As budget cuts hit home for more and more citizens, the dismantling of what I’m calling our ‘equality infrastructure’ is becoming more obvious, and small groups in our communities are starting to show us how our culture will shift in the months and years to come. Each state has a different revenue profile, so some states will have greater cuts than others. Each county has unique demographics, employment and housing stability, so some counties will have greater cuts than others within each state. Some school districts, towns and cities have a greater vulnerability to the current financial crisis, so some of them will have greater cuts than others. Now we need to add the reality of income distribution to this picture…some citizens have the capacity to weather this economic storm with very little disruption, while others have zero flexibility. Our ‘equality infrastructure’…imperfect as it is…will be eroded, and the gaps in our society will grow.
While driving home a couple of evenings ago, I was listening to a talk-show commentator, Gene Burns, on KGO radio in San Francisco. Mr. Burns read an article about a small group of concerned parents in one of our SF Bay Area school districts where they were creating a fundraising effort to significantly reduce the affects of recently announced budget cuts. His question to his listeners hit the ‘equality infrastructure’ point from the community-response side…some neighborhoods and communities can do this while others cannot. He directly addressed the value of equality in education for the good of our whole society. As I shared in a previous post, when we are eventually ‘starting over’ in recreating some new manifestation of our disappearing ‘equality infrastructure’, we will most certainly have some wide gaps in our society…in housing, health, education, employment, etc. Some of the old inequality standards will still be present, but it’s likely that some new ones will need to be included as we learn about equality in the 21st century.
So…how long will this all take? Unfortunately, an even deeper damage to our ‘equality infrastructure’ won’t even appear until at least next year at this time as this year’s budget cuts and continued increases in unemployment and under-employment create another wave of foreclosures and bankruptcies…further eroding our already fragile property tax base. Some communities will probably be able to sustain their most important local services this year, but only a very few will be able to mobilize the resources to be effectively self-sustaining for the next 4-5 years. This is why many leaders in counties, cities and school districts are worried. On the horizon too, many colleges and universities are projecting huge deficits during the next several years, making a college education impossible for many young people…and taking one of the primary equalizers in our society out of the picture for major part of a whole generation. I’m proposing that this will be one of the most important topics for deliberation and public conversation in a lifetime for most of us. Here again is the 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? I hope your community is touched gently by this emerging crisis. We know now that ours will not be spared, even though we’re probably not going to experience the worst devastation either. I still feel that this crisis can create a new learning curve in public knowledge and action…if we have the courage to ask the tough questions we encounter as we face the trade-offs involved in making equality sustainable.