Mortgaging Our Future…Again

You’ll have to forgive me. When disbelief and anxiety are the only emotions you can conjure, the words don’t flow like they should.

The federal government has lost its mind. There, I’ve said it.

What other explanation can one deduce from its recent decision to cut all “Safe and Drug Free Schools” state grants from its 2010 budget?  

I can accept that budget deficits matter. Before this recession began, I was a deficit hawk. I was warning about debt. My economic training tells me not to balance the budget while unemployment is rising, but I can appreciate the concern.

I can accept that Big Government scares many Americans. It was my hero Thomas Jefferson who said, “A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned—this is the sum of good government.” I think Jefferson was more worried about monarchs bullying colonies than democratically elected legislatures investing in safety and education, but again I can appreciate the concern.

I can even accept that trillions of dollars invested in insolvent banks and earmarked pork projects were an ugly, unfortunate, and necessary step to stave off a Second Great Depression. I would have preferred running some of the banks through a receivership to eliminate the toxic assets that continue to depress the economy and the moral hazard that may herald the next crisis. I would have preferred the stimulus money be spent in a more efficient manner. Still, I can appreciate that preventing the collapse of the world economy is no small feat and most of the quick and dirty measures taken were better than no measures at all.

But this I cannot accept. I do not agree that the only way to protect our future is to give up on one of the few government programs that works. According to U.S. Army research, every dollar invested in treatment and prevention saves taxpayers up to seven dollars. Eighty-five percent of the prisoners in federal prisons are there for drug-related crimes, and it costs $65,000 to jail one prisoner for one year. You want to cut down on the budget deficit? Then you should be advocating more money for Safe and Drug Free Schools.

I do not want to tell my children that, when their parents and grandparents were struggling through a difficult economic time, we allowed our legislators to dole out our tax dollars to corruption and failure, but when it came to their future, we said, “Sorry, we ran out of money.” I can’t bear to tell them that they see drugs on the playground; and high school dropout rates through the roof; and crime rates soaring; and prisons overflowing; and neighborhoods full of crack pipes and drive-by shootings; and our national economy a fraction of what it once was because we were too busy spending money on pretty, useless things to care whether we were building a safer, smarter workforce.

This is a writer’s worst nightmare: having important things to say and no words to say it. There really are no words for this kind of outrage, are there? We’ve spent the last few decades living for today, not saving for tomorrow, piling up debt, and running our companies for the short term until the crises all came at once. And then, irony of all ironies, our solution is to give up on one more long-term problem. To stop preventing yet another crisis. To say, something’s got to give, and it’s going to be my child getting her education from the teacher in the classroom instead of the dealer around the corner.

If each of us does not stop what we’re doing today and do something to reverse this change, we cannot complain about crime or society’s values or economic decline because we sat silent while Rome burned. Call or email your legislator. If you’re not sure what to tell them, ask your children. They know what to do: Just say no.