Letters at 3AM: Where We Actually Live

A nation that lets its infrastructure crumble will wake one fine day to find itself crippled

Letters at 3AM: Where We Actually Live
Illustration by Jason Stout

Factions fling rhetoric at one another but don't talk much about facts. One result is that, as a citizenry, we've lost sight of where we actually live and our politics are no longer about what's going on in that strange place.

Here are fragments of an accurate description from The New York Times:

"More than a quarter of the nation's bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Leaky pipes lose an estimated seven billion gallons of clean drinking water every day. And aging sewage systems send billions of gallons of untreated wastewater ... into the nation's waterways each year" (Jan. 28, 2009, p.A16). "[A] significant water line bursts on average every two minutes somewhere in the country" (March 15, p.A1). "75 percent of [America's] public schools have structural deficiencies and 25 percent have problems with their ventilation systems" (Feb. 20, p.A17). "Even upscale suburban districts are preparing for huge levels of layoffs" (May 20, p.A1). "Kansas City [Mo.] Will Shutter Nearly Half of Its Schools" (March 11, p.A20). "Costs Keep Rail Systems Outdated Across U.S." (June 25, 2009, p.A13). "Millions of Miles of Pipe, and Years of Questions – Weak Oversight Cited in Nation's System of Gas Lines" (Sept. 25, p.A1). California's "[i]nfrastructure spending ... has dropped from 20 percent of the state budget to 3 percent" (Sept. 28, p.A29). "Most summer school programs ... from elementary through high school" have been canceled in Los Angeles (May 30, 2009, p.A9), as well as in Florida, North Carolina, Delaware, Washington, Maryland, and Ohio (July 2, 2009, p.A1). "Arizona Drops Children's Health Program" (March 19, p.A17). "Money Shortage Forces Cut in Cases To Be Prosecuted" (May 9, 2009, p.A13). "Community Colleges Cutting Back on Open Access" (June 24, p.A15).

In Tracy, Calif., "residents will now have to pay every time they call 911 for a medical emergency. ... Residents can pay a $48 voluntary fee for the year ... [or] be charged $300 if they make a call for help" (Feb. 21, p.WK8).

In one Brooklyn neighborhood, "within a 10-minute walk, three day care centers, one senior center, one swimming pool, one after-school program and a health clinic are to close. Venture 20 minutes more, and six additional facilities – two day care centers, two after-school programs, a senior center and a health clinic – are also to shut down" (June 5, p.A1).

"[B]udget shortfalls have led 11 states to close enrollment in programs that provide drugs to people with H.I.V. and AIDS. ... Arizona has ended many behavioral health services for 4,000 children. Oregon has made significant cuts to community health programs for nearly 1,500 mentally ill residents and is eliminating a program that helps 2,000 residents with Alzheimer's or dementia receive care at home" (July 2, p.A24).

"Safety Is Issue as Budget Cuts Free Prisoners" (March 5, p.A1). Oregon, Illinois, Colorado, California, and Michigan were cited. The director of Michigan's Department of Corrections, Patricia L. Caruso, said, "We can live in fear and make bad policy based on fear, or we can have some backbone and make policy based on what really helps our communities." Then she admitted: "I worry about it. I say a rosary every day."

"Firefighters have protested [cuts] in Florida," as have nurses in Minnesota, which cut aid to health services, as has Alabama (Time, June 28, p.22). That article adds that Arizona cut kindergarten programs to half-days (a hard situation for working parents) and that funds for schools "plunged" in New Jersey, while Florida "slashed" university spending.

"More than one-third of the trains, equipment, and facilities of the nation's seven largest rail transit agencies are near the end of their useful life or past that point" (USA Today, May 1, 2009, p.3).

The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 4, 2009, p.1: California, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Colorado have "shuttered" most state offices one day per week; Detroit cut family services for foster kids; 7,000 state jobs were eliminated in Washington; 27,000 teachers were laid off in California; Maine families "cannot apply for food stamps or Medicaid"; Maryland has halved "the usual number of traffic patrols"; Georgia has 25,000 employees "facing furloughs"; lawyers there have trouble finding government personnel with whom to file papers at the State Court of Appeals. Five million Americans work for state governments; many of their jobs are no longer secure.

Public safety is directly threatened. "Budget cuts are forcing police around the country to stop responding to fraud, burglary and theft calls as officers focus limited resources on violent crime. ... 'If you come home to find your house burglarized and you call, we're not coming,' said [an] Oakland police spokeswoman" (USA Today, Aug. 25, p.1).

"There are more people in poverty now – 43.6 million – than at any time since the government began keeping accurate records (The New York Times, Sept. 25, p.A21). "Public employee layoffs and service cutbacks that states are enacting amount to an 'anti-stimulus program' that dwarfs the size of the federal government's stimulus program" (The Week, July 16, p.4).

Pity the poor public official who tries to actually do something. "Daniel Varela Sr., ... mayor of Livingston, Calif., ... was booted from office last month in a landslide recall election. His crime? He had the temerity to push through the small city's first water-rate increase in more than a decade to try to fix its aging water system, which he said spewed brownish, smelly water from rusty pipes" (The New York Times, Sept. 23, p.A1).

The unemployed, the part-timers who'd rather be full-time, and the many 18- to 24-year-olds living with parents total roughly 20 milllion able-bodied Americans. (The Week, Aug. 20, p.4).

I could fill five times this space with similar quotes. Piles of printouts surround me as I write. My files bulge with this stuff.

Republicans and the tea party cry for fewer taxes and smaller government without explaining how those policies address what's actually going on where we actually live. The White House and most Democrats are unable or unwilling to recognize that what's actually going on where we actually live is nothing less than a national emergency ultimately far more threatening to the viability of this country than acts of terrorism.

The United States is in critical need of repairs of every imaginable kind. There are 20 million able-bodied unemployed who could be trained to make those repairs. The solution is obvious. Pay the unemployed to be trained for the work needed. Employ these trained cadres to get the physical structure of America back to a fully functioning level and keep it at that level. Turn an unemployed, frightened, angry population into a population doing work that is useful and desperately needed, making them wage-earners whose spending and taxpaying would revive this economy from the ground up.

No one in power speaks of such a solution.

Instead, we spend hundreds of billions on wars that profit us nothing.

So far, state spending cuts mainly hurt the poor, the ill, the helplessly aged, the young, and the many thousands furloughed and laid off. But states will cut again next year and the year after – there's no relief in sight. Sooner or later, every tier of this society will hurt. Even the rich need a functioning traffic system. Even they need water to run clean, bridges that stay up, dams that don't falter, and firefighters and police with the capacity to respond.

Infrastructure has no politics. It either works or it doesn't. A nation that lets its infrastructure crumble will wake one fine day to find itself crippled.

The fixing necessary is not about ideology; it's about nuts and bolts. If we fail we are all headed down the same chute into whatever we'll call a First World nation that crawls backward into a Third World swamp.

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infrastructure, fiscal cuts

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