Who is worthy of federal help? It’s time to ask different questions.

September 7, 2022 8:00 am

The riverfront in downtown Davenport. (Photo courtesy of Ed Tibbetts)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.The debate over President Biden’s college debt forgiveness plan reminds me a bit about the floodwall Davenport never built.

People who live in the Quad-Cities know Davenport has stubbornly gone its own way when it comes to Mississippi River flooding. Even after disastrous floods in 1965 and 1993, the city refused to put in place a structural solution, although it did plenty of other things to limit exposure.

Others went a different way. Bettendorf and Rock Island, for example. They built flood protection systems. Davenport didn’t.

We’ve argued over who made the right decision for years. Usually when it’s raining.

In 2001, Davenport’s choice put it in the national spotlight.

About this column

This column was originally published by Ed Tibbetts’ Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. It is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

Editor’s note: Please consider subscribing to the collaborative and the authors’ blogs to support their work.

When Mississippi River flooding that year made the national news, then-President George W. Bush’s FEMA director, Joe Allbaugh, questioned why the city should get any federal help. “How many times will the American taxpayers have to step in and take care of this flooding, which could be easily prevented by building dikes and levees,” he asked?

The comment didn’t go over well in water-logged Davenport.

The mayor at the time, Phil Yerington, stood up for the city. “We are willing to do our share, but don’t make it sound like we just sit here with water in our shoes and our hand held out for federal money,” he said in the Washington Post.

Both men had a point.

In this country, we recoil at the idea of helping people who won’t help themselves. But we also help those hit by misfortune.

We have a bankruptcy code, after all. Businesses and individuals are eligible to get certain debt discharged or restructured through the courts under the right conditions.

Here in Iowa, we know that well. In the mid-1980s, a specific chapter of the federal bankruptcy code was created to help financially ailing family farmers who Congress thought weren’t adequately covered by current laws.

Debt relief is a tricky political question, and as an economist in this Washington Post story says, it almost always comes down to the question: Who is worthy?

We’re seeing a lot of that now in the student loan debate.

I can understand how somebody with thousands of dollars in medical debt might be angry. Their payments aren’t being forgiven, and their debt often isn’t a choice. And somebody who never went to college might wonder, “where’s mine?”

So, who is worthy?

The answer is hard to separate from our human tendency toward self-interest.

Unfortunately, many of us forget the help we’ve personally received through the government that isn’t available to others, even if it’s not strictly debt forgiveness.

Subsidized mortgages and health insurance are two examples. Renters can’t get that kind of help, and neither can certain people who buy their health insurance through the individual market.

Agriculture is a major contributor to Iowa’s economy, and it’s subsidized by the government.

I don’t get a direct benefit, but I feel the effects as a participant in Iowa’s economy.

The federal tax code also contains tons of special provisions, many of which have indirect benefits for others.

As for student loans, I paid mine off without government help (if you don’t count the fact the loan was federally subsidized in the first place.)

I was lucky. A law in the late 1970s expanded federally subsidized student loans to middle-income families like mine. Before that, student aid was focused on low-income families.

So, am I being disadvantaged by the Biden debt forgiveness plan?

I don’t know. There were a lot of middle-class kids from the ‘60s and ‘70s who didn’t get the subsidy I got when I went to college.

I also know that a college education, even adjusted for inflation, costs a lot more money now than it did in the early ‘80s, when I got my loan, and that student loan debt is currently crushing some families who thought their college degrees would lead to greater prosperity.

Rather like was happening to farmers in the 1980s.

It’s worth noting, too, that in 2005 the bankruptcy code was changed to put up big obstacles to discharging student loan debt.

Questions that don’t divide

So, who is worthy?

Perhaps we should ask a different set of questions. Like, can we afford it? Or is this the best place for limited federal dollars? What societal goal does it further?

With a federal debt topping $30 trillion, Biden’s plan certainly won’t help. But then, neither did past tax cuts and spending that added to the debt – a debt that will largely be the responsibility of younger generations that mostly didn’t create it.

Cost still challenges Iowa college students despite federal debt forgiveness

Incidentally, these are the same people who are getting the most help with Biden’s student debt relief plan. The White House says nearly two-thirds of his plan’s beneficiaries are under the age of 39. (The plan forgives up to $10,000 in debt; $20,000 for lower-income borrowers.)

As for asking whether this serves a greater societal goal, Paul Begala, a former advisor to Bill Clinton, said on CNN that if we wanted to help the poor, these resources would be better invested in free pre-K education.

Unfortunately, rather than weighing priorities, what we are mostly seeing now are a lot of politicians pitting one group against another, fueling a fairly narrow debate over who is worthy and who isn’t.

That just ramps up division and anger, and we’ve got enough of that already.

Anyway, back to Davenport’s floodwall.

Back in 2001, a lot of people, even in Davenport, agreed with Allbaugh. The city didn’t deserve help, they said.

That’s not what happened. Allbaugh ended up coming here to tour flooded areas and he even threw an arm around Yerington in front of the television cameras. And Davenport got federal help.

I don’t know that there’s been a whole lot of change in the federal flood program since. Critics say the government still doesn’t properly price insurance for flood-prone areas. And the number of repetitive loss properties (the ones that receive help multiple times) has grown over the years. This has historically benefitted people in states like Texas and Florida.

The truth is that politicians of all stripes throw federal money and favorable treatment around when they’re in power. And it usually is tilted toward their supporters. Some of it is more defensible than others. Some, not at all.

But to varying degrees, practically all of us benefit.

And we all pay the cost.

Postscript: A journalism milestone

There was a milestone in Quad-City journalism this week. The Tubbs family, owners of three area newspapers, sold them to a Wyoming man named J. Louis “Louie” Mullen.

Mullen already owns newspapers in communities in other states, including Iowa.

The newspapers being sold in this area are: The North Scott Press, The Wilton-Durant Advocate News and The West Liberty Index.

The story was first reported in Wednesday’s North Scott Press.

Bill and Linda Tubbs have spent five decades in journalism in this community, so this is a big change.

In a column in the North Scott Press, Bill Tubbs, the publisher, said they’ve been assured the current staff will be retained, and that he will also continue to be a contributor, including with his “Impressions” column. Linda Tubbs will fully retire, he said.

I’ve read the North Scott Press for 30-plus years, and like a lot of people in Scott County, rural and urban, I have found it to be an important part of my news diet.

I’ve not only read the weekly newspaper, but as a former Quad-City Times reporter, I’ve competed against it, too.

When Scott County was looking for a new landfill site in the early 1990s, a lot of farm land was being considered. It was controversial and there was a lot of tension hanging over the decision. It was a story I covered for months – years, as I recall. And reading the North Scott Press each week was important because its coverage was extensive and comprehensive.

Lately, the newspaper has provided in-depth coverage of a zoning proposal that would make it almost impossible for solar panel farms to be located in Scott County, according to industry officials and solar supporters.

I’ve also regularly looked to Tubbs’s column. At times, it has been personal; at other times, he has been a fierce advocate for open and accessible government, including public records. Always, he has worked to build his community.

I’d guess there will be some changes at the newspaper. As Tubbs said in his column this week, “many things will stay the same, but a new owner inevitably brings fresh ideas and energy.”

There will be a lot of people, in rural and urban Scott County, who will be very interested to see what that looks like.

Ed Tibbetts

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Ed Tibbetts
Ed Tibbetts

Ed Tibbetts, of Davenport, has covered politics, government and trends for more than three decades in the Quad-Cities. A former reporter and editorial page editor for the Quad-City Times, he now is a freelance journalist who publishes the Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. He is a member of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.