On November 20, the New York Daily News reported that Mayor Michael Bloomberg will save the hard pressed city $350,000 a year by cutting the daily bread ration for prisoners at Rikers Island from eight slices of whole wheat bread to six and by eliminating vanilla and chocolate pudding from the dessert menu. The News checked with nutritionists who felt the prisoners would survive on the reduced calories and the newspaper basically treated the issue as a light sidebar to the need of New Yorkers to tighten their belts in budgetary hard times. The story was picked up by WCBS 880 All-News Radio on Sunday morning where it became humorous relief in the long list of daily disasters.
Prisoners do not have much of a lobby and earn little public sympathy, so when the multi-billionaire Mayor cuts supposed frills out of their daily food ration it draws a laugh and no public outcry.
But there is a more serious problem. It is easy to look the other way when some else's "frills" are being cut. But eventually when budget cutting is the accepted solution to the nation's economic woes, the downward slide turns into an avalanche and everyone's programs are engulfed. The line between eliminating frills and necessities dissolves. Children will survive, and maybe even still learn, if you add one or two more students to a classroom, but eventually you reach a class-size threshold were conditions become intolerable and learning largely ceases. This happened in the 1970s and contributed to the decline in test scores and the deterioration of the school system in the 1980s.
Once there was a farmer who fed his horse a bucket of oats a day. He got good work out of the horse, but the cost was high. A friend recommended that the farmer cut the horse's daily oat ration in half. The farmer did and the horse continued to plow and haul, so the farmer cut the ration again and again and again until one day the horse keeled over dead. The same thing happens when schools and fire departments and police and cities are subjected to repeated cuts in their oats or pudding budgets.
Right now Bloomberg plans to reduce the city's projected $3 billion 2011 budget deficit with thousands of layoffs and cuts to all city agencies, including the closing of twenty fire departments at night. He wants to eliminate 350 civilian positions in the police department, 51 correction officers, 57 positions in the probation office, 200 sanitation supervisors, and 200 workers in child protection services. Programs for seniors, libraries, and cultural centers will be the hardest hit. Libraries will be cut $20 million causing reduced hours and branch closings. City agencies are already operating under a partial hiring freeze. They are only permitted to hire one employee for every two that leave.
The city's contribution to operating the school system is expected to increase, but it will not offset cuts in federal stimulus dollars. Proposed education budget cuts include reducing summer youth employment slots by over 2,000, a thirty percent reduction in after-school and holiday programs, and a 10 percent cut in Beacon schools that offer children and families special services. Projections for 2012 are even grimmer. The Department of Education faces a loss of over 6,000 teaching positions.
These cuts hurt New York in multiple ways and there is the potential for the situation to spiral out of control. Not only are services reduced, but laid-off workers and stressed families increase the demand for these services. Dislocated and essentially abandoned kids get into trouble and the poor opt for crime over hunger. Smaller numbers of teachers, police, correction officers, and probation officers are overwhelmed by a rising tide of misbehavior and crime. Infrastructure decays, nerves frazzle, and the city gets dirtier and less safe.
There is an alternative but right now it does not look politically feasible. There needs to be a major federal stimulus package to bail out cities and states, not just corporations, and the rich need to tighten their belts by paying higher taxes not the poor. How about taxing Bloomberg's billions of dollars. New York City could take away ten or fifteen