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Leota Ester: Appleton must address challenges

5:29 PM, Mar. 12, 2013  |  Comments

It's hard to leave Appleton. Forty years are a lot of years. Our family came in 1972 with my husband, Lee, as public relations director for Lawrence. I, a former teacher, left teaching to become a recruiter. Now, after 40 years and a full life in an amazing community, I go to live near a daughter in Evanston, Ill.

What was life like in Appleton 40 years ago?

Work was available, first of all. We earned enough to buy a three-bedroom ranch home, feed our children, shop at Sears and J.C. Penney's, attend West High plays and band concerts, watch school track meets and occasionally go to concerts.

VIDEO: HOMELESSNESS IN THE FOX CITIES

For many of the 40 years, paper mills provided work, decent salaries for their employees and good pensions for their retirees. The economy surrounding the paper mills, now fading away, meant families could paint their houses, keep their neighborhoods clean and safe, buy food and clothing for the kids and send their children to good schools that educated today's leaders.

The living wages paid by the Fox Valley's industries over the past 40 years were good for the community at large. Folks ate at local restaurants, bought clothes downtown, then at the Mall, worked at printing shops, became tool and die workers, played together, met at bars and felt safe and comfortable.

All this has been good. But there's a cloud over the town today despite our goodness and generosity, high standards of behavior, church-going and support of education. It's a sneaky cloud, one we might choose to ignore, disbelieve or do nothing about.

The Leading Indicators for Excellence (LIFE) study calls on the community to be aware of and concerned for large numbers of children in our community who are homeless and hungry. Too many of our children live in a family whose total income is below the poverty line or suffers from food insecurity. Working folks with low wages can't afford sufficient housing, food, health and transportation.

It's almost impossible for those of us here 40, or fewer, years to believe that working families often don't earn enough in Appleton and surrounding areas to provide shelter and food for their kids. Sadly, the study shows that it's true.

We feel like blaming those families for their situation without considering that one of the biggest differences in 40 years is that the money is redistributed differently now. Wages for the working people, including many middle-class workers, have remained stagnant as costs have continued to rise, while the income of the top few, the wealthy, has skyrocketed. The pay of executives has often increased substantially and returns to investors have been strong, at a cost to the lives of the workers whose pay and benefits have diminished as they have made their companies grow.

Large companies, with clout of size and money, influence our congressional leaders. Our nation's leaders have allowed tax loopholes, provided subsidies and arranged tax payments so corporations receive huge entitlements from our tax dollars.

While news sources sometime make it seem that all entitlements are in the form of Medicare and benefits such as food stamps, WIC programs and school lunches, much of your and my tax money subsidizes corporations and the already-wealthy. These aren't demonized as "entitlements," but they are - every bit as much as food stamps. Subsidizing corporate jets at the expense of people who are working multiple jobs to feed and clothe their families can't be right. The disparity between the wealthy and those who weren't so wealthy didn't seem nearly as great 40 years ago.

In Wisconsin, a careful look at how our tax money is spent would show that many of our governor's programs benefit owners of companies rather than ordinary people. Historically, it wasn't so.

The time has come to stop listening to the politicians who get elected by crying, "No tax increase." Taxes pay for our communal needs: streets, police, schools, clean water, landfills, libraries, swimming pools, education, etc. Taxes make these possible. The working person pays according to his or her earnings; the wealthy should do likewise.

It needn't take another 40 years to return to an economic and taxation system that encourages good wages, good retirement plans and respect for those who work. Our country has the wherewithal and the brilliance to make sure that all our children have enough nourishment and sufficient education become its planners, researchers, inventors, soldiers and teachers. It takes communal will on everyone's part to insist that our political leaders care more for the good of their constituents than those who wield power with money.

Charity, church by church, cannot meet the task. Charity now meets less than 10 percent of the hunger needs. The rest comes from our government, which now proposes cuts. We must protest.

Evidenced by the LIFE study, we do care about one another. By caring for one another, we provide ourselves with the security many of us seek by hiding and withdrawing into ourselves, denying our community needs.

Pay taxes, work for higher pay initiatives, keep the arts alive, support the public school system, write your congressmen to insist they develop a system that means no child has to be hungry, know that goodwill and shared problems make for a stronger community and country.

My heart will always remain with this glorious town. If you wonder, Larry at the P-C is letting me finish my year of columns from a distance. My love to you all.

- Leota Ester is an Appleton resident and a Post-Crescent Community Columnist. She can be reached at pcletters@postcrescent.com

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