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Harkin, Braley call for federal investments for middle class

CEDAR RAPIDS — There was a lot to take in.

On the far end of the table David Nelson, a junior at Wartburg College, described how the cost of a college education has left many students wondering if the investment is actually worth it. At the other end Steve Ovel, executive director of government relations at Kirkwood Community College, discussed how a state with a relatively stagnant population will need to adapt to the challenges of baby boomers exiting from the workforce. Near Ovel, Kirkwood nursing student and mom of four, Lindie Hunter of Anamosa laid out the challenges facing single mothers and people of meager means as they work to better their situations.

Around the table men and women from nearly all walks of life provided suggestions and recommendations to U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin and U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley about how the government could develop policies that would protect and enhance America’s middle class.

Image has not been found. URL: http://media.iowaindependent.com/braley_harkin_cr_500.jpg U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley and U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin hosted a roundtable discussion at The Arc of East Central Iowa where they heard suggestions and testimony on what can needs to be done to help expand and protect the middle class. (Photo: Lynda Waddington/The Iowa Independent)

The roundtable discussion was an event that was wanted by Braley, who re-activated the House Populist Caucus, and Harkin, who leads the influential Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and has held a series of hearings on the plight of the middle class. Such large amounts of information and suggestions, they said, are not only typical of such events, but help them locate and develop policy once they return to Washington.

Finding the most important slivers of information in such a wide selection of viewpoints is done by listening, Braley told The Iowa Independent following the event.

“Unfortunately, in the world that I work in, listening is not as valued of a skill as it should be,” he said. “For example, if you had not come to this meeting, you would not have heard the inspirational story from the two women who spoke at the beginning. I deliberately read back Lindie’s comments as part of my concluding remarks because that was the whole focus of why we were here.”

Hunter, the mom and nursing student, not only gave voice to the challenges she and others face, but stated simply, “Give us the skills to make it on our own.” Her family receives subsidies through the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program — child care, food and school supplies — that she says make it possible for her to continue her education and imagine a brighter future for her family.

“People aren’t looking for a hand-out,” Braley continued, “but they are looking for a hand-up.”

Harkin agrees, and said that providing opportunities for people to move into the middle class is not only important for the betterment of the individuals, but for American society and the economy as a whole.

“There is no sliver bullet when rebuilding the middle class,but it does involve education. It does involve better coordination between community colleges and high schools to prepare students for jobs that may not need four-year colleges,” Harkin told The Iowa Independent before leaving Cedar Rapids. “We need better tax policies to promote innovation and entrepreneurship in America. We need better trade policies that tend to keep our jobs here and tend to be fair trade instead of free trade. And we need a better tax policy to promote job training programs for those jobs of the future.”

All of these things, he said, go together to create the type of atmosphere that lifts individuals up and sparks the American economy — they were all also topics of conversation at The Arc of East Central Iowa during the roundtable discussion.

“When you participate in this type of discussion, which brings together such a cross-section of industry and thought, you see that there are still a lot of unanswered questions on how we invest in innovation, what is the best way to direct resources toward education,” said Ben Rogers, chairman of the Linn County Board of Supervisors and a participant in the roundtable. “For some it makes sense to be involved in manufacturing, for others their future is connected to college. So, how do we take those different philosophies and really apply that to innovation and the new type of manufacturing that will help promote job growth and creation?”

Prior to entering the building for the group discussion, Harkin and Braley stood outside the facility and called for more federal investment to put Americans to work. Motioning toward the ongoing construction of a new federal building in Cedar Rapids, Harkin noted that such projects “will keep hundreds of people employed for many, many months.”

During the course of his congressional hearings and during his travels here in Iowa, Harkin added that he hears from “hard working, middle class families who feel the American dream is slipping away” or is no longer within their reach. “We will not have economic recovery in America unless and until we rebuild the middle class,” Harkin said.

The federal representatives want to see a revitalization of American manufacturing and a revamp of the American tax code so that members of the lower classes don’t disproportionately pay more.

“The policies that we’ve been following lately have not only not favored the middle class, they’ve placed a bigger share of our national burden on the middle class,” Braley said.

Harkin added, “The top 20 percent has gone up by 81 percent — 81 percent. And yet what we have done during that period of time is we have cut their tax rates down, down, down.”

Both believe that revenue increases must go hand-in-hand with spending cuts in order for the nation to successfully pull through its ongoing recession, and they vowed to fight for such a policy.

“Every single, major deficit reduction effort in the past 40 years, whether it was a Democratic or Republican president, included not just spending cuts, but revenue enhancements,” Braley said.

Harkin added that “even Ronald Reagan had revenue enhancements.”

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