Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Real Cost of Budget Cuts in a Nation That Has Lost Its Way

The Real Cost of Budget Cuts in a Nation That Has Lost Its Way: A Sobering Visit to Community Board 3

Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University.

Last night, I attended the monthly meeting of Community Board 3 in the Morrisania section of the Bronx. I was there to speak in favor of a resolution to place a plaque on Jennings Street and Prospect Avenue to honor the Chords “Sh-Boom,” the first song by an urban harmonic group to sell a million records, and landmark in the history of Rock N Roll. The resolution passed unanimously, with Board members indicating this was only the first step in a campaign to “landmark” Morrisania’s remarkable musical legacy, which included jazz, Latin music, and hip hop as well as rhythm and blues and rock and roll.

But that was the one piece of good news in a very sobering evening. Before we got to speak in behalf of this resolution, I sat through a public hearing on the impact of coming budget cuts on the Morrisania community, a discussion that quite frankly sent chills through me. To some people, the upcoming state budget cuts are an abstraction, but in the eyes of Morrisania residents, their neighborhood, a 99% black and Latino working class community located in the poorest Congressional District in the US, is Ground Zero for Sacrifice.

The first person to speak was the owner of a small apartment building who was about to lose many of his tenants because of the cancellation of the Work Advantage Program, which cut off rent subsidies immediately to 17,000 formerly homeless individuals and families. This action, the speaker, warned, was not only going to throw tens of thousands of people into the street, but potentially bankrupt small building owners like him who were going to lose half of their tenants. The city and state’s answer was to open 70 new homeless shelters! The prospect of thousands of people being forced into shelters from a successful experiment in transitional housing appalled everyone in the room, but there was nothing they could do about it. It was a done deal.

The next speaker got up to denounce the cuts to youth employment and after school programs. She said that past cuts had already increased violence and drug selling in the community, but that the upcoming cuts would make the neighborhood hell for old and young alike.” By this summer,” she warned,” no one over 30 in this neighborhood will be able to leave their house without dodging bullets or picking their children up off the sidewalk"

Other speakers got up to denounce cuts in school budgets, which were going to increase class size and make it much harder to teach and control students and cuts in Sanitation, which were going to bring back a Rat problem which the City had just began to get under control but perhaps the most heartbreaking testimony came from the Director of the Morrisania Branch of the New York Public library, who which was about to experience cuts which were going to bring it back to the dark years following the fiscal crisis of the mid 70’s. His library, he said, had become a great neighborhood success story, serving almost 160,000 people a year, offering more than 600 classes to neighborhood people of all ages in subjects ranging from computer literacy to writing research papers to English as a second language, some of them taking place in Senior Centers as well as the Library proper. All this was now in jeopardy, he said. The new state budget would reduce financing of his branch to 40 percent of what it was in 2008, forcing him to lay off staff, cancel many and go back to the 1980’s schedule of being four days a week.

As I took in the full weight of this testimony, I began to connect the dots- cut jobs and after school programs for youth, force families into the street, increase class size in local schools, and sharply reduce library access and you are setting the scene for nothing less a wave of violence and suffering. Let’s make no mistake about it, Morrisania, a neighborhood who spend twenty years rebuilding itself after a arson and disinvestment cycle destroyed more than half of its housing stock, has been put on the chopping block by heartless politicians in City Hall, Albany and Washington, who are forcing unspeakable sacrifice on its residents, especially its youth, while refusing to raise taxes on America’s bloated upper class.

Knowing this, I will be having trouble sleeping at night. What about you?

Mark Naison
April 13, 2011