We’re delighted to announce the winners of The Nation’s seventh annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing what they think is the most important issue of Election 2012. We received close to 1,000 submissions from high school and college students in forty-two states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Tess Saperstein of Dreyfoos School of the Arts in Boca Raton, Florida, and Andrew Giambrone of Yale University. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. Read all the winning essays today. —The Editors
“How was business today? Were there a lot of customers?” I ask my mother as she returns home from a long workday of cleaning tables and taking orders.
Today, like all days before and possibly after in this unpromising summer, I receive a defeated “no.”
“That’s okay!” I quickly reassure her. “Tomorrow will be better.” My forcefully mustered enthusiasm to calm her feelings of incredulousness and sadness, mental and emotional effects of slow business on the self-employed manager is a futile attempt to prevent what I perceive is imminent: fewer customers, an unprofitable summer and business wavering from zenith to nadir in an unpredictable cycle of boom and bust.
My mother’s restaurant brings the food and culture of the Old World to the predominantly white demographic in western Massachusetts. Manager, waitress and occasional dishwasher, my mother believes that the relationship between the server and the served can become personal, almost familial. She relates to her customers, so when they raise hot-button issues concerning the 2012 Elections during dinner, she gives appreciative, sympathetic glances.
Coming from a working-class family that owns and operates a small business, I have seen and felt the volatility of today’s economy. A restaurant that used to reach full capacity nearly every night is now mostly empty, and it is getting harder to pay for its expenses or pinpoint reasons for its slowdown. The reasons may be subjective—that its ratings have simply dwindled—or fewer customers are willing to spend. Should we move on, then, and start another business somewhere else, despite all the fiscal and logistical obstacles? We are struggling now, and likely to struggle then.
I am not surprised that our family has not turned to government to ameliorate the situation. Of all the solutions we have considered—to persist, expand or move and start again—it seems like it is always us against low consumerism, us against heavy competition from other businesses, corporate or small, us against high payroll taxes, tight employment regulation and a government that seemingly favors the success of 1 percent of the population and its corporate elite.
I believe that the most important issue of the 2012 elections is renewing public trust in government to reinvigorate small businesses and self-employed people, with government oversight expanding American confidence in spending in an economy that is of the people, by the people, for the people. This means that equality of opportunity must exist at the smallest scale, even for two naturalized immigrants who took advantage of a profitable economy and a “for sale” sign for a retail building and decided to invest, develop and expand their business. And although our family has inherited their byproduct, a restaurant with rich heritage, we have not been able to share their high hopes for some time.
Government, therefore, must find an efficient way for entrepreneurs to start and the self-employed to continue small businesses. Although they provide many jobs, small businesses face high payroll, unemployment and income taxes that stifle their development. Small businesses also face issues concerning employment regulation and immigration. Many employees seek an increase to the federal minimum wage, a fair hiring process and efficient labor unions. Then there’s the question of immigration: should businesses that post “help wanted” signs near the border have a say in our nation’s immigration policies?
These issues culminate in a larger, elusive question: to what degree should government regulation affect our economy? Should we start with the regulation or deregulation of large companies, which may either decrease investments or burgeon competition and either way make it difficult for small businesses to compete?
In the advent of the 2012 elections, government must wrestle with ways to renew public trust, using its regulatory power to enforce policies that support the welfare of its common people—including the many small-business owners who have taken the risk of investing in the economy and actualizing and starting their own businesses. Our nation faces a record high in class division and poor distribution of wealth. Instead of making concessions to large companies and unchallenged corporate America to stimulate our economy, our government should actively acknowledge the integrity of the common man or woman who hopes to get ahead in life with an idea, resources and, hopefully, government support behind them. Thriving small businesses will distribute wealth to the middle and lower classes, open up more jobs and create an environment that promotes consumer spending.
As I watch my mother struggle to make mends and still cling onto the promises of the American Dream with faith that runs deep as that of our predecessors who once believed, I hope that it is government she can one day turn to and trust. Securing this integral, and somewhat basic, relationship between government and its people is a critical, overall issue for the 2012 elections.