WASHINGTON -- In early 2011, Elizabeth Miller, a bus driver for the Port Authority in Pittsburgh, received notice that she would be laid off in 60 days, the victim of austerity measures imposed by the government.
The stress of the looming pink slip caused her Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the entire digestive tract, to flare up, and she began shedding weight rapidly. Miller lost nearly 30 pounds during her last two months on the job. By the time she clocked out from her final shift in March last year, she weighed just 99 pounds.
"That was the hardest stretch ever because we knew every day that we went to work was another day closer to our layoffs,” Miller said. “I couldn’t retain anything. It was scary.” To alleviate her symptoms, doctors considered giving her a colostomy bag.
But the worst was still to come. After losing her job, Miller lost her savings. Then she lost her house.
The austerity budget, conservatives' favored response to the Great Recession, is more than just simple belt tightening. It's not one cut or 10, but a thousand. City and neighborhood essentials like bus service become expendable, and things that we have come to depend on as part of our daily lives are slowly erased. Those teachers and firefighters Mitt Romney doesn't want to pay for? They're already part of austerity's disappeared jobs.
This austerity mindset is taking hold not just in cities and states across the United States, but around the world. While conservatives have championed austerity as eat-your-peas necessity, these massive cuts often have unintended consequences. The Huffington Post is launching a series of articles examining the global impact of austerity, from the loss of affordable housing funds in San Francisco to increasing class sizes in New York's public schools, fewer food inspectors in Canada, loss of disability benefits in the United Kingdom, the decimation of France's solar industry and more.
These stories chronicle austerity's collateral damage: the suicide-inducing fear that impending cuts created in the U.K., how one girl's grades suffered when her class size grew, the loss of personnel that made battling fires more dangerous for one New Jersey town.
Miller, 41, loved being a bus driver. It was a job that she had held for half her life. She drove a bus for Pittsburgh public schools for 17 years before signing on with the Port Authority in 2009. One of her main routes passed through the poorest, toughest parts of the city. On her bus, it was usually standing room only, she said.
Miller grew to know regular passengers by name. They would back her up if other riders became rowdy. On one route years ago, Miller said, she heard a woman break down emotionally after getting a call that her son had been shot and killed. When she worked the late shift, one of her regulars, a fast-food worker who got on before midnight, would bring her a sandwich or an iced tea every night. She believed she could count on her job, she said. Her riders, she believed, came to count on her.
The austerity steamroller obliterated this calculus. The Port Authority public transit system slashed hundreds of positions along with Miller's, completely wiping out 29 bus routes and significantly altering another 80. Twenty thousand riders were affected. Former Gov. Ed Rendell (D) had attempted to stave off the ax with millions in federal government funds. But the new Republican administration in the statehouse has been unwilling to bail out the bus system or compromise with the transit workers' union.
Miller said she felt forgotten, like just another number. "Bus operator No. 1864," she said, her deep voice still filled with pride.
She had tried to save her job, shouting through a megaphone at rallies. She burst into tears while speaking before elected officials debating the cuts.
On her last day, Miller worked a Sunday route, picking up elderly riders in downtown Pittsburgh and driving them to churches in the Hill District.
"I used to call it driving my Miss Daisies," she explained. The women would board in their Sunday best, with neat dresses and big hats. "Every time I think about it makes me want to cry," she said before beginning to sob.
Her riders gave her parting gifts. One woman greeted her with a bag full of fruit. Another presented her with a card and a book of prayers for the coming year. Still another gave her lotions and soaps and a memo pad.
Miller wondered how they were going to get to church next Sunday. Or how riders were going to do without the route that went from the public housing projects to the grocery store. That one has been eliminated.
There were more detours on her own path. In a nearby suburb, Miller had spent eight years building her dream home, adding an above-ground pool and deck to the vinyl-sided house. Her two daughters had their own bedrooms. There was even enough room to fulfill her dream of having her parents move in. She had grown up with her grandparents. She was carrying on a family tradition.
But after she lost her job, Miller said, her parents decided to move out. Eventually she was forced to sell the house and downsize to a smaller place. The part-time bus driving work she could find didn't cover her mortgage payment. "I had no other choice," she said.
