A Prosperity Agenda for All
On Monday, November 20th Supervisor Walker gave a speech to the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County where he laid out a Prosperity Agenda for the community.
A New Hope: A Prosperity Agenda For All
Inter-Religious Council Thanksgiving Interfaith Service
November 20, 2017
It has been a good deal of time since I’ve been inside of a church, and for that I must apologize to my pastor, Dr. Damian Epps. My only excuse for my prolonged absence can be summed up by one of the founding principles of this great nation, and that is of course, the separation of church of state.
“Our country is not so rich in intellectual and inspirational leadership, or so certain of its course in the world, that it can afford the suppression of any thoughtful view or voice, and that especially includes the views and voices of our clergy.”
It is an honor to be here this evening. Pastor Damian Epps, President Crawley, other distinguished guests and clergy, and to all of you here in fellowship, thank you for having me.
It is my hope to share with you a new vision of community. A vision that is inclusive, welcoming and calls for the uplifting of all people, but especially our most vulnerable. I trust this message will resonate with those assembled here this evening, given this program is being convened by an organization with a mission focused on fostering better relationships between all people – regardless of faith system – which ultimately leads to a better society.
If we are to achieve a better society, we must first determine our ideal state once again. For me, it is simple. I hope to fashion a community where a person who works hard and plays by the rules, can live with dignity. A community that celebrates diversity and sees the humanity in everyone. A community that not only understands the distinction between fairness and equity, but works without end toward their mutual preservation. A community eager to examine its institutions, unashamed to uncover deficiencies, but yearning to fix them. And finally, a community with a justice system that works for all people.
It is safe to say, that we have rejected the Philosopher King model of government offered by Plato. However, I maintain that we can still demand thoughtful inquiry from our leaders, and we can elevate those who offer it to the people. In the absence of thoughtful dialogue and honest brokering in our politics, there is an increased responsibility upon our citizens. Civic duty has never been more important. But if we are to responsibly fulfill our civic obligation, then we must also do the hard work of becoming civically educated.
We must understand – to the best of our abilities – the challenges facing our community:
- In one of our neighborhoods, the median household income for African Americans is $8,194. – 97% of everyone in that neighborhood is considered socially vulnerable.
- In another neighborhood, 43% of the households are headed by single mothers.
- In one of the largest school districts in this state, when asked about hope – ideas and energy they have for the future – 51% of students surveyed reported feeling “stuck,” or “discouraged.”
We cannot turn a blind eye to these challenges, and we dare not be discouraged by their enormity. Our children are counting on us to make things right. They are looking to us for a new hope. This crisis of broken spirit compounded by a political system in utter disarray must be fixed not for our own benefit, but for our children’s future. We must get this right so that they can find hope again, and the strength of heart needed to brave this world.
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. We are a resilient people, and our community has the capacity to be strong for those who need us the most. I know this firsthand.
I was born and raised by a single teenage mother on the southeast side of Cedar Rapids. My father had abandoned us, and from time to time, we would live with my stepfather. He was an abusive man, who would beat my mother mercilessly in front of me and my sister.
My mother was not college educated, but she was a smart woman and she gave us a good childhood. When I was four years old, my mother was murdered in Buffalo, New York and the case was never solved.
My sister and I went to live with our grandmother Shirley Martin, who was also a single parent, having raised seven kids on her own. A child of the south, she was born in rural Alabama near the end of the Second Great War. She recounted to me neighborhoods where the Indians – as she called them – would stay. She told me stories of friends and family members being strung up for indiscretions; strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. One story I’ll never forget dealt with the quietness of her grandfather. When she asked her grandmother about this, she was told that her grandfather hadn’t quite been the same ever since she saved enough money to buy his freedom.
She lived through turbulent times: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church where four innocent girls lost their lives, the brutal beatings of the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, and the assassinations of Malcolm X, then Martin, and so many more of our leaders.
But she also lived through some pretty remarkable times as well, including the Brown v. Board of Education decision which effectively ended segregation in our public schools, the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1960 and 1964, and the election of this nation’s first African American president a little over 50 years after the Brown decision.
She went to Kirkwood Community College late in life to earn her associate’s degree. Her dream was to become nurse. She worked in the hospital system here in Cedar Rapids for several years until her health began to decline. She survived numerous bouts with cancer. She was deeply religious. She was the strongest, kindest woman I know. And a few years ago, she went to be with her God.
Her weary body was but a vessel. Her work on this earth lives on. Her legacy is a lesson in resilience, grit and the power of love. With those qualities and a little bit of faith – the size of a mustard seed – we can move mountains.
The data points I called out earlier touched on three major issues – let’s call them mountains – that we need to move significantly over the next decade: housing, education, and the long arc of opportunity for all people. While there are many other pressing issues we must address to make our society more welcoming and more equitable, these three are priorities for our communities.
While there are many good efforts happening across governments and social service agencies, affordable housing, housing options for the homeless, and housing first models have not become priorities for local government or private enterprise. At present moment, affordable housing is the “feel good,” charity topic at cocktail parties among influential and affluent individuals who actually have the ability to impact policy and direct resources.
We do not have enough affordable housing options for the elderly on fixed incomes. We do not have enough affordable housing options for low-income individuals suffocating under the chokehold of poverty and social vulnerability. We do not have enough affordable housing options for new college graduates, saddled with debt, seeking to start their careers in our growing city. We do not have enough affordable housing options for individuals suffering with mental illness. This particular demographic will be further impacted given the complete breakdown of our Medicaid system here in Iowa. And where housing does exists, the barriers to entry are often so high, only a small slice of our population can actually qualify.
