(Part 2 of a report on former Congressman Dave Obey’s commencement address at UW-Stevens Point)
Former U.S. Congressman Dave Obey fired up most of the morning commencement crowd at UW-Stevens Point’s May 16 ceremonies, although there was a more muted response during the afternoon ceremony and at least a few folks who apparently did not look kindly on Obey’s criticism of our approach to education, social responsibility and politics (see yesterday’s post for more).
Word is that a very small number of individuals walked out on the speech by Obey, a Democrat from Wausau who served 42 years in the House of Representatives. It’s easy for many of us to find this ironic, but few of us are any longer surprised by folks who avoid confronting unpleasant truths about social responsibility even while they’re at a celebration of the good that comes from that very thing.
But Obey was reminding us all of a particularly hurtful truth: how easily we have turned our backs on supporting education.
He noted that when he began his freshman year at UW-Marathon County in 1956, his tuition was $90 a semester and that Wisconsinites took government funding for granted. “There was an understanding in this state that 80 percent of the cost of an undergraduate education would be paid for by the state,” he said.
The proportion paid by undergraduates will have flipped completely if Gov. Scott Walker’s budget goes through as it currently is proposed, with students paying 80 percent of their cost, up from about 70 percent now, Obey said.
That’s a dangerous circumstance, Obey said, because data clearly show that students in the middle two quartiles and especially the lowest quartile of economic standing have dramatically reduced chances of graduating with a college degree, even if those students are in the top quartile of their class academic performance in the eighth grade.
Obey decried shrinking support for the federal Pell Grant program; decreases in funding for scientific, medical, health and other research; decreased federal education funding in general; and, of course, the massive budget cuts to the UW-System that are expected to become reality within weeks.
Obey said these things are happening at the same time that the U.S. income gap has increased to pre-Great Depression levels. Simultaneously, he noted, decreased social support of all types leaves more people vulnerable as we undo decades of government action that took increasing responsibility for a social and economic safety net.
He then contrasted two sides of the income gap, noting that the daily take-home pay of one particular U.S. television executive is approximately $160,000 a day, or more than $1 million a week. He then detailed the plight of a disabled woman in his former district who has two children, a husband “long gone,” and a government disability check that leaves her with only $206 a month to live on after her mortgage, utilities and car insurance are paid.
“How much greater burden do we expect people like that to bear in this society?” he asked, noting that, as we have done with education and research funding, we have also dramatically decreased food-stamp allotments.
“You graduates need to ask yourself whether these actions are consistent with your interests and your values,” Obey said. “We have become almost a winner take damn-near all society.”