Austerity USA Decimating Health, Safety, and Education

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Common Dreams

Austerity USA Decimating Health, Safety, and Education

Gutting of public sector turning teachers into lion tamers and firemen into gamblers

Common Dreams staff

Several hundred Camden firefighters and police officers are laid off from their jobs, in January in Camden, New Jersey. Austerity in the United States is neither abstract nor hypothetical. It is happening now, and it is devastating public health and safety, education, and the fabric of communities. (Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)

Last year, 19 percent of US cities cut spending for public safety, according to a survey by the National League of Cities.  That statistic, cited by McClatchy in a new report, does little to tell the very real and dangerous impact that reduced public spending has had on state and local communities since the collapse of the economy in 2008 and the misguided push to enact public austerity since conservatives won big in state and local elections in 2010.

In Camden, New Jersey, firefighters say it's only a matter of time before the strain on their department results in the lost lives of city residents. Across the nation, teacher morale has shrunk with frozen wages and ever-increasing class size. In Georgia, with class sizes as large 35, teachers say they feel more 'like lion tamers' than educators. In Louisiana, budget shortfalls are decimating the public health system. And in a school district outside Philadelphia, budget cuts recently forced layoffs of 187 of the district's 320 teachers.

Austerity in the United States is neither abstract nor hypothetical. It is happening now, and it is having deep and devastating impacts on public health, safety, education, and the fabric of communities.

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McClatchy: Across America, public-sector job cuts take a heavy toll:

Since February 2010, the nation's private employers have added more than 3.9 million jobs, or roughly 164,000 per month. Over the same period, however, some 485,000 government jobs were lost. The effects of those job cuts are being felt by children, families and businesses across America.

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Playing 'Roulette" with Public Safety

When city leaders in cash-strapped Camden, N.J., laid off more than 60 firefighters just over a year ago, many felt it created a public-safety nightmare waiting to happen. The loss of nearly one-third of the city's firefighting capacity was a calculated risk, but a necessary sacrifice in order to close a $26 million budget deficit.

More than a year later, the cracks in the city's public safety armor are growing wider. Seven, sometimes eight fire companies are doing the work of eleven. Volunteer departments in neighboring towns routinely must provide backup. Firefighter injuries are up. So are response times. And during one "brownout week" each month, no Camden firefighter can take vacation or holiday time off.

"It's been tough. It's been really tough, morale-wise. We've got guys being pushed to the max every day," said Al Ashley, president of Fire Officers Local 2578 in Camden.

Worse yet is the nagging feeling that the depleted fire department is tempting fate. If a serious structure fire breaks out, each of the city's seven companies would need to respond, making it impossible to respond to any other fire or emergency at the same time.

"It hasn't happened yet, but it's not a question of 'if," it's a question of 'when,'" Ashley said. "The politicians are playing a game of roulette."

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Hammering Public Education, and America's Teachers

The per-capita employment rate in public education, by far the largest sector of government hiring, is at the lowest level since 1999. And the rate of public employment outside of education has fallen to the 1986 level, said Nicholas Johnson, vice president for state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank.

When the recession hit, Johnson said 33 states raised tax rates, but that wasn't enough to make up for the decline in property, sales and income tax revenues, which still haven't fully recovered. Johnson said the recession caused 41 states to raise state-college tuition and lay off university staff; 30 cut funding for local school districts; 25 cut funding for seniors and people with disabilities; and 30 states cut the availability of health care services.

Teachers have been one of the hardest-hit professions in the public sector. Seventy-one percent of school districts reported cuts in state and local funding from last year's budget, 68 percent eliminated positions this year, and 65 percent expect to do so again next year, according to a new survey by the American Association of School Administrators.

No surprise that job satisfaction among teachers has dropped 15 points from the 59 percent who were "very satisfied" in 2009. It was 44 percent in 2011, according to the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher. That's the lowest level in more than 20 years.

Meanwhile, the percent of teachers who no longer feel their job is secure has jumped from 8 percent in 2006 to 34 percent last year, the survey found.

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Austerity in Georgia Turning Teachers into 'Lion Tamers'

In Georgia, the state board of education recently agreed to waive restrictions on class size for the fourth straight year, as "austerity" cuts in the state budget continue to force teacher layoffs that lead to larger classes. In the Cobb County School District just outside Atlanta, 250 teachers and 26 paraprofessionals will likely be cut next year to close a projected $62 million deficit caused by state funding cuts.

Most Georgia school districts are also furloughing teachers without pay for two to 10 days — at a time when many teachers are being paid less than they were three or four years ago, and also being asked to be more accountable.

"I'm hearing more and more from our members that 'I'm thinking about retiring a little earlier' or 'I'm looking at a private school opportunity because I've just had it,'" said Tim Callahan, a spokesman with the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

The larger classes are stressful for all teachers, but "particularly for our new teachers right out of school," Callahan said. "Suddenly they're looking at 34 or 35 high school students, so they really have to be part lion tamer, you know. It's tough. So the impact of increased class sizes is very negative."

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