You Mean to Tell Me that We Can’t Afford $2000?

Yesterday’s Berkshire Eagle reported that the Family Literacy Program, a program operating as a part of Pittsfield Public Schools, will close on June 14 because a state grant which funded much of the program will end.  The district’s Adult Learning Center runs the program, and, ironically, June 14 is the Learning Center’s graduation and awards ceremony.

The program currently serves 60 parents and 35 children, about 40 families annually.  It concentrates on families with infants and toddlers.  It works cooperatively with several human services agencies in the community.  Through adult basic education, parenting and early childhood education, family advocacy and counseling, parents become self-sufficient and their children become successful in school.  Participants do not have to pay for it.

The program’s annual budget is about $120,000, but its operating costs are closer to $125,000.  The state grant is $70,000.  Local sources make up the balance.

When I read the article yesterday, quick math calculated that this program costs about $3,000 per family per year.  As I write this today, I’m really struck that the state portion, which is less than $2,000 per family, will end.  The local sources can’t make up that difference.

That this program can help families succeed is tremendous.  Furthermore, that they can do it with very little money per family is even better.  When you think about it though, if the children from these families can succeed in school and thereby reduce their chance of facing their future in poverty, this is money really well spent.  Twelve to fifteen years from now the children in this program will have a better chance of not relying on public money for day-to-day living and will more likely be able to contribute to the overall economy through work.  If we think of this program funding as an investment, its leverage is tremendous.

My basic reaction, beyond anger and dismay, first looks to compensation.  The grant, $70,000, is a lot for this program.  Yet, we have corporate executives who make this amount of money in a week (which is modest compensation among their corporate cohorts), and we can’t find the guts to tax them at a higher rate?  The loss of this program only magnifies the ridiculous disparity between rich and poor.  Again, do the math.  A family can participate in this program for a year for less than the amount of money that executive earns before lunch.

Or I think about our national priorities.  We had no problem spending $3.0 billion a week to wage a war of choice in Iraq.  We chose not to fund it out of current operating revenue (aka, taxes).  The trickle down effect has been an enormous deficit which has sucked up money that might otherwise have been available for aid and assistance to states, which could then have funded this program.  Alternatively, consider our national budget of which 60% is mandated spending, such as social security, Medicare, and debt service, and of the remaining 40% just more than half goes to the Department of Defense.  (Expressed differently, if we send a dollar in taxes to Washington, 60-cents goes to mandatory spending, 21-cents to the Pentagon, and 19-cents for everything else.)

But here’s a different angle.  We think of our budgets at all levels of government in current terms.  What does it cost this year? Maybe we think about next year.  When do we think about our budgets in horizons beyond a few years out?  I really don’t hear much conversation and discussion around a budget’s impact as an investment in the future.  We don’t really think about the difference programs like the Family Literacy Program have made in the lives of individuals and our communities.

We’ve become overly focused on the short term at the expense of the long term.  We seem to have lost sight that real change doesn’t happen overnight and that such change will more likely take years.

It’s this short term focus which convinces us that we can’t afford $2000.  It’s our fear for our security that crowds out spending for programs like this one.  It’s our greed that keeps us from thinking we can’t afford programs like this one.

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About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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