Creating Opportunities for Families
A Message from Former Representative Ro Foege and Representative Dave Heaton, Iowa
When Representative Dave Heaton and I graduated from college, we were optimistic. We found jobs and started families. Dave ran a successful restaurant and joined the Army Reserve. I was a social worker. Like many of our peers, we bought homes, fed our families, took sick kids to the doctor, sent them to college and saved for retirement. In short, we thrived—often with one parent working, not two.
Many parents today are not so lucky. They work hard but struggle to provide for their families. Workers today search for jobs in a landscape that has been reshaped by global competition. The stable careers that once propelled many Americans into the middle class have virtually disappeared. People without a college degree or advanced skills training now compete for jobs that pay less and offer fewer, if any, benefits. Opportunities to move up the ladder are scarce.
In short, it is increasingly difficult for parents to buy groceries, visit the doctor, afford a home, save for college and plan for retirement—even when two adults are working. When ends don’t meet, other problems arise. Dead end jobs, taut budgets and tense conversations can wear on even the strongest households. Frustrated parents become discouraged. Persistent financial and emotional troubles rattle families and diminish the odds that children will grow up safe, healthy and educated.
Since 2003, Dave and I, along with several of our colleagues, have participated in a seminar titled "Opportunities for Working Families: A Leadership Forum for State Lawmakers", organized by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). At one of these forums we were asked a simple question: What is the cost of family failure?
Even in Iowa, a state with a relatively small population, billions are spent on remedial services. There has been alarming growth in the human services budget, the state Medicaid program, high school dropout rates, child abuse reports, the foster care system, worker skill shortages, predatory lending debt, substance abuse programs and prison populations.
We can quibble about numbers, but we all see the cost of family failure within our communities. When overburdened families cannot get ahead, parents and kids suffer. When families are not a source of love, encouragement and protection, the individual and social consequences are painful. When families cannot do what they are meant to do—nurture— we all bear the cost.
Our Role as Legislators
Campaigning and lawmaking are two very different tasks. Running for office is predominantly about marketing yourself. Campaign rhetoric over-simplifies issues. Bumper stickers reduce reality to a few small, disingenuous words.
Real issues, as we all know, are sprawling and intractable, and the road to good policy is complicated. After a combined 27 years in the legislature, many of them on the same committee, Dave and I have learned that effective policy comes from selflessness, compromise and cooperation. In Iowa, we say it takes 78 votes to pass a bill—51 representatives, 26 senators and the governor’s signature.
Creating Opportunities for Working Families
Legislators of all types will want to consider the ever-changing world facing their constituents and band together to help families and communities stay strong. Each year since 2003, the NCSL Opportunities Forum has presented new insights to those who are interested in policies that create real solutions for working families.
In 2003, our Iowa team incorporated ideas from the Forum into our state budget. We helped improve the state’s child care system, expand the state’s earned income tax credit (EITC) outreach efforts, and strengthen Individual Development Accounts (IDA).
A subsequent Opportunities Forum prompted a group of Iowa legislators to persuade more lawmakers and community leaders to focus on state policies that empower communities and struggling families. We developed the “Successful Families Caucus,” which grew to more than 60 members, to put aside partisanship and support a legislative agenda focused on preventing family failure.
The mission was simple: Find creative solutions and expand the ones that work! Both Republicans and Democrats participated, as did members from various committees, such as economic development, justice systems, education, commerce, ways and means and appropriations.
The Caucus worked successfully to raise the state minimum wage, increase the state earned income tax credit and funding for child care assistance, expand entrepreneurship programs for rural communities, ban predatory car loans, and introduce financial literacy legislation.
A Common Belief in Common Sense
Many of these efforts might seem small and unrelated. But together these initiatives embody ideals shared by people across the political spectrum.
We believe that responsible individuals build strong families, and that strong families build healthy communities. We also believe that conscientious government helps these three elements of our society—individuals, families and communities—flourish.
By implementing incentives that reward hard work and responsibility, such as the earned income tax credit and individual development accounts, we can encourage behavior that leads to individual growth, upwardly mobile families and prosperous communities. These ideas also illustrate a certain way of governing that focuses on practical problems and searches for solutions from both sides of the aisle.
This isn’t so much about shrewd bipartisan politics as it is about policy that relies on the wisdom of compromise. We don’t believe either party has a monopoly on good ideas. Lasting solutions tend to be pragmatic ones that mold different points of view into a coherent, common sense approach.
Ours is a cynical age of partisan feuds, of political gamesmanship that leaves us embittered and distracted. In such an environment, we hope our sentiments do not sound like naïve hopes and hollow platitudes. We believe, rather, that they lead to the road less taken, a path away from gridlock and rancor–a path that leads to more amicable, productive sessions and smarter, more efficient legislation.
Representative Ro Foege represented Iowa’s 29th Legislative District from 1996 to 2008. Representative Dave Heaton has represented Iowa’s 91st District since 1995. While serving in the legislature, Representatives Foege and Heaton worked on numerous measures designed to increase opportunities for low-income Iowa families.