Iowa's culture war is bad for business

Deb VanderGaast is a registered nurse and child care advocate seeking to advance state and national child care and disability policy, inclusive child care practices and improve access to quality, affordable child care for working parents. She was the 2022 Democratic nominee in Iowa Senate district 41.

Municipal, county and state governments have a lot in common with private businesses, especially non-profits. They have to raise revenue to support the workforce and resources needed to produce services or products that will attract and retain customers. That’s how they maintain and grow their revenue. That revenue flow makes a business viable and financially stable.

For the state of Iowa, our “customers” are the people and businesses choosing to locate here. They create economic activity that generates tax revenue.

Our “products” are the services, infrastructure, and laws that make it desirable for businesses and individuals to move to Iowa or remain here. If residents and businesses leave, Iowa loses tax revenue and workers, so will have less of the human and financial resources needed to produce quality products and services to attract and retain others.

Think of it like a restaurant with poor service and bland food, or a manufacturer that produces over-priced, low-quality products that are unreliable. Over time, they will lose customers and eventually go out of business if they don’t make improvements that will bring back customers.

Like businesses, states have to compete with others to attract customers. Iowa doesn’t have tropical weather, beach-lined coasts, major tourist attractions, or abundant high-paying tech and financial jobs. So how do we compete with states with all these inherit benefits? We have to offer something our competitors don’t have: quality of life.

In past decades, people moved to Iowa for the low cost of living, affordable housing, safe communities, and most of all, some of the best schools in the nation. Life here was slower and less stressful, and Iowa was renowned for having family-friendly values. Businesses came here because it costs less to acquire land and hire workers. Despite being located far from the largest cities, Iowa had the needed infrastructure to get products made here to the big cities and industrial areas in other states.

In recent years, Iowa has had a change of priorities. In order to keep cutting taxes, our leaders are failing to maintain the quality of our infrastructure, services, and schools. This is akin to a company firing most of its workforce, closing facilities, and expecting to produce the same quality and volume of products and services as in the past. That company will lose customers and spiral towards financial collapse.

Another problem with Iowa’s approach: politicians are attempting to serve a niche clientele rather than attracting a broad spectrum of “customers.” As a small state without the geography and climate that would naturally draw people and businesses, we can’t afford to be driving anyone away. We need all that we can get to keep our state thriving and financially solvent.

Political considerations are a driving force behind this push to cater to a select group, rather that the serving the needs of the entire population. These policies maintain power and control for those who support their views and drives away those who oppose their ideology. People who move out of the state can’t vote against you. This dynamic creates an incentive to pass increasingly extreme and divisive laws, which will force people that are marginalized by them to move away.

This “culling of the herd” to remove opposition and political competition may be a great strategy for winning elections, but it is terrible for maintaining Iowa’s population and businesses. If you alienate nearly half the population, you will have fewer people paying taxes. You will also have fewer people purchasing products and services and working for our businesses. It can become a non-viable business environment, so businesses leave the state.

With less economic activity and tax revenue, Iowa will have no choice but to cut programs and services and to reduce maintenance and construction of infrastructure. Iowa will become a less desirable place to live, work, and raise a family. It will also becomes a less friendly and a less safe place to live, because the divisive politics promotes social division and economic disparity.

Economic decline fuels poverty. Without public safety nets, people have to take desperate measures just to survive. The poor don’t have the resources to move away. They will stay and drain state resources. With no programs to help them get out of poverty and no well-paying jobs available, the level of poverty will increase in Iowa, and the crime rates may as well. That will also drive people to move elsewhere.

This culture war will destroy Iowa. It doesn’t help anyone other than those who seek to remain in power.

To those trying to create an environment where nothing threatens their political dominance, our state and our lives are just “collateral damage.” I suppose we could follow others’ cultural migration and abandon Iowa to its likely demise. But some of us aren’t ready to give up.

Photo by Joseph Sohm of Iowa welcome sign available via Shutterstock.

About the Author(s)

Deb VanderGaast

  • From today’s WAPO

    If you thumbed through the Washington Post today, you saw the article about Iowa politics. Maybe it’s news to East Coast readers, but not to Iowa Democrats. And the article gets most of it right. And I use the word “right” advisedly. Frankly, the article strings together so many accurate points of disappointment and embarrassment that I’m not sure I want to “gift” it to my peeps.

    • Thank you for the link

      And this story, like most Iowa media, didn’t even cover the various anti-environment bills now moving through the Statehouse. There is something especially scary about proposing to not only essentially end all future public land acquisition, but to erase the part of the Iowa Code that says public land has value.

  • It HAD been unthinkable to imagine leaving the state

    Never thought I’d feel compelled to exit Iowa permanently. Born and raised here. Have spent almost my whole life here. But the state has spat upon so many of the things that I felt made Iowa a wonderful place to live — great public schools, commitment to quality public education, a legacy of support for civil rights, a burgeoning appreciation for our environment, our prairie heritage, our history and what few wild places we still have. Pushed back politically to little avail and now things are worse than any other time in my adult memory. Leaving the state will make it even worse for people like me who remain, but staying is more and more difficult to justify. Have likened staying to beating one’s head against a wall.

  • This piece is spot on...well done Deb

    They really don’t care about anyone but themselves and people just like them. Kim made that clear in her campaign ads: This state is for us, not for you.

    And the number of companies advertising on TV for job openings they can’t fulfill should be a sign of things to come under GOP culture wars.

    It is a shame because I know a lot of people, some who just moved here within the last few years, who don’t want to stay here. I really don’t want to either. And I can’t imagine that many UofI, ISU or UNI students graduating this year will want to stay here to start their career. And out-of-state graduates definitely aren’t coming here. Young women especially should stay far away.

    Under GOP control, Iowans are being terrible hosts. And before long they’ll look around and wonder why no one is at their party.