The Maine Democratic Party will hold caucuses this Sunday, March 6. Bangor’s Democrats will gather at Bangor High School, on outer Broadway, on a day the public buses aren’t running.
Both the location and the date discourage those of us who don’t own cars from participating. How this may skew the vote remains to be seen.
I’ll get there, though, because I have a favor to return. Let me explain.
In 1992, I was living in southern California, a single father with two young children, working two low-paying jobs and taking classes part-time at San Diego State. I was just barely scraping by in the Reagan-Bush trickle-down economy. Many months I had to come up with a song and dance for the landlord about why the rent was late, and when I was likely to get caught up. Health insurance? Forget it. I got my kids on Medi-Cal, the state program for low-income children, but any of my own medical needs came out of my pocket. I didn’t see a dentist for years. When the car broke down, I walked and used public transportation until I could afford the garage bill.
I did qualify for the Earned Income Credit, which meant that I got a refund check of around $300 from the IRS in the spring. It helped, but not much. It was usually gone by the first of the following month when I paid bills.
In 1992, a whole bunch of Democrats were jockeying to run against the incumbent, George H.W. Bush. My candidate was Jerry Brown, the once and future governor of California. I didn’t know much about Bill Clinton, the Arkansas governor. But he was a fresh face and I liked his smart, politically savvy wife, and he seemed like a more hopeful choice than either Bush the First or H. Ross Perot.
So I did my civic duty and cast my vote, not expecting much. Presidential politics, for all its sound and fury, affects me mostly in the abstract. The Bangor City Council has more impact on my day-to-day life than the presidency. (Case in point: Obama’s stimulus bought a few new Community Connector buses, but local government sets the routes and schedules.) I’m not a good political activist. The process of politics leaves me cold. Life goes on, with all its ups and downs, no matter who sits in the White House.
Bill Clinton proved to be the exception.
When things were at their darkest, when I faced the real prospect of being evicted from the tiny two-bedroom house I shared with my children, when my two crappy jobs couldn’t keep me afloat and I couldn’t find another one, Bill Clinton saved my bacon. I filed my tax return for my pathetic little income, expecting to receive my pathetic little refund of around three hundred bucks. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I now qualified for a refund of just under $3,000.
With little fanfare, Clinton had pushed through an expansion of the Earned Income Credit, established under President Gerald Ford in 1975 and updated under Ronald Reagan in 1986. The credit provides tax relief to low-income working parents.
It meant the world to me. Over the next few years, that small amount of extra income made the difference between destitution and merely living on a tight budget. One year I used it to buy a car. Another year I used it to travel Back East to see my family, including my dying grandfather. I laid the groundwork for returning to Maine, finishing my education, and finding better-paying work. I now send the IRS a check at tax time, and have the luxury of grumbling about it.
I have seen a lot of presidents come and go. I’ve liked some more than others. But Bill Clinton is the only one of them whose policies had a direct and positive effect on my life. I’ll never forget it.
And that’s how you stimulate an economy – not by giving more money to people who already have it. Every business at which I spent a portion of my tax refund benefitted. Multiply me by millions of other struggling parents, and you can see why the economy boomed under Bill Clinton’s stewardship. And I can understand why people loved Franklin Delano Roosevelt and hung his picture in their living rooms. They felt that he helped them personally, at a time of great need.
A change in the tax code may seem like a prosaic thing. It doesn’t have the romantic cachet of “Yes We Can” or “Feel the Bern.” But it made a real, lasting difference in my life, and the least I can do is be grateful.