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President Trump's Proposed Budget and The Loss of American Potential

In my journal is a piece of paper that’s older than I am. I’ve been carrying it around for some time and reading it at almost every available opportunity, though at this point, I know it almost by heart.

The papers constitute a letter from my aunt to my late grandfather and discusses his sister Dora, who had just died. Dora (my great-aunt and Hebrew namesake) immigrated to America in 1929 at the age of eight. In the eulogy, my aunt wrote of her, “This woman, rich with experience if not with education, who went to work so young and minded her much younger brother to be sure that there was food and a roof… that this woman, a Polish immigrant, should love the opera!”

I dug this letter up in my family’s archive of old books and papers some time ago, and I’ve kept it, not only for its beautiful, unflinching portrait of my great-aunt’s life and death, but for the picture that it provides of a Jewish immigrant family and its first generation born in America, whom my aunt describes as “the first generation of Kubzansky children [who] share this hunger to understand the world. If they can somehow know everything that goes on in it then they will be able to unravel the secrets of this life, this strange, compelling journey which we watch and live and know so little of.”

When I found this letter, I understood that it was important to the story of my family, but now it has taken on a new significance. It would have been nearly impossible to participate in the burgeoning intellectualism that my aunt describes Dora nurturing in her eulogy, the “ salon of great minds filled with a great wanting to know, LIFE, bursting out of that little dining room in Brooklyn,” in the Old World. That they were immigrants was essential — they had left behind a land that had given them all it had to offer and entered into a country with seemingly boundless resources: public education, explosive economic growth, public art, and the American Dream — the idea that one’s destiny wasn’t determined by birthplace, and that with hard work, a better life was well within reach. All that I am now, and all that my family is, comes from that semi-detatched in Brooklyn.

I am the end product of the American dream. I attend a nice private school, have access to fresh produce daily, and I don’t need to worry about my financial situation as I apply to college. I wear Doc Martens and own more books than I can read. This letter reminds me of my family’s origins: “a postage-stamp backyard, with scraggly grass, the neighbor’s carport… not a broad view.” Given this origin story, it is somewhat astonishing to me that ninety years should bring the life I lead into existence. Then, I remember that things were different in the 1930’s than they are now.

The Great Depression gave rise to “The New Deal”: an alphabet soup of public assistance programs and a new idea that government can actively promote the interests of a country’s most disadvantaged citizens. Manifestations of this idea ranged from The Agricultural Adjustment Act, which gave mortgage help to farmers, to the Fair Labor Standards Act, which took the drastic step of eliminating child labor. There was the well-known Civilian Conservation Corps, designed to create jobs for those who found themselves unemployed, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, which (gasp!) helped to regulate financial activity. It would take another decade and a half for the US to emerge from World War II, the end of which heralded an era of unprecedented economic growth (in no small part due to the investment in American potential of the 1930’s). Somewhere between then and now, the nation began to take that growth for granted, and we’ve found ourselves back at square one.

Here’s what I know: in 2017, we have regressed. Like Dora’s world in 1929, the United States in 2017 is grappling with the realities of xenophobia, racism, and nationalist sentiment. Whereas The Great Depression of 1929 saw an investment in opportunity and access for large swaths of the country, President Trump has proposed three major pieces of policy designed to keep black and brown people out of this country; this administration is seeking to curtail access to the American dream that is ostensibly the birthright of everyone who lives here.

The proposed budget, among other things, eliminates funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (cultural enrichment opportunities that impact low-income African American youth in particular), cuts nine billion (!) dollars from the Department of Education (which will fuel de facto segregation in schools as a result of “school choice”), and cuts the Economic Development Association, whose sole purpose is to accelerate economic growth (remember here that the unemployment for Latinx is one-and-a-half times what it is for whites, and that for African Americans, it’s double). As a result of cutting or downsizing these programs, which have such an outsize effect on Americans of color, the resources to tell stories that are so often ignored by the mainstream media disappear. By removing the support for telling these stories, America closes itself off to a huge swath of those narratives.

And there are the two much-maligned “immigration freezes,” which target six Muslim-majority countries in order to prevent “malevolent actors [from] using our immigration system to take American lives,” (in the words of Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly).

If this isn’t regression, I don’t know what is.

What’s worse is that we’ve seen this before––put bluntly, it seems that we are staring down the greatest loss of American potential in a century, a blatant de-investment in the talents and passions of Americans and immigrants who, a generation ago, had members of my family among them. I would not be here if it were not for the opportunity that my family had almost one hundred years ago.

It’s not my family in the news anymore. It’s not even the same part of the world in question. And there’s one other, glaring difference: if we continue in our current direction of walls (literal or otherwise), political and economic attacks on disadvantaged citizens of this country, and religious harassment, then there will be no Syrian women eulogized forty years from now who loved the opera, or CEO’s of major companies who were the first in their families to go to college (looking at you, Howard Schultz). There will be no “lifetimes, full and rich with drama, with tragedy, with love” for people who want to prosper in this country and have their next generations be hungry to understand the world if we sit idly by and allow Trump, Bannon, and their ilk to dictate the tides of history.

The potential our country is losing out on right now comes in the form of people— people who are being frozen out of a better life, who are being denied the right to thrive, or even survive. By freezing them out of America, and the American dream, we ruin our potential as a nation. We shouldn’t just care about this unwillingness to invest in new talent because these people to whom we’re denying entry to or advantage in America could help our country. We should care about this because they are people. Their potential could be America’s — but only if we let it.

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1 Comment

Beautifully stated.  Made me cry. So proud of my granddaughter.

Kubzansky Family Portrait
Full image
Kubzansky family portrait, featuring the author's grandfather and his sister Dora. Image courtesy of Caroline Kubzansky.
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How to cite this page

Kubzansky, Caroline. "President Trump's Proposed Budget and The Loss of American Potential ." 23 March 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 22, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/trumps-proposed-budget-and-loss-of-american-potential>.

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