It's remarkable how little the demonstrations in Wisconsin have to do with the budget battle that initially sparked it. The protesters today aren't talking about program cuts, but reinvigorating a sense of economic citizenship in an age when workers and democratic government are both under siege. Amid the chants and the picket signs is a new sense of where working-class families will draw the line when it comes to protecting certain public goods: education, labor rights, job security, and a solid social safety net.
Meanwhile in Washington, the same core values face a nationwide war of attrition against the public sector, labor protections, and education. From Wisconsin to the Hill, activists can trace a throughline between "belt tightening" in the state house and attacking big government in Congress. The issue is not so much deficits as it is the question of keeping the state from cannibalizing its public responsibilities.
Drawing the ideological battle lines, House Republicans have rolled out list of potential cuts for the remainder of the year that read like an epitaph for an asphyxiated government. The House plan isn't designed for political viability, given the power balance in the Senate; it's a statement of principles.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that the proposed cuts for fiscal year 2011 have the nation's children firmly in the GOP's crosshairs.
Head Start, a critical program for low-income children who need an extra boost for their educational futures, would lose 15 percent from current funding levels. This is equivalent to roughly 157,000 children, in addition to 61,000 Head Start and Early Start slots that will evaporate once stimulus funding dries up. Kids would also lose hundreds of millions of dollars for special education, math and science programs, and literacy support for families.
And for those seeking to pursue a higher education, Republicans provide some enticing options: dropping out, taking on more debt, or just staying poor:
[I]n 2014 the total maximum award for a Pell Grant recipient would be... $1,525 below today’s maximum Pell Grant award of $5,550. The cut below the currently projected maximum award would grow to $2,090 (or 34 percent) in 2017.
These cuts would discourage many prospective low- and moderate-income students from starting college and make it much harder for those who do to continue their studies and graduate.
Then there are more cuts to prevent older adults from obtaining vocational training and employment services under the Workforce Investment Act. Apparently conservatives prefer to limit opportunities for chronically under- and unemployed Americans to try to enhance their skills and move onto a productive career, because then in a few months they can relish the act of cutting off their unemployment benefits.
The proposed cuts would not only limit Americans' ability to move up in the workforce but curtail their physical mobility as well. A $3.6 billion reduction in transportation spending could stifle new infrastructure development, disproportionately impact the poor and people of color, and indirectly roll back attempts to create more energy-efficient cities.
But why stop there? Other potential cuts would make it harder for working Americans even to stay put in their homes. How about stripping funds for public housing resources, community development projects, and subsidies for poor people to heat their homes (the White House also wants to slice into home heating assistance).
The National Women's Law Center highlights the cuts that would be most devastating to women and families. For instance, House Republicans propose destroying family planning funding under Title X. This would be a blow to crucial birth control services for low-income men and women and devastate programs for preventing teen pregnancy, “creating yet another barrier for young women in need of tools and resources to help them make healthy, responsible decisions about their health and lives.”
See a pattern here? Systematically erasing provisions aimed at keeping families together, helping households pull through hard times, and enabling the next generation of Americans to realize their educational aspirations.
The House Republicans are setting a template for similarly draconian measures in the 2012 budget debate, as well as state legislatures around the country, which face even worse fiscal constraints.
So the budget process is turning out to be not really about cutting spending. It's about disinvesting from hope. Workers in Wisconsin saw more than taxpayer dollars at stake as legislators tried to gut their schools, government agencies and union rights. And that's where they decided to draw the line.