In the State of Utah they’ve proved that patience and kindness extended to poor, unemployed, homeless people can actually save money – that giving people places to live predicts they will be less likely to wind up living in much more expensive places like emergency rooms, or medical or mental hospitals, or jails, not to mention that are more likely to lead productive lives.
In the States of Kansas, Illinois, Louisiana and Wisconsin they’ve proved that meanness is just meanness, that depriving people of medical or mental health or drug addiction care, that scrimping on school spending and deferring maintenance of basic infrastructure imposes huge opportunity costs and does not seem to fulfill policy-justifying claims of future job creation and economic growth.
Back in the 17th Century, Puritanical preachers like Cotton Mather sold vicious repression of religious dissidence and peeping Tom intrusions into private behavior as signs of grace and a quicker route to Heaven. But they didn’t claim their persnickety moralizing would create worldly wealth.
That hogwash had to wait till the 21st century and the now-checked austerity crusade of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback who sold his citizens on the idea that if you refuse to spend state money on Medicaid, poor sick people would find other ways to stay alive – like utilizing increasingly-distressed emergency rooms and small-town hospitals, and they would become more self-reliant. Well, they would be more self-reliant or dead, hopefully in some other state’s Potter’s Field.
The same for kids whose underfunded public schools shortened their teaching days or school years. They could make it up by learning at home, or paying for private school, especially, the Governor seemed to hope, religious private school. Teach ‘em morality.
Finally, in June, the elastic band Brownback kept around Kansas’ money roll snapped and the Legislature, in a genuinely bi-partisan move put together 2/3 majorities in the House and Senate and overturned the Governor’s veto of a bill to roll back most of the tax reductions and social service cutbacks embodied in his once “revolutionary” State budget of 2012. The “counter-revolution” was helped when the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that Brownback’s austerity program was denying the state’s children the quality education guaranteed them in the State Constitution. Doing so, the Court implied, wasn’t just unconstitutional, it was immoral.
Just weeks later, the Legislature of Illinois staged a similar revolt, ending 2 years without a State Budget by overruling Gov. Bruce Rauner’s series of vetoes of various spending bills. Rauner, like Brownback, a Tea Party Republican, and a man with more of his own money in the bank than he could count, believes denying people the right to spend their own tax money on roads and school and hospitals makes them and their state stronger.
Actually, a series of economic studies has shown, whether applied to poor countries like Greece, or poor states like New Mexico, or middling ones like Kansas or Illinois or Ohio, austerity makes poor people and poor countries poorer.
One moderate Republican legislator in Kansas, who won her party primary by promising to roll back Brownback’s “March to Zero” state spending and taxing, said it may be a generation before Kansas recover from all the damage done to its educational system, its basic infrastructure and the health and comity of its people.
Kim Rueben, a senior fellow in the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute, is an expert on state and local public finance and the economics of education. Her research examines state and local tax policy, fiscal institutions, state and local budgets, issues of education finance, and public-sector labor markets. Rueben directs the State and Local Finance Initiative. Her current projects include work on state budget shortfalls, financing options for California, the fiscal health of cities, and examining higher education tax credits and grants. She serves on a Council of Economic Advisors for the Controller of the State of California and a National Academy of Sciences panel on the economic and fiscal consequences of immigration, and she was on the DC Tax Revision Commission in 2013. In addition to her position at Urban, Rueben is an adjunct fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).
Before joining Urban, Rueben was a research fellow at the PPIC. She has served as an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute and the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley; as a visiting scholar at the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank; and as a member of the executive board of the American Education Finance Association.