IN THE WEALTHIEST COUNTRY ON EARTH…. To note that the United States is the richest country on the planet is a bit of an understatement. We can take the economies of some of the world’s wealthiest countries — Japan, China, and Germany — and combine their gross domestic product totals, and the U.S. still has more wealth.
But how we decide to use or not use our wealth, particularly in times of economic distress, can occasionally boggle the mind.
Plenty of businesses and governments furloughed workers this year, but Hawaii went further — it furloughed its schoolchildren. Public schools across the state closed on 17 Fridays during the past school year to save money, giving students the shortest academic year in the nation and sending working parents scrambling to find care for them.
Many transit systems have cut service to make ends meet, but Clayton County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, decided to cut all the way, and shut down its entire public bus system. Its last buses ran on March 31, stranding 8,400 daily riders.
Even public safety has not been immune to the budget ax. In Colorado Springs, the downturn will be remembered, quite literally, as a dark age: the city switched off a third of its 24,512 streetlights to save money on electricity, while trimming its police force and auctioning off its police helicopters.
Faced with the steepest and longest decline in tax collections on record, state, county and city governments have resorted to major life-changing cuts in core services like education, transportation and public safety that, not too long ago, would have been unthinkable. And services in many areas could get worse before they get better.
At least in theory, this is what many Americans, including nearly all conservatives, say they want. The demand is for “spending cuts,” “smaller government, and fewer “public services.” Americans should fend for themselves. We’re all on our own. If the wealthiest country on the planet can’t afford buses or streetlights, so be it — just don’t raise taxes a penny or we’ll run you out of town.
Last year’s stimulus, it’s worth noting, prevented many of these state and local cuts from happening sooner. But the Recovery Act is nearly finished, and a few too many of our political leaders believe the public would rather see schools struggle to stay open five days a week than see additional economic stimulus that could literally help keep the lights on.
For Republicans, it’s simply a matter of priorities — America doesn’t like and can’t afford spending on core public services like a local police force, but we can afford wars and tax cuts for millionaires. And don’t ask too many questions about this, or you’ll be accused of being one of those liberal big spenders who likes “class warfare.”
And in case this isn’t obvious, also note who feels the brunt of these decisions. When schools are closed on Fridays, middle-class families feel an added burden they can hardly afford: “For those 17 Fridays, parents reluctantly worked from home or used up vacation and sick days. Others enlisted the help of grandparents. Many paid $25 to $50 per child each week for the new child care programs that had sprung up.”
When bus systems are shut down, wealthier folks with cars are fine, but low-income workers who need a way to get to work are out of luck. When street lights are turned off and police officers are furloughed, families in gated communities and private security are probably feeling a lot better off than everyone else.
And all of this is happening, right here in the wealthiest country on earth.