Friday, August 7, 2020


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    A memo to statue topplers

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    By Lew Hinchman

    In recent weeks protesters have devoted a lot of energy to toppling allegedly racist statues. There must be some psychological satisfaction in ridding your local park of Stonewall Jackson or Robert E. Lee.

    A memorial to confederate war dead in Lewisburg, West Virginia
    This memorial to Confederate war dead is in Lewisburg, West Virginia. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/John RWV

    But there are also downsides. First, removing a statue changes nothing in the real, material circumstances of millions of Americans.

    Second, people have only so much energy and political capital available to reform this country. If they expend most of it on statue-toppling, how much will be left for more meaningful projects? Finally, battles over statues antagonize citizens who otherwise might be sympathetic to the cause of improving the lives of Blacks and other minorities, especially when the targets are revered figures like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

    If we really care about the persistence of racism in America, let’s deal with its most damaging consequence: poverty, especially among innocent children, and “precariousness,” the reality of being one bad break away from utter destitution. We all know the depressing statistics: Black and Hispanic- and Latino-Americans are much more likely to suffer from poverty, ill-health, pollution, lousy education, and substandard housing than the general population. And they have almost no savings in the bank when a disaster strikes. Those disadvantages are deeply rooted in history and will not just disappear of their own accord. We must make real reforms to turn things around.

    I suggest the following four: First, a so-called “family allowance,” such as Canada, Germany, Great Britain and other advanced societies have. All parents, whether rich or poor, would receive around $2,700 a year for each child in the family. To wealthy parents that would be fairly insignificant, but to poor ones it would mean food on the table, this month’s rent paid, and clothes for the kids.

    Second, we should provide a “nest egg” for every child in America: a fund, invested wisely and topped up every year, that would amount to about $50,000 by the time a child reaches age 18. Then he or she can use it to pay for college, start a business, make a down payment on a house, or learn a trade. Here again, the benefit would go to every child regardless of race or ethnicity.

    Third, we should de-couple health insurance from work by providing a basic Medicare-like plan for everyone, while encouraging them to take out supplementary insurance to fill the gaps. The pandemic has taught us that job-based health insurance fails millions just when they need it most, since they lose insurance when they get laid off.

    Finally, we need to invest far more in affordable housing than we do now. We face a true epidemic of homelessness − not just (as the stereotype suggests) grizzled substance-abusers sleeping under freeways, but millions living in temporary shelters, cars, or sleeping on a friend’s couch. This will be the most complex part of the puzzle and cannot be unraveled in this letter. But the overall point is this: if we did all of these four things, we would do 1,000 times more to improve the lives of all poor and near-poor Americans than all the statue-toppling in the world.

    But it will take long, exacting work to convince legislators, fight off lobbyists, and build coalitions; not a cheap thrill like smashing Lee and Jackson statutes, but far more effective.

    Hinchman writes from Moab.

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