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MN2020 Journal: Shoveling Our Way to a Progressive Policy Frame

January 15, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow
This is a winter blues moment. The housing market is either sliding or stagnating; we're in a recession; unemployment figures remain persistently grim; and the state of Minnesota is running out of ready cash. Throw in a slushy, gray, overcast, 28 degree day and it's a wonder all 5.2 million of us don't move to Florida, en mass.

Topping off my malaise, I can't shake the feeling that despite considerable need for and public support of a progressive policy approach, a conservative public policy framework will guide the upcoming state legislative session. What's a progressive to do?

First, get outside more. It can't improve the weather but just moving around during daylight hours will improve your mood. Shovel your walk, even if it feels like shaving when you don't absolutely need a shave. Then, help a neighbor shovel their walk. When you're finished, spend another 15 minutes improving a bus stop, street corner or other public access point. The soul of progressivism lays in the embrace and advancement of the common good. You'll feel better for the activity and for your contribution to your community.

Second, reject the conservative state public policy frame. This one is both easier and trickier than it sounds because it involves distinguishing between trees and forests.

The trees/forest metaphor contrasts the particular with the general. Conservative public policy advocacy, particularly as expressed by Minnesota's chief policymaker Governor Tim Pawlenty, purposefully disregards consequence's detail in order to support an overarching perspective. Enforcing a policy debate defining paradigm allows for a more effective, efficient marginalization of non-conforming detail.

In other words, conservative policymakers insist that we see their forest even when the collection of trees suggests something different. The recent General Assistance Medical Care program's scheduled elimination fight illustrates this divide.

GAMC provides state-financed medical services to particular low-income people. Conservative policymakers appear to view this program as a frivolous, unnecessary public expense that extends the so-called "nanny state." In contrast, progressives view GAMC as a reasonable and necessary expression of the common good translated into a program. That's the big picture perspective. This fight's detail only increases the ick factor.

Pawlenty's conservative stratagem stresses individual trees while insisting the forest is healthy. Beginning March 1, the Minnesota Department of Human Services will move 28,000 of 35,000 GAMC recipients to MinnesotaCare, the state's subsidized health insurance pool program for low and modest income families. MinnesotaCare members are working Minnesotans. GAMC recipients earn less than $8,000 yearly. Nearly all are mentally ill, chemically dependent and/or homeless. Shifting this population to MinnesotaCare more rapidly reduces the program's funding base, forcing a substantial reduction in services or program eligibility. It hastens the demise of the whole.

A common conservative policy advocacy tactic is to insist that government is too large. Any reduction in size or scope is, by their definition, a good, desirable thing. They proudly call this, "starving the beast." Only by disregarding individual needs and the achieved common good, can the conservative policy agenda assert benefit. Less is, somehow, supposed to be more.

Enumerating conservative policy assaults on vulnerable people, while cathartic, is not the same as replacing a conservative policy frame with a progressive one. Rushing frantically from tree to tree to tree doesn't create a forest. We must choose our illustrations carefully, building the case for a greater collective outcome. If, during the legislative session, we proudly preserve $5 million here or $10 million dollars there yet facilitate $4 billion in further cuts to Minnesota's state budget, yielding to the conservative demand to not raise revenue, then we are failing our vision and, more importantly, we are failing Minnesota.

Nobody said that realizing a growing, progressive future would be easy. Shoveling your walk, your neighbor's walk and then pitching in to dig out the street crossing won't immediately relieve Minnesota's recession but it builds towards a better tomorrow. Shoveling moves us past the "someone should do something" sensibility to "together, we're doing this," the first step in crafting progressive public policy.


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