Cindy Axne: The pathway to healing and helping America begins at the kitchen table
In the past year, America has faced overlapping challenges unlike anything we have seen in a century. A public health crisis has taken 100,000 of our friends and neighbors in just the past five weeks. An economic crisis has driven millions out of work and stretched food pantries to their limits. And national upheaval grappled with central threats to our republic — including racial injustice, environmental catastrophe, and fundamental threats to our elections and democracy.
Not since the election of 1932 has our nation observed a transfer of power in the midst of such turmoil, but the work ahead for President Joe Biden, my colleagues and I in Congress, and Iowa’s policymakers — the work necessary to heal and help our nation — is not too colossal to achieve. Real progress can be made — and it starts at your kitchen table.
Whether it’s over the day’s first cup of coffee, or the last bite of reheated dinner after working a double shift, the kitchen table is the primary witness to the concerns of everyday Americans. It feels when plates are empty and bills pile up. It hears the whispers of lost jobs, family illnesses, and the worries about the future. The kitchen table provides us the road map to moving our country forward.
First and foremost, we must redouble our efforts to meet the greatest challenge still facing our state: taking the threat of COVID-19 off the table. That means drastically improving the vaccine production and distribution efforts and reducing disparities in the hardest-hit communities and rural areas. This must be our top priority, because no economic or social repair will last if the threat of this virus continues to loom.
We must also address the economic damage wrought by this public health crisis. The stock market and rebounding employment rates create a mirage of a healthy economy — but there are Iowans forgotten by those numbers. I’ve heard from some of the 130,000 Iowans who have left the labor force entirely (and thus are ignored by common unemployment figures), often because they’ve lost access to child care or have been out of work so long they’ve stopped looking.
I’ve also heard heartbreaking stories from Iowans who are still struggling to keep food on their tables. In the greatest country in the world — even as Washington Republicans expand tax breaks for three-martini lunches while balking at nutrition program spending — hundreds of thousands of Iowa families still have children that go hungry.
Thousands of Iowa’s small businesses are facing the financial pressure to shutter if aid programs don’t extend further into the new year. We should destigmatize public health protocols like face masks to ensure that businesses can keep their doors open and patrons safe — and support the ones who can’t operate in the pandemic.
We also have to look to the long-term health of programs already set up to help Iowa families. The economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and poorly conceived payroll tax deferrals have put the projected insolvency for Social Security within the next decade. Medicare and Medicaid have been targets of cuts for far too long. We need to shield these programs from cutbacks and ensure that the wealthiest earners pay their fair share to keep benefits available for generations to come.
The kitchen table also hosts concerns about structural and existential threats to Iowa families. Some politicians may roll their eyes at the words "climate crisis," but ask any farmer in southwest Iowa whether they spend time worrying about the growing intensity and unpredictability of storms and droughts. Others may reject the existence of "structural racism," but a family who loses a child or a parent because of unnecessary use of force deserves better than closed ranks and no answers.
Finally, we must treat the rot of disinformation that continues to erode the foundations of our democracy. If night after night, Americans sit down at their tables only to hear on repeat that their elections were stolen and that they should take action, how can we expect to maintain the health of our democratic institutions? We need to enable Americans to identify these falsehoods and hold perpetrators responsible for their disinformation as well as the actions they incite.
It also means seriously reflecting on the future of platforms that give widespread untruths the ability to fester.
Our goal for 2021 must be to hear Americans’ concerns where they sit, and give them a seat at the table, as we determine how we can best help all our families. There is so much work to be done to heal the divisions in our nation, but I’m confident that if we begin by tackling the daily struggles that come across our families’ kitchen tables — where families of all political stripes, creeds, classes, and colors begin and end their days — we can rediscover how much we all still have in common.
Cindy Axne is the current U.S. representative for the 3rd Congressional District and a resident of West Des Moines. She was first elected in 2018, and serves on the House Agriculture and Financial Services Committees.