By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Across the nation, state
and local leaders have been forced to slash more than $100 billion in spending,
laying off thousands of employees, cutting off health insurance for roughly one
million people, and lowering America's standard of living. Washington is not
just aloof from the pain out here in real America, but is making matters worse.
People across America will
pay the price for Washington's indifference in lower-quality schools, fewer
chances to go to college, less police protection and diminished medical care.
The unlucky ones among us, like Douglas Schmidt, will never recover. A
37-year-old epileptic, he depended on drugs that cost $13 a day and were paid
for by the state. State budget cuts meant he lost that benefit, and he ran out
of pills in late February.
A week later, he had a
severe seizure, his heart stopped, and he suffered permanent brain damage,
leaving him in what doctors called a "persistent vegetative state."
"He's very impaired,"
said his domestic partner, Werth Sargent. "He can't talk. He does not
respond to commands. But his eyes do move, and they do constrict when light
shines in his pupils. That's on his better days."
The bills so far for
treating Mr. Schmidt? About half a million dollars, borne by taxpayers.
When Arthur Schlesinger
wrote his "Age of Roosevelt" history books about the Great Depression,
his work emphasized that history is not just what Washington decides but also
what Main Street endures. While this is no Depression, I came to measure the
impact of the fiscal crisis in this little farm town of Yamhill, Ore.,
population 970. I chose Yamhill not because it is unusually traumatized but
because it is a place I know and love — it's where I grew up.
The schools here were not
forced to close early, as in nearby Hillsboro, and as one drives through Yamhill
on Maple Street, from one end of town to the other past the single flashing
yellow light, there aren't any signs of economic distress. Yamhill even has a
new business — a used car lot, with four cars for sale. But still, there is a
real, measurable drop in the quality of life here.
The schools in Yamhill have
had to lay off teachers, a bitter and divisive process in a small town like this,
so classes — which averaged 20 students last year — will be significantly
bigger this year. At the high school, the average class in the fall will have 29
students, and there could be 40 in English classes.
"We'll only have two
English teachers in the high school," frets the schools superintendent,
Dennis Hickey. "We need at least four. I don't know how we're going to do
In the 1970's, Yamhill
offered not just Spanish but also French (the teacher didn't really speak French
but was a good sport and gamely agreed to teach by staying a couple of chapters
ahead of us). Next year, Yamhill will be down to just Spanish, and many would-be
Spanish students will be turned away.
"We still have a
librarian," Mr. Hickey said brightly. "Some schools don't have that
Oregon has been proud of
its schools, and it has ranked among the top states in SAT scores. But schools
have been hit particularly hard, and universities have been gutted.
"It's very scary,"
said Mary Stern, a county commissioner. "I have a 4 1/2-year-old, and
I'm petrified about what might happen in the schools."
The county commissioners
have been forced to slash programs for teenage mothers, mental health, prenatal
care, drug abuse. The county jail's drug program was very successful, but it was
dropped — how could the county help criminals when it cut help for teenage
A man indicted for stealing
and fencing hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of property locally was
recently detained in Missouri, but Oregon couldn't pay to bring him back for
trial — so he was freed. In Yamhill's old football rival, the nearby town of
Dayton, the entire police department has been eliminated.
The hub of Oregon is
Portland, a gem of a city that has always felt very safe. But Mark Kroeker, the
police chief, worries that word is getting out to criminals that because of four
consecutive years of police budget cuts, crime pays in Portland.
Police are sometimes forced
to issue citations — like traffic tickets — to car thieves and burglars
because there is no room in the jail, Chief Kroeker says. He adds that one
result is that auto theft is up 17 percent so far this year. "We run a
serious risk of erosion of our quality of life," Mr. Kroeker said.
The economy has been in
worse shape before in Oregon — the recession in the early 80's devastated the
timber towns — but the budget problems seem more intractable now than they've
been in living memory. The state government is so paralyzed that it still hasn't
approved a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.
Future Farmers of America (now
the FFA), which dominated my high school life and taught me more than any class,
and remains a pillar of rural America, may now be dismantled at the state level.
The traditional county fair, where the Yamhill FFA and 4-H kids show hogs and
sheep against one another and their parents compete for blue ribbons for the
best berry pie, is in jeopardy because the county isn't able to rescue it if it
goes in the red.
What's growing in Oregon is
"This woman was saying
to me, People should be on the streets with pitchforks, saying: `Revolt! Revolt!'
" said Ms. Stern, the county commissioner. "There's a groundswell
starting. I can feel this energy coming."
Will this fury be directed
at President Bush in the next election? I'm not sure. People here complain
vigorously about state or local officials, but Mr. Bush seems an afterthought.
Still, when the topic comes up, many people are scathing about the Bush
administration's spending $4 billion a month in Iraq while letting small towns
beg for scraps.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a
Democrat, thinks that President Bush will have to bail out the states next year.
presidential election coming up," he said in an Oregon-style interview —
sitting outside in his shirt sleeves on a bench in a public park. "And when
the administration feels the hot breath of the public on its neck, they're going
to appropriate more resources to the states."
Mr. Kulongoski says that
when he and other governors get together, they wonder: What can Washington be
President Bush is not primarily to blame for this fiscal crisis. The causes include overly enthusiastic spending during the boom years as well as the popping of the tech bubble. But Mr. Bush is making things worse with his fiscal recklessness and his practice of forcing states and school districts to spend money on new programs without helping to pay the bill. Washington should be lending a hand, not adding to the local burden — showing all the compassion of Marie Antoinette.
If the budget crisis
persists, and it is likely to so long as Washington is distracted and unhelpful,
towns like Yamhill will lose some of their heart and vitality. And the victims
of the budget cuts, like Douglas Schmidt, may never recover. At best, Mr.
Schmidt will linger unconscious for decades, breathing through his respirator,
costing taxpayers millions of dollars, a monument to America's fiscal crisis of