What, Pray Tell, Are We Thinking?


Following the Flint, Michigan scandal, there are rising demands for testing water in schools for the presence of lead, a serious health hazard for children particularly.  Unrelated news reports suggest we may want to test the water everywhere for whatever toxin is making our nation senselessly hard-hearted in setting spending priorities.

A two-year federal budget accord is now being heralded. That saves us from mindless political brinksmanship and drama and prevents costly disruption for those who provide government services and those who depend on them.  Still, we may want to hold off on the celebratory champagne and fireworks.  The tradeoff is hugely expensive.  Deficits and debt continue to swell.  There are spending increases here, there, and nearly everywhere.  Has global warming now swamped fiscal conservatism?

The uncommon workings of the Trump Administration have many people wondering if decisions are based on mercurial impulse, rather than on deliberate study of the consequences.  With daily crisis and controversy, it is increasingly difficult for citizens to tell what is real and what is distraction.

The profusion of spending in the budget renders even more inexplicable the trial balloon launched earlier in the year of ending federal funding for the Special Olympics.  It was a stunning announcement.  Highly placed officials were apparently contending that the individuals in special programs are exceptional in designation only, not in national priority.

The timing could not have been worse, coming not long after athletes returned from the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi. The participants, families, coaches and sponsors all came home with indelible memories and joy.  Yet, unbeknownst to them, the thrill of victory in participation was about to have a close encounter with the agony of budgetary defeat.

Tone deafness was a small sin.  The arguments advanced justifying the slash were troubling. Federal Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asserted the Special Olympics, highly successful in their fundraising, could fend for themselves.  The truth is the Special Olympics has done very well in the increasingly competitive arena of charitable fundraising.  Their pitch concentrates on connecting donors with individuals receiving services. That success does not mean they have hit their ceiling on events and participation.  Many people who write personal checks also support taxpayer funding. It was telling that an administration inordinately concerned about crowd numbers at political rallies could not even guess as to how many individuals would be adversely affected by the funding cut.

A central claim was it is unfair to fund some charitable efforts but not others.  Does government typically go all or none in funding?  No, it is always a matter of defining priority needs and investing in success.  Or at least it should be.  Maybe the feds cannot be bothered to differentiate between the relative virtues of good causes.  Substituting best wishes for hard dollars is problematic, for as the old saying goes, sympathy does not spend at the supermarket.

Whatever one thinks of her performance, DeVos, a contributor to the Special Olympics, was dispatched to catch grenades on this one. This emerged from the inner circle of budget cutters and philosophical warriors in the White House.

Happily, Special Olympics went back on the funding list, courtesy of a quick presidential pirouette.  But the cynical handling of this leaves citizens worrying which other good causes will be targeted for funding reduction or elimination.  Sure enough, controversy has flared anew as food stamps now are in the barrel.

A much larger, congenitally short-funded program is special education.  The federal government has historically fallen short of its percentage share of funding.  States have long complained about the insufficiency of funding for special education, especially since much of the structure and requirements are driven by federal law and court rulings.  Even in wealthier school districts, special education is a big ticket item.  Thus, initiatives to expand services or create a broader range of opportunities will be delayed or shelved, again and again.

With the national debt soaring, and administration priorities such as military expansion and border security heading the spending list, it is no surprise that domestic spending is targeted for cuts.  This approach is a poll-tested and campaign-certified winner in many parts of the country.  After all, who supports the speculated waste, fraud, and abuse rumored to permeate the federal budget?

Conversely, who in the general population would look at the sprawling and mega-expensive federal budget and zero in on the Special Olympics as a program to zero out?  The organization is certainly not a budget buster, amounting to loose change in the sofa cushions of the federal budget.  This is why budget-cutting gets a bad name, when reductions are made in inexplicable places for reasons that defy common sense or appear manifestly unjust.

The Special Olympics held a caption contest for photos from the World Games.  The winner showed two medal winners in a warm and wonderful sidehug, with this caption: “Lifelong friends are the prize for just showing up.”  Imagine how the expressions on these faces would be different if we – the adults allegedly in full possession of our faculties and abilities – failed to show up and support these very special individuals and all those committing and contributing time and talents.  For an unfortunate moment, our nation was vying for a gold medal in selfishness and heartlessness.

We ought to be less self-centered and more soul-searching as we weigh choices about which programs are essential and effective.  The day it is decided that aspirational and proven programs such as the Special Olympics are expendable, so we can invest in speculative priorities such as a space force, health care reform becomes even more imperative.  For we will be in desperate need of a national heart transplant.

David A. Atkinson is a Research Associate with The Susquehanna Valley Center

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.