Safe, affordable housing options are the literal foundation of welcoming neighborhoods. When people live in places they can be proud of, places that afford their inhabitants dignity, the fabric of society grows a little stronger. We rid ourselves of the emotional hardship that builds after having to come home day after day, to a place that is rundown, unsafe, and expensive. A renewed commitment to better housing, means cities and county government working together with private enterprise to do everything possible to ensure that our people will always have access to a good place to lay their head at night and to raise their families.
This same coalition must work together to implement a comprehensive Housing First model for individuals on the brink. If we are to consider ourselves a good and decent people, that means whenever we can help a struggling family get into housing to avoid going to an emergency shelter, there should be no more questions. There should be no litmus test. We must be our brother’s keeper. We must provide housing first, period.
It has been said before and for good measure, that education is the great equalizer. Our educators have a critical mission: train up the next generation of leaders and inspire a deep hunger for truth in our students. They must help unleash their curiosity, while nurturing their tender hearts to pursue their own dreams. As we pursue educational excellence, we must be aware of the challenges. Research over the decades has shown many inequities and disparities in education outcomes among certain populations.
A recent national survey in America found that over 70% of public school students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were either African American or Hispanic. And while this data is staggering, the disproportionate discipline of minority students begins even earlier in their academic careers. In 2014 the U.S. Department of Education found that although African American students made up under 18% of the total preschool student population, they accounted for 48% of students receiving one or more suspensions. These disparities suggest a great need for implicit bias training for our educators, and more educational supports for vulnerable student populations, which of course means our legislators should stop harming our teachers and students, and begin supporting them with the required investment it takes for our students to be the best they can be, so that we may win the future.
The Arc of Opportunity
As income inequality continues to explode, life for the middle class American has become a minefield, while life for those aspiring to the middle class has become a Sisyphean nightmare. Consider this, the vast majority of Americans will likely soon experience the devastating blows of a government sanctioned systematic transfer of wealth from middle-income earners to the richest Americans. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center found that recent tax proposals in Congress would hand the top 1% of taxpayers 99.6% of the available tax cuts by the year 2025, costing the federal government between $2.5 and $3.1 trillion. It is bad enough that the middle class is shrinking. Even worse it is by design. It comes as no surprise that in terms of income inequality, America has managed to become the most unequal of all Western nations. America has achieved this status while simultaneously beating out every other country in the world for the number of millionaires living within our borders, with five times as many as the next closest country.
At the local level, as we seek growth here in Linn County, we must ensure that the opportunity for growth and prosperity is afforded to all people. This is not only a moral imperative, but there is a compelling economic argument that might persuade my friends with more conservative beliefs. And that is this: if we measure our growth solely in terms of rising corporate revenues, while discounting stagnant wages and purchasing power of the dollar, then we will create a hyper-local bubble. Our economy will flash with red hot energy. Those at the top will do very well. But if it is the case that our workers and middle income earners cannot afford to purchase the goods and services they produce, the structural integrity of the market will be compromised.
If we rest our hopes on a few big mega corporations to buttress our economy, while discounting local businesses and training programs to develop workers for skilled trades and advanced manufacturing, our market is put at risk if one of those mega corporations decides to move to another city; or a casino proposal gets rejected. When it comes to building a sustainable economy, we must take the long view. We must bet on our people, our workers, who are the lifeblood of enterprise.
It is the role of government to ensure livable wages. It is the role of government to ensure workplace safety and fair labor standards. It is the role of government to use fairness and decency as guiding principles to outline regulations so that the free hand of the market can work its magic and reward those who play fair and work hard. All of this and more is what will help create a better society.
Taken together, these efforts comprise a Prosperity Agenda – a new path forward for our community. This Agenda can only work if it is the will of the people. There must be a public demand for a better society. We’re not going to get this done with clever Facebook statuses, or filtered photos on Instagram. Documenting our demands is one thing, but organizing for action is another. Nothing I’ve said today should break along partisan lines. Everything I’ve mentioned today, can be endorsed by all religions. In fact, I’m confident this plan would win the endorsement of God herself and other famous liberals of the divine variety.
In the end, we know that the arc of history is long. We know that it bends towards justice. But we most also know that bending that arc takes hard work and it takes time. My hope for you all this evening is that you commit yourselves to the long haul course of a more just and equitable society. This is not about tomorrow’s headlines. This is about future generations. You are the choir and I’m preaching right now, but it’s the world outside of these four walls that needs this message. They need our optimism and our vision. They need a Prosperity Agenda that will offer new hope and opportunity. This is my supplication.
May God Bless you all, now and forever more.
 Sorensen, Theodore C. “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.” Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, Harper Perennial, 2009, p. 166.
 United Way of East Central Iowa. Cedar Rapids Neighborhood Comparisons. 2015, Cedar Rapids Neighborhood Comparisons.
 Joshua 1:9 Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version.
 Lewin, Tamar. “Black Students Face More Harsh Discipline, Data Shows.” The New York Times, 6 Mar. 2012
 Canty-Barnes, Esther. “Racial Inequality Starts in Preschool.” New Republic, 14 July 2016.
 Nunns, Jim, et al. “An Analysis of the House GOP Tax Plan.” Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute & Brookings Institute, 16 Sept. 2016
 Anthony Shorrocks, et al. Global Wealth Report 2016. Credit Suisse, Nov. 2016