It’s very hard to feel good about any part of American politics today, I realize. When it isn’t a circus starring Roseanne Barr or Dinesh D’Souza, it’s a nightmare, with President Donald Trump separating immigrant families, obstructing justice and damaging American interests abroad. I never expected to live through so dark of a period in Washington.
Outside Washington, however, the picture really is different. In many cities and states, people aren’t only trying to minimize Trump’s damage. They’re actively using politics to improve lives.
Last week brought two big pieces of news that were obscured by the Trumpian circus. And both are parts of larger trends – ways that the political system is responding to public opinion and addressing the stagnation in American living standards over the past generation.
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First, Chicago announced that it would make prekindergarten universal. By 2021, the city’s 4-year-olds will be able to go to school full time. The pre-K classes will have a staff-to-student ratio of 10:1, as experts recommend.
Many economists believe that good preschool programs are the single most effective way to lift living standards. Research by Dartmouth’s Elizabeth Cascio has found that universal pre-K – while more expensive than targeted, income-based programs – particularly helps poor children. They benefit from being in a diverse classroom.
Of course, pre-K also helps parents with child care. “If you’re working class, your kids are getting the shaft,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who taught preschool in his 20s, told me. “You’re basically put in the position of choosing between being a good employee and a good parent.”
Best of all, Chicago fits a national pattern, and a bipartisan one. Other cities and states – Baltimore, Memphis and New York; Florida, Vermont and West Virginia – have also expanded pre-K. Nationally, about 33 percent of 4-year-olds were in state-funded pre-K last year, with another 11 percent in other public programs. Yes, the progress is too slow and the quality of programs still uneven. But the progress is real.
Last week’s other good news came from Virginia, which became the 33rd state to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. And no expansion state has later reversed course. Just as the United States is moving toward a school system that starts at age 4, it is moving – at long last – toward universal health coverage. “To have individuals that are one illness away from financial demise,” Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatric neurologist, told me, “is something I find unacceptable.” About 400,000 more Virginians will now have insurance.
The move is a huge victory for the Trump resistance. Its energy led to big gains for Democrats in Virginia’s elections last year, which both provided more Democratic votes for Medicaid expansion – and scared some Republicans into supporting an extremely popular policy.
I think that Chicago and Virginia, together, point to the right strategy for using government for good right now. In some areas, like education, Democrats and Republicans can largely ignore Trump and work together to make progress.
In other areas, Democrats need to take a tougher line. They should keep explaining the damage that Republican policies would do. If Republicans keep Congress, for example, they will likely try once again to take health insurance away from millions of Americans.
During my conversation with Northam, I told him that I was writing about both health care and education and wanted to ask him about health care. But he insisted on talking about education first. He told me that before his term was over, he wanted to make pre-K universal in Virginia. Even in the Trump era, progress is possible.