Don’t Legislate What You Don’t Know

Madelynne Wager
September 18, 2012

SparkAction asked youth attending the 2012 Opportunity Nation Summit about what adults need to know about helping opportunity youth.  Here is Madelynne who answered our questions in the form of a blog:

“Uneducated”— it’s a word common to academia, policymakers, and, admittedly, my vocabulary. But last Saturday, somewhere between the dumplings and lo-mien at a friend’s dinner table, “uneducated” left a bad taste in my mouth. During a conversation on my hometown, this simple word unexpectedly reminded me to humble my policy perspective.

“Oh, I know Greenville,” my friend’s father insisted. “You had Electrolux, the factory that moved to Mexico.”

True. In 2004, Electrolux exported 2,700 jobs from our Michigan town of only 8,000 residents to Juarez, Mexico in order to save $81 million annually. It was a 20 percent hit to our tax base. We became an infamous example of the manufacturing downfall sweeping the nation.

“But you had the new company come in,” he added.  

Also, true. Governor Granholm adopted Greenville as a model for Michigan’s transformation into a green economy. In 2007, using large incentives from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), Granholm brought Greenville Unisolar, a solar panel manufacturer, to moderate job losses. 

“That’s right. How’s that doing?” he asked with honest concern.

Unisolar came to Greenville with the promise of 1,200 jobs, less than half the number shipped to Mexico. The manufacturer was forced to cut 400 workers as early as 2008, and filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.

“It’s really unfortunate all of those “uneducated” people were left without jobs,” he concluded.

The word “uneducated” turned my stomach. My uncle, Jim, is one of those unfortunate people. And while it’s true he does not have the Harvard education of my friend’s father, the label “uneducated” fails to effectively encapsulate my uncle’s standpoint. More importantly, this generalization does not lead us in a direction to recognize or assuage the significant human costs imposed on our community by its quick economic transition.

However, I do not question the admirable motives of this man’s questions and analysis of my hometown; certainly, he cares deeply for the welfare of Michiganders. It was not his label “uneducated” that shocked me most, but rather my realization that as a policy student, I often make the same types of harmful generalizations.

Being panged by his comments showed me that in order to effectively address issues of opportunity in community across the nation, we must understand the dynamic and multifaceted nature of each town’s unique access to opportunity.

Policymakers surely work to improve folks’ prospects, but without a thorough understanding of each community, their efforts will not realize their potential value.

Conversation over my take-out dinner revealed an important and simple lesson every policymaker should follow in providing opportunity: don’t legislate what you don’t know.

Opportunity Nation thrives off of local narratives, asking communities how to most effectively; its grassroots approach strengthens the organization’s impact and makes me extremely eager to do my part as an Opportunity Nation Scholar.


See what other youth had to say about opportunity on the road to the Opportunity Nation Summit.