Death by Budget Cut: Why Conservatives and Some Dems Have Blood on Their Hands

The Right Wing

This article has been updated.

Politicians, the media and the power elite tell us that state and local government budget shortfalls are the result of lavish compensation packages paid to teachers, police officers and firefighters along with "entitlements" such as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. The truth is that the economic crisis, sparked by decades of deregulation and greedy financial firms, caused high levels of unemployment that dramatically reduced state and local tax revenues. Add to that years of tax cuts for the wealthy and decades of corporate tax-dodging, and you've got yourself a budget crisis.

Conservatives clearly intend to exploit budget crises to starve government. And some Democratic politicians are also cutting services to balance their budgets. In their quest to render government incapable of providing for its citizens, conservatives, with the help of their fellow acquiescing Democrats, are exacting an irreversible and deadly toll that has gone largely ignored by the mainstream press. So it is up to us to bring attention to the disastrous consequences austerity has wrought.

A new trend in spending reduction forced upon cities and states is cuts to emergency response. Take Philadelphia, which last August began implementing "rolling brownouts," a cost-cutting measure that forced the fire department to close fire stations on a daily rotating basis. At the time, firefighters argued that the brownouts would delay response times, possibly causing preventable injury and death.

This past February their warnings became reality when two children, ages 7 and 9, were pulled from a burning row home too little too late. As it turns out, the nearest fire station was temporarily shutdown due to the brownouts. Mike Kane of the Philadelphia Firefighters Union Local 22 said there was no way to tell whether the children would have lived had the fire station been open, but if not for the brownouts, "maybe them kids would have had a shot."

This wasn't the first time brownouts produced fatal consequences in Philadelphia. In August 2010, a fire broke out and spread to four homes, killing 12-year-old Frank Marasco. The firehouse serving Marasco's neighborhood was closed that night due to the brownouts.  

Philadelphia isn't alone in resorting to brownouts to fill budget shortfalls. Los Angeles, San Diego, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Sacramento are also using brownouts as a means to save money. In July of last year brownouts in San Diego increased the time it took paramedics to reach a 2-year-old who ultimately choked to death on a gumball.

The Memorial Day weekend suicide of 52-year-old Raymond Zack has ignited controversy about cuts to emergency services. It took Zack an hour to drown in the San Francisco Bay as a dozen first responders and some 75 onlookers watched. According to the first responders, they lacked the proper water equipment and necessary certifications to conduct water rescues due to budget cuts from 2009.     

Given the dire consequences of targeting emergency response services, it's frightening that New York City is preparing to close 20 firehouses and units across the city to squeeze out an estimated savings of $55 million. In protests earlier this month that received scant media attention, firefighters and residents told local news reporters that the closures will “increase the response time for an adequate number of fire trucks to arrive on the scene” — an alarming thought in a city where “the difference between 2-5 minutes can mean the difference between life and death.”

Last December we witnessed the detrimental impact of cost-cutting, when New York City was pummeled by 20 inches of snow in what quickly became one of the most devastating blizzards the city has ever faced. As emergency responders grappled with snow-clogged streets, they were left with a backlog of 1,300 critical 911 calls, 1,000 of which went unanswered. In Brooklyn, a newborn infant died after the mother waited nine hours for emergency responders, while a stroke victim suffered advanced brain damage after waiting six hours for an ambulance. When a fire broke out five blocks from Elmhurst Hospital, emergency workers resorted to transporting patients to the emergency room on sleds. Paramedics were so busy, that for the first time in history, they were forced to limit CPR time to 20 minutes.

While the right-wing media spread the bogus lie that unions deliberately staged and executed a slowdown to protest budget cuts, the true yet widely ignored culprit was the austerity decision to impose a citywide hiring freeze, resulting in 400 fewer workers to clear the snow-covered roads. Harry Nespoli, president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, warned earlier in the year that the city would have trouble responding to a major snowstorm due to a lack of manpower. The commissioner of the Sanitation Department, John Doherty, said just as much when he acknowledged to the New York Times that “a loss of 400 slots forced him to use 100 workers who were inadequately trained.”

Meanwhile, Arizona was busy denying life-saving treatment to tens of thousands of low-income residents. After being the only state in the entire country to eliminate the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), effectively denying health care to 47,000 low-income children, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill to end financing for certain organ transplants covered under Medicaid. Marc Lacey in the New York Times described the decision as amounting to “a death sentence for some low-income patients, who had little chance of survival without transplants and lacked the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to pay for them.” Two patients taken off the organ transplant waiting list died as a result of the shameful measure, leading many to accuse Governor Brewer of implementing death panels through budget cuts.

Perhaps cities and states are imitating federal legislatures in slashing life-saving programs. The E. coli outbreak in Europe, which the AP reports has “claimed at least 33 lives and has left some 3,000 people ill across 14 countries” brings new meaning to the House Appropriations Committee's spending cuts to the nation's food-safety budget. They recently proposed cutting $35 million from the Food Safety Inspection Service, responsible for maintaining the safety of meat, poultry and eggs.

With the nation facing an increase in climate change-induced natural disasters, from tornadoes and floods to droughts and wildfires, disaster relief is more important than ever. Unfortunately, the House Appropriations Committee has made it clear they disagree, as evidenced by the recent House Homeland Security appropriations bill that included cuts to disaster aid and firefighter funding. Some members of the Committee expressed concern that “the House of Representatives “shortchanged” the federal disaster relief fund by as much as $3 billion, and are attempting to pay for past disasters with funding intended for current and future efforts.” The Hill’s Erik Wasson writes, “With the cuts, FEMA state and local programs would be reduced by 55 percent compared to levels for fiscal 2011, and by 70 percent compared to fiscal 2010.”

This is why there is no room for compromise when dealing with budget cuts that will surely cost innocent lives, especially when there are ways to fill budget gaps that deficit hawks in congress consistently refuse to pursue — like ending the wars that are costing upwards of $1 trillion a year or slightly increasing taxes on millionaires and billionaires after a decade of tax cuts that have cost $2.6 trillion or closing tax-loopholes which allow two-thirds of US corporations to avoid paying federal income taxes costing $100 billion a year, or $1 trillion a decade. Instead, they are forcing cities and states to cut their most basic services to stay out of the red.  

The fact that these catastrophic budget cuts are most heavily promoted by a conservative party that so vehemently claims to value life above all else, should be an eye-opening lesson about the rationality and mental health of those who so easily submit to the hypocrisy-laden contradictions of such a blatantly inconsistent belief system. But Democrats in office have embraced the same conservative economic ideology that promotes tax and spending cuts as the road to prosperity. 

So the next time you hear a colleague, family member, or friend advocate or justify draconian budget cuts as a necessary evil, remind them that these policies prioritize warfare and the further enrichment of the already uber-wealthy above the lives of the middle class and poor.  

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been corrected since its original publication for more accurate attribution to original sources.

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