Less than two months after Miller sold her home, the Port Authority rehired her on May 29. Three days later, her bosses told her that she'll probably be laid off again in early September. Negotiations to avoid severe Port Authority cuts continue, but state officials are demanding major union concessions, and Gov. Tom Corbett (R) has not yet agreed to specific funding help.
"We're just cutting, cutting, cutting," Miller said. "This just isn't about my job. I'll find another one. But it's all the other people. I know they want to make Pittsburgh a top-notch city, but if you don't have your janitors or your service people or your waitresses -- these people rely on mass transit -- how is your city going to thrive?"
Austerity Measures Devastate Communities Around The World
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/12/austerity-measures-a-thousand-cuts_n_1666309.html">CLICK HERE to read the full story.</a> The austerity budget, conservatives' favored response to the Great Recession, is more than just simple belt tightening. It's not one cut or 10, but a thousand. City and neighborhood essentials like bus service become expendable, and things that we have come to depend on as part of our daily lives are slowly erased. Those teachers and firefighters <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/post/mitt-romney-we-dont-need-more-cops-firefighters-or-teachers/2012/06/08/gJQAvOgDOV_blog.html" target="_hplink">Mitt Romney doesn't want</a> to pay for? They're already part of austerity's disappeared jobs. This austerity mindset is taking hold not just in cities and states across the United States, but around the world. While conservatives have championed austerity as eat-your-peas necessity, these massive cuts often have unintended consequences.
Fire Department Cuts
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/13/fire-department-cuts-a-thousand-cuts_n_1659671.html">CLICK HERE to read the full story.</a> "They are asking you to do more with less," Westfield, N.J., firefighters union president Mike Sawicki said. "A second-grader can figure that out. Show up with nine guys, and it is easier to save." While the number of deadly fires has declined over the last 20 years nationwide, thanks to better construction and safety techniques, fire departments are increasingly called upon to answer medical emergencies, chemical spills and more, said Garry Biese, CEO for the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Yet fire departments are going short-handed. The precipitous drop in state and local revenues caused by the Great Recession, combined with budget cuts pushed by austerity-minded politicians, has led to static or slowly dropping staffing levels across the country.
Larger Class Sizes
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/14/larger-class-size-a-thousand-cuts_n_1659591.html">CLICK HERE to read the full story.</a> When Shania started third grade at P.S. 148 last fall, she was thrilled to be back at the Queens public school. An outgoing eight-year-old, she said she was happy to be among her friends again, and she had loved her class the previous year. Her second-grade teacher would take the time to explain tricky topics like addition and subtraction one-on-one. She had even been named "student of the month." But since 2007, as the economy has tanked and expenses for public schools have risen, New York City has made principals cut budgets by 13.7 percent. When budgets are cut, teachers are fired and others aren't replaced -- including at P.S. 148, which has lost at least $600,000 and eight teachers since 2010. When teachers are lost, class sizes balloon. Shania had 31 classmates this past school year, compared to 20 the year before.
'The Big Problem For Me Is Fear'
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/15/austerity-measures-uk-a-thousand-cuts_n_1670711.html" target="_hplink">CLICK HERE for the full story.</a> Since birth, Lisa Egan, 33, has dealt with a rare genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease. The condition has caused more than 60 fractures in Egan's lifetime, including five separate breaks in 2011. "I once broke my back sleeping in an awkward position," she said. Because her disease is "wearing out her joints," doctors told Egan to use a wheelchair. "I can walk a very short distance and very slowly," said Egan, who lives in Camden, North London. "But sometimes things happen, such as my knee dislocates or I will tear a tendon out of a metatarsal and pull the end of the bone off with it. ... So I use a wheelchair most of the time." Despite her condition, Egan said she does not like to be seen as "vulnerable." Intelligent and articulate, she has written extensively on disability and politics, and has even tried a stint at stand-up comedy. As one of nearly 500,000 people in the United Kingdom who rely on welfare benefits, however, Egan now experiences fear daily: fear for her future, fear for her ability to live independently, even fear for her life.
