Several weeks ago, Governor Kasich of Ohio received a great deal of national attention for going against the wishes of the GOP-dominated legislature and agreeing to accept Federal funding to expand Medicaid.
In an interview with the New York Times, Kasich defended his position in remarkably progressive terms: “’I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor. That if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy.’” In that interview, he even went so far as to summon the ghost of Franklin D. Roosevelt, asserting, “’The very people who complain ought to ask their grandparents if they worked at the WPA.’”
Understandably, the media attention to these remarks was intense. But, very inexplicably, very few commentators in the “mainstream” media viewed the comments with any skepticism. The emphasis was generally on the unexpectedly bipartisan gesture from a very Right-wing governor and on the unexpectedly compassionate tone that Kasich had taken. Most commentators seem to have taken the position that it would amount to a cheap shot if they were to highlight all of the ways in which Governor Kasich’s policies have been anything but helpful to the poor and in particular the working poor.
I don’t regard citing someone’s recent record as a cheap shot. So, let me provide just three examples.
First, when Governor Kasich took office, the Ohio minimum wage was 15 cents higher than the national minimum wage. In 2006, an amendment to the state constitution providing a formula for increasing the minimum wage at regular intervals had been approved by referendum. In Kasich’s first budget, language was inserted that would circumvent the constitutional amendment and roll back the minimum wage o the federal level for most Ohio workers receiving it. Given that the difference was just 15 cents per hour, which over a 40 hour work week would amount to an additional $6.00 in a worker’s pocket, the legislative attention to this “issue” seemed incredibly ideological, not to mention mean-spirited.
Second, that same budget eliminated inheritance taxes and reduced corporate taxes and income taxes on the most affluent Ohioans. All of these measures have contributed very directly to increasing income inequality in the state. Consider the following from a 2012 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:
“Since the 1970s, the poorest 20 percent saw no change in real income, the middle 20 percent gained 21.1 percent, the top 20 percent gained 50.6 percent and the top 5 percent gained 85.1 percent.
“In terms of real dollars, low-income and middle-income Ohioans have actually seen their income drop since the 1990s. The drop caused a “lost decade” for Ohio’s lower and middle classes, according to the report. The bottom 20 percent saw a 6.9 percent drop in real income from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, while the middle 20 percent saw a 2.9 percent drop. Real incomes for the top 20 percent and top 5 percent remained the same.”
Third, Senate Bill 5, the union-busting bill that was rammed through the legislature and then repealed by referendum, was rationalized in virulent attacks on the state’s public employees, who were characterized as parasites sucking the lifeblood from the state’s economic potential. Despite the repeal of Senate bill 5, the two biennial budgets signed by Governor Kasich not only have drastically reduced the tax burdens on the most affluent Ohioans, they have also dramatically reduced the funding to K-12 education (by almost one-fifth) and to county and municipal governments (by three-quarters). These reductions seem primarily intended to reduce the strength of the OEA, OFT, and AFSCME, the three largest public-employee unions in Ohio.
Ironically, anyone who went to the rallies against Senate Bill 5 had the opportunity to meet a surprisingly large number of public employees who are anything but overpaid. In fact, I met a number of state employees who are so poorly paid that they are receiving food stamps and other forms of federal and state assistance. Indeed, if one looks at the most salient abuses of compensation, benefits, and pensions among public employees, in Ohio and elsewhere, they almost always involve individuals at the upper administrative levels—people who are very often political appointees, rather than longtime civil servants.
But the news commentators who were so taken by Governor Kasich’s spirited defense of the poor did not even have to investigate the “historical” record of his administration in order to frame that rhetoric more meaningfully.
For, in the same week in which Governor Kasich harkened back to the New Deal, he signed a bill that, in effect, has made 130,000 poor Ohioans ineligible for further food-stamp benefits. The bill ties eligibility for food stamps to employment or job-training, but the state’s own employment and job-training service centers have reported that they are already having difficulty finding placements for existing clients and that they cannot possibly find placements for an additional 130,000 people.
I suspect that at least some of those 130,000 people might benefit from some sort of WPA-style job-creation effort in Ohio. But the only public-works jobs that have recently been created in the state were the result of President Obama’s stimulus bill, of which Governor Kasich has been a harsh critic. The Governor’s alternative, JobsOhio, a “privatized” economic development agency, has thus far invested tens of millions of dollars in corporations, with very meager increases in employment to show for that investment–certainly nothing at all approaching 130,000 jobs.