On January 16, I heard Gov. Mike Parson’s first State of the State address, and I had a conversation with a fast food restaurant cashier. What they had to say can tell us a lot about the importance of dreams – and of facing reality.
Empower Missouri advocates can be encouraged by a number of things in Gov. Parson’s speech:
1 ) The Governor’s embrace of criminal justice reform, one of our two 2019 priorities. These lines from his speech especially stood out:
“As a former sheriff and law enforcement officer for over 22 years, I understand, firsthand, the importance of reentry programs and alternative sentencing. We need to be more efficient in these programs so we truly offer a second chance, AND, as Governor, I am NOT interested in building more prisons.”
2 ) Gov. Parson’s determination to stop kicking the can down the road on big problems that Missouri has long faced – like adequate investment in workforce development and infrastructure (including broadband access). The majority of the governor’s speech focused on this, and it had a decidedly “It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee” tone. As one who has watched Missouri government carefully since 1992, I agree whole-heartedly that we need to stop dickering over wedge issues that are honestly just about gaining partisan advantage and tackle the real structural issues that have long held our state back.
3 ) The invitation to work together, regardless of party identification to solve Missouri’s problems. Gov. Parson said “If it is to be, it is up to US!” – regarding whether “the American dream is to live on.”
The American dream is about getting ahead by working hard and about each generation doing better than the last generation. That is where my conversation with the fast food cashier comes in. And her story touches on our other 2019 priority: creating and protecting an effective safety net.
It would be great if Gov. Parson’s dream of workforce development means that this woman, I’ll call her Anna, gets some training at a community college that prepares her for the high demand and high wage jobs of the future that the Governor is particularly interested in seeing Missourians access. But that’s not where Anna is today.
As I paid for my dinner, Anna and I chatted about the bad news in the weather report, that there may be more freezing rain and snow and colder temperatures ahead. Anna said, “Don’t I know it?! My power got turned off today, and I have a five-year-old.” (The Missouri “Cold Weather Rule” says that utilities can be disconnected for overdue payments on days when it is over 30 degrees, but we certainly all know that many times a 10 degree day follows one that is much warmer.)
I wish for Anna to have the luxury of time and resources to get more education or training, for the gap between the minimum wage and a living wage to be much smaller. (Our Proposition B vote in November moves us that direction, but does not fully close that gap.) I believe that Anna deserves human dignity right now; it should not be deferred until her income reaches the true cost of living. As long as there are jobs that need to be done that do not pay enough to secure adequate food, shelter, utilities, child care, health care, transportation, and other necessities, we, as a society, must maintain an adequate safety net, giving stability and respect to families with low incomes.
As we advocate in the 2019 Legislative Session, let us hold tightly to our dreams, but keep our dreams informed by reality. There are hundreds of thousands of Anna’s in Missouri. They work hard, but they cannot depend on having food and shelter, heat and lights, with their current wages. They are our neighbors. In the faith traditions that many of us hold, they are our kin. It is in our interest for these families to do well. Our futures are inextricably linked. Let us be open our hands and our hearts to them and shape public policy that gives them the dignity of access to basic human needs.
In solidarity as we move toward justice,
Jeanette Mott Oxford,