average annual pay, and rate of employment, as well as funding for schools, bridges, and roads.

Pawlenty’s most damaging legacy is his persuading us to redefine ourselves.  He has referred to us so often as “taxpayers” that we have come to think of ourselves primarily that way.  Whatever happened to “citizen”?

If I am primarily a taxpayer, then it’s easy for me to see the government as “out to get me and my wealth.”    If I am primarily a citizen, however, I agree with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said taxes are what we pay for civilization.

The taxpayer thinks only, “It’s my money. I can choose to do with it what I want, and the government is trying to take away that right.”  The citizen understands that much of what we call “wealth” is received—not individually, but as a member of a community, and that we all have a shared responsibility to preserve this wealth for ourselves and future generations.

It is what entrepreneur Peter Barnes calls “the commons.”   Things like air, water, ecosystems, languages, music, law, money, broadband, parks, streets, schools, religion, our constitution, our freedom, and much more, including the well-being of our neighbor, are all part of the commons. Citizens understand that the “common wealth” precedes them, surrounds them, and needs to be preserved.   The taxpayer notices only what is withheld from the paycheck.

The Times “Our View” on Dec. 17 quotes Pawlenty as claiming to have “maintained Minnesota’s quality of life.”  He also said of his unallotments: “Everybody seems to have survived.”   “Survival”—especially given those poverty figures—is an awfully meager measure of “quality of life.”  Pawlenty, true to form, is talking like a taxpayer, not a citizen.