Some on Wall Street and in Washington, D.C have signaled that recovery from the Great Recession is on the way. Unfortunately, Main Street recovery will take several more years to emerge. Tragically, recovery from the economic ‘collateral damage’ to our states, counties and cities may not start for over a decade…if ever. As this wound spreads and deepens, we’ll need to do some soul searching about how we ‘start over’ in reconstructing a more sustainable public infrastructure. Some gut-wrenching trade-offs will need to be weighed as we balance our egalitarian goals of fairness with our long-term hopes for a stable and responsive society. We have time to ponder and discuss how we can offer these trade-offs to our neighbors and to our leaders, because the damage will still take quite a bit of time to whittle away at our existing economic, social and political structures. I have a feeling, however, that we need to start now in talking about how we make equality sustainable.
Let’s take education as an example. I know this may seem over-simplified, but bear with me please. For most of human history, it’s been the responsibility of families to educate their children…first, so they could survive, and second, so they could inherit and run the family farm or business. But children from poorer families were educated only in survival, so some wealthier people saw that this wasn’t fair nor was it good for society. Adequate resources were made available and public schools were created. It’s my observation that public services generally benefit poorer families and individuals more than wealthier ones…the wealthier ones would be able to provide these services for their own children without any public intervention.
When cities saw that some neighborhoods had schools and some didn’t, they pooled their resources and created city school systems. When counties saw that some cities and communities had better schools than those in poorer areas, they pooled their resources to equalize the quality of schools. When states saw this same inequality in various counties and regions, they likewise acted equalize educational standards and access. When the federal government saw that education was being used to sustain racism and to keep people in poverty, education became an important federal priority…because educational opportunities needed to be fair.
At each step of this progression, funding and control was absorbed by the highest level to provide equality in standards and in access to education. Now…we have an educational system that is severely top-heavy. Local school districts are dependent on funding from both state and federal budgets…by and large to provide every child in the country with equality in educational access and quality. Public education, like other public services, is funded as an equality project, because we’ve decided through many years that we don’t want to live in a society where some have access to high-quality education and some don’t.
The Great Recession is taking its toll on public services, like public education…and this trend will continue during the next few years. This year, many state budgets are making cuts in public services and a variety of enrichment programs. Next year…and the following year…state, county and city budgets will continue to be slashed, particularly in non-mandated, public services and enrichment programs. Sadly, they are the easiest programs to cut. And no surprise…when public services are decreased, it’s the poorer families that suffer the greatest loss. No surprise…when public services are decreased, it’s equality that suffers first and most in access to music education, health care, enrichment programs for children and youth, basic information through public libraries, public transportation, etc. None of the severe program cuts being discussed for this year and over the next few years will affect wealthier families very much…perhaps they’ll feel some inconvenience, but they won’t experience many major disruptions. These cuts, however, will effectively dismantle some major components of our equality infrastructure.
For more than 60 years, the single most important American priority has been equality…in voting rights, housing, education and jobs. A general evolution of effort has taken place…programs that are successful on the local level are adopted by county and state levels for application across wider areas…and then those programs that prove to be effective in multiple states are adopted at the federal level for universal application. Our equality learning curve hasn’t moved as far or as fast as we would have liked, but it has stabilized a wider and more inclusive list of public services through the years…until now.
Those of us who have worked over many years to develop programs that meet the needs of more people in more effective and equitable ways are seeing much of what we’ve done rapidly disappearing…and the most severe cuts to public services will likely happen during the next two or three budget years. The development of our equality infrastructure took decades, but the dismemberment of it will only take a short time. And then we’ll be faced with…starting over.But here’s the huge dilemma as I see it: should we rebuild a new equality infrastructure using the same blueprints that created the current, fragile system OR should we seek a more sustainable public learning plan with a completely different decentralized foundation OR should we decide together that any future equality infrastructure will include only some very basic components that we will do very well? One thing is certain…we’ll be starting over, because the needs don’t go away when the programs that meet those needs are closed. When the cuts are made, it’ll once again be the responsibility of local folks to care for their neighbors who have unmet needs or who have limited access to housing, health care, transportation, etc. ‘Starting over’…it’s painful to contemplate. But ‘starting over’ can also be a highly creative and innovative activity…if we have the courage to ask the tough questions as we face the trade-offs involved in sustainable equality.