Pop quiz: Which politician recently said this?
“There was a time when I would talk about a difference between ‘makers’ and ‘takers’ in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits. But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong. ‘Takers’ wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family. Most people don’t want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong.”
Some bleeding-heart Democrat? Think again. The passage is from a speech by a powerful and widely respected Republican, a guy by the name of Paul Ryan.
The House Speaker’s talk actually caught a lot of people’s attention, for good reason. The very dichotomy he denounced has become a staple of modern-day GOP thinking, whether we’re talking about 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney — the man who picked Ryan as his vice presidential choice — dismissing 47 percent of Americans as freeloaders or former Gov. Bobby Jindal dividing the world into people who pull the cart and those who ride in it.
It caught my attention for another reason. It made me think of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.
The two politicians have plenty of differences, including their policy prescriptions for reducing poverty — although despite Ryan’s specific phrasing, neither is focused entirely on government benefits. One area Ryan talks of addressing is criminal sentencing reform. And one of Edwards’ signature proposals, one that the Legislature is now considering, is a modest increase in the state minimum wage.
What the two men, share, though, is an admirable inclination to listen to the people affected by these policies, rather than simply labeling them from a comfortable distance. Maybe it’s because Edwards comes from a small town, where he represented in the Legislature for eight years many people who struggle. Or maybe it’s just his nature. But when Edwards talks about those who’d benefit from his proposal to raise the minimum hourly wage from the $7.25 federal level to $8.50 over two years, it’s clear he can see the issue from their perspective.
Here, for instance, is how he pitched the idea in his January inaugural address:
“It’s unacceptable when a parent’s hard work isn’t enough to pay the bills or go to a doctor. I’ve traveled from Algiers to Zwolle and met countless single mothers working for minimum wage behind a cash register at a gas station. Often, it’s one of several jobs they have, and they still battle to make ends meet,” Edwards said.
Edwards’ minimum wage push is part of a larger focus on expanding the safety net, which also includes new laws on pay equity and the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
The governor’s not embracing mass giveaways, and in fact, he recently surprised even some of his supporters by saying he’d consider workforce training requirements for able-bodied food stamp recipients. But he is looking at the plight of his poorer constituents with compassion rather than condemnation, and that makes a big difference.
Whether it will make enough of a difference is an open question. In the Legislature, employers who bristle at paying an extra $50 a week for each 40-hour employee have lobbyists to push their case. Those who work full-time for $15,000 a year, far below the poverty line for a family of four, certainly don’t. And guess which side is more likely to write a check come campaign time?
Nationally, there used to be something of a bipartisan understanding that the minimum wage should grow every now and then to keep up with the cost of living. But that agreement has long since broken down, and with Congress unwilling to take up the issue despite President Barack Obama’s support, 29 other states plus the District of Columbia have already stepped up.
Edwards’ proposal, authored by state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, did make it out of the Senate Labor Committee last week, but only on a party-line vote. Its prospects in the Republican-dominated full Senate and House are uncertain.
Before they vote, I hope Louisiana’s legislators at least follow the lead not only of the Democratic governor but of the Republican House Speaker up in Washington. At least give the people affected the courtesy of really listening.