We are majority ‘poor’

The Sioux City Journal reported last weekend in a story about broadband access in schools that 74% of Storm Lake district students live in poverty. If it were 50% the number would still be stunning. That means the best meal they get probably will be at school. It means they can’t get broadband access outside school. It means they probably cannot afford to attend school past high school without extraordinary help.

And, when three-fourths of our young people are poor, the rest of us will not be far behind. A rising tide lifts all boats; a tiny hole sinks everyone.

These folks need food stamps. They need subsidized health care. They need Pell Grants for college. They need to be citizens to really climb the ladder.

We would bet you that for nearly every impoverished student, his or her parent is working hard. They are working in hoghouses, on the kill floor, putting shingles on the roof, serving you a burger at noon. They smile, do what they’re told and hope that tomorrow will be a better day, that their children will have it better than they did.

The ones who are poor are the ones who remember it. They remember the kindnesses and the sleights. Someday, they swear, they will never be poor again. We saw it in our parents and grandparents, children of the Great Depression. They would be successes, no matter what. The same probably can be said for the child in poverty today. They will taste the poverty and smell it long after they have shed it.

They will build Storm Lake and make it stronger if we let them.

All they need is a helping hand and maybe a leg up.

Maybe we don’t cut food stamps or trim Pell Grants. Maybe we try to teach that kid next door whose parents can’t speak English how to hold a baseball bat, or give that kid the great American novel “Huckleberry Finn.” Maybe we see our own ancestors in their young faces on this Thanksgiving eve. The poor may always be among us, the Good Book says, but that doesn’t mean we just accept it.

Right protest, wrong reason

Iowa officials are staging an all-out protest over a decision by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to hold ethanol blending requirements are their current level. Democrats and Republicans from Corn Belt states are doing everything they can to put pressure on EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to reverse the decision or, at least, to not roll back the blending mandate established by Congress.

Regional politicians and interest groups understandably fear that the EPA will take the legs out from underneath ethanol and stop its further development. They might be right. Ethanol has been under attack from oil-related interests for generations. That it has become practical, sustainable and affordable makes Big Oil even more nervous. It will stop at nothing, including bald-faced lies about corn and ethanol.

These same regional politicians understand that farmers are nervous as corn prices have fallen to the low-$4 range from previous highs near $8 per bushel. They fear that pouring ice on the ethanol fire might further damp corn prices.

We happened across research by the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development (CARD) at Iowa State University. CARD does much of the economic modeling on world ag market trends for the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture. Economist Bruce Babcock, former CARD director, and Wei Zhou published a paper on Nov. 8 stating that the EPA move should trim corn prices by about 25 cents per bushel.

“Though the corn price difference is economically meaningful to corn farmers and livestock feeders, it is small compared to the price swings that the market has experienced since 2006. This modest change in corn prices … suggests that the level of mandate should be determined more by consideration of broad policy objectives rather than the impact on the price of corn,” Babcock wrote.

Those broader policy considerations should include the development of ethanol from plants other than corn. Those alternative feedstocks will not be explored fully so long as EPA caps the amount of ethanol refiners must blend. They include switchgrass, sweet sorghum, corn stover and other forms of cellulose that can be converted by enzymes into fuel. Many crops like switchgrass and sweet sorghum have major benefits to soil and water conservation and will be more efficient as a feedstock than corn — someday.

All that research currently under deployment will stop dead in its tracks if EPA buckles under pressure from oil, livestock and food processing interest groups. Short-term blips in the corn market will pass. But it would be a crime on future generations if we cannot deliver them from the shackles of fossil fuels controlled by despots. The EPA should consider that it will snuff out so much good research by killing off the ethanol market on bad intentions, as the Midwesterners might think.