For more than a year the attention of the American people has been diverted from the deteriorating conditions at home and directed toward terrorism and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. While many are celebrating the “success” abroad, comparatively little attention has been paid to the economic problems brewing at home.
Osama bin Laden is reportedly still very much alive and on the run, and Afghanistan is still in lawless ruin despite the well-deserved ouster of the Taliban. Billions of U.S. dollars have already been spent on the “War on Terrorism” and the continued search for bin Laden. Before the war 50 percent of the federal discretionary budget was spent on the military. To fund the war, the president asked for and received $79.5 billion from Congress. The money spent so far is equivalent to $31.4 billion per month, or $7.2 billion a week, and those numbers don’t even include homeland security.
The $7.2 billion spent every week on military funding could provide child care for 1.2 million children of working families for one year. The economic stimulus from providing child care for 1.2 million children for one year could generate approximately $50 billion that could be recycled into the American economy. We’ve all seen what happens when working families do not have access to child care; the costs of health care, social services and criminal justice go way up. These combined costs will add up to billions over our lifetimes.
The Bush administration has been extremely successful at diverting the attention of the American people and the media to the “victory” in Iraq. Most Americans at the same time are not aware that our federal deficit is approaching $300 billion; the entire budget for the federal government is $1.7 trillion. The combined deficit for all 50 states is $169 billion and some states have had to take extreme measures. The kindergarten through 12th-grade school year has already ended in the state of Oregon because the state cannot afford to send its children to school.
Currently, the state of California is facing a budget deficit that is unheard of. A year and a half ago we had a $4.6 billion surplus and, according to Governor Davis’ May 2003 revision of the budget, we are facing a deficit that is approaching $40 billion. The U.S. dollar is at a three-year low against the Euro and the Dow Jones Industrial Average is down 23 percent. We are facing the highest rate of unemployment since the Eisenhower administration. Even Wall Street wizard and billionaire Warren Buffet thinks the president’s plan to stop taxing dividends is bad for the economy.
CalPERS, California’s public employee retirement system and the largest retirement system in the world, lost more than $1.8 billion last year, primarily in the stock market. As any other employer, the state of California is responsible both for closing the funding gap and paying its employees’ retirement benefits. CalPERS is not a singular case; retirement systems across the country have lost similar amounts in the last year as a result of the slowdown in the stock market. Employers are responsible for making up those losses and to do so they are dipping into their general funds. These additional non-expected expenditures are affecting needed programs or delaying essential business investment.
The effects of the budget shortfall at the federal level do more than just trickle down to state and local government. California receives 30 percent, or about $50.6 billion, of its operating budget from the federal government. Forty-five percent of California’s revenues come from personal income tax, which economic forecasters proclaim will be depressed for the next several years. On the local level, Alameda County receives half of its budget from the federal government and the state of California. When the federal government has a cold, local government has pneumonia.
Local government is struggling to serve its people with one hand tied behind its back and no hope of relief in sight. California’s population will continue to grow and, at least for the foreseeable future, the federal and state government will not be equipped to serve all of these residents. The people on the front lines—those who suffer in lean economic times and those who serve them—are the last ones whose voices are heard. There is no media embedded in county hospitals or in the homes of families who have to choose between food, housing and getting to work. The slow death of a senior citizen on a fixed-income is not as eye catching as a $1 million tank tearing through the desert in search of weapons of mass destruction. The only weapons of mass destruction in plain sight are those here at home: a growing prison population, an escalating and fruitless war on drugs, the outrageous cost of prescription drugs for senior citizens and the lack of basic, comprehensive health care for working people are all among the factors that are tarnishing the nation and our Golden State.
The job market will continue to be depressed if businesses continue to leave the state and the region because the infrastructure necessary for business to prosper does not exist. What is enticing about poorly maintained and understaffed schools, crumbling roads and inefficient government? It is easy to proclaim the biggest tax cuts in history, but apparently, it is even harder to make the difficult decisions that will help our state and country to prosper. Will the biggest tax cut in history matter when children can’t read or someone dies waiting for service at an emergency room?
President Bush, Washington, D.C., and the media are looking in the deserts of Iraq for weapons of mass destruction, but they don’t seem to see that the weapons of mass destruction are here all around us and in full view.
Keith Carson is the Alameda County Supervisor, 5th District.