Our legislators do nothing as people go uninsured, roads crumble, and tuition soars

Jul 12, 2013

For years, I’ve been struck by something John F. Kennedy used to say when he was running for president: “The immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales.

“Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.“ In fact, JFK was actually quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Well, times have certainly changed.

...if you aren't outraged and worried, you either have a heart of stone or you aren't paying attention.

Today, we seem to have a government frozen and paralyzed in the ice of ideological divide, at both federal and state levels. And if you aren’t outraged and worried, you either have a heart of stone or you aren’t paying attention.

This is especially noticeable in Michigan, which has long been sort of a canary in the coal mine for just about every unfavorable trend.

For months now, the governor has tried to get the Legislature to accept an expansion of Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of those without health insurance -- something that would cost the state less than nothing, when the benefits are taken into account.

He seems to be getting nowhere.

He is doing even less well with a proposal to appropriate more than a billion dollars a year to fix our state’s crumbling roads and bridges. For years, transportation needs were one of the few expenses Republican lawmakers were traditionally willing to support.

Nobody doubts the roads need fixing. Nor is there any doubt that it will cost us more the longer we wait. Yet the Legislature is totally unwilling to address the problem.

The latest outrage has to do with college affordability.

Nearly ten years ago, Lt. Governor John Cherry presided over a high-level commission that concluded our state badly needed to double the number of college graduates within a decade. That is, if we wanted to keep Michigan competitive.

Since then, we’ve done everything we can to make college LESS affordable.

When I was young, this state and nation thought it was in our best interests to try to help young people have a shot at a decent future. Now, we seem determined to prevent them from doing so.

Just as the last of the well-paying jobs for unskilled labor are vanishing, we are making it harder than ever for anyone to afford college.

The interest rate on subsidized student loans just doubled, from 3.4% to 6.8%.

There are various efforts in Congress to bring that down, but as of now, none of them are getting anywhere. Meanwhile, tuition is soaring, rising most of all this year at Wayne State University, where many students can least afford it.

Wayne is now asking students to pay $11,000 a year in tuition alone.

According to a new report in today’s Detroit Free Press, full-time freshmen at 19 Michigan colleges are more likely to default on a student loan than they are to graduate.

In fact, the only area in which Michigan is an education leader is in filing federal lawsuits against those behind in their payments on student loans.

Something is very wrong here.

When I was young, this state and nation thought it was in our best interests to try to help young people have a shot at a decent future. Now, we seem determined to prevent them from doing so. You might, sometime this weekend, ask yourself why.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.