Public Transit Crisis
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/16/detroit-bus-cuts-a-thousand-cuts_n_1647867.html" target="_hplink">CLICK HERE to read the full story.</a> Waits have been getting longer for many of the roughly 107,000 to 117,000 daily passengers who depend on Detroit's bus fleet. The city has lost about half of its bus service since 2005, according to Transportation Riders United, a rider advocacy group. Under the Detroit Department of Transportation's new "415" plan, the city has increased service along its four busiest routes, with buses now running every 15 minutes, but the new schedule necessitated tradeoffs elsewhere. In March, the department, whose management had recently been privatized by the city, shortened hours on more than 30 routes and discontinued all service between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. The changes, which the city anticipates will save $40 million a year, have forced an estimated 3,200 nighttime travelers to come up with alternative plans for getting around town and left others waiting longer on the side of the road. "I'm hurting. A lot of times they don't come around, and when they do, they pass you by," said George Jones, 57.
Fewer Food Inspectors
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/17/canada-food-safety-a-thousand-cuts_n_1664579.html" target="_hplink">CLICK HERE to read the full story.</a> Frances Clark's last moments were not peaceful. Flu-like symptoms and seizures wracked her body. Her breathing deteriorated. At the end, she was "gasping, like a fish out of water," her daughter recalled later in court documents. The 89-year-old woman died on Aug. 25, 2008, the first victim of a listeriosis outbreak that killed 23 people, sickened thousands more and triggered the biggest food recall in Canadian history. A government investigation determined the cause of the outbreak: tainted meat from processing giant Maple Leaf Foods. The company apologized to the victims and settled a number of lawsuits, including one brought by Clark's family, for CAD$27 million. Following the scandal, the federal government introduced significant changes to its meat inspection program, including nearly doubling the number of inspectors from 225 to 400. But now, the government has slashed the budget for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the federal department responsible for food safety, by $56 million over the next three years.
Affordable Housing Gap
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/18/affordable-housing-san-francisco-a-thousand-cuts_n_1666760.html" target="_hplink">CLICK HERE to read the full story.</a> Roman Quinn said getting clean would have been nearly impossible if he were still living on the streets. But his struggle to find a place to live proved nearly as difficult as his struggle to find sobriety. San Francisco has nonprofit groups and other programs in place to help the city's most vulnerable residents -- people like Quinn and, increasingly, families tossed out of their homes due to the recession -- find housing. In recent months, however, that system has been greatly strained. Federal housing grants and tax credit programs have decreased drastically. Last year alone, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's HOME Investment Partnerships Program, which doles out grants to municipalities for things like affordable housing construction and down payment assistance, saw its budget slashed by almost 38 percent. And changes at the state level last year cost the city about $50 million worth of tax revenue that had gone toward affordable housing. Meanwhile, the flood of individuals who have lost their jobs and homes in recent years has swelled the demand for affordable housing. It became so bad that the city's public housing authority closed the waiting list to new applicants in 2010. The list has yet to reopen. Without new sources of funding, success stories, even ones as tenuous as Quinn's, will be increasingly uncommon.
New Industry Struggles
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/19/austerity-measures-france-a-thousand-cuts_n_1679428.html" target="_hplink">CLICK HERE to read the full story.</a> While austerity measures remain comparatively limited in France, one field has suffered considerably: renewable energy, particularly solar photovoltaic systems. Over the past few years, nearly half the jobs in the sector, a total of 12,000, have been disappeared. According to the Syndicat des Energies Renouvelables, the renewable-energy trade union, nearly one-third of those jobs vanished in 2011. Entrepreneurs like Kilian Heim, who had gone out to conquer this new market, are now restarting from zero.
Austerity's Big Winners
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/23/austerity-wall-street_n_1690838.html" target="_hplink">CLICK HERE to read the full story.</a> The austerity game also has winners. Cutting or eliminating government programs that benefit the less advantaged has long been an ideological goal of conservatives. Doing so also generates a tidy windfall for the corporate class, as government services are privatized and savings from austerity pay for tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens.
How You Can Help
As readers of The Huffington Post, you can take action to help those affected by these austerity measures. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/13/austerity-cuts-how-you-can-help_n_1669072.html" target="_hplink">Click here for information on what you can do.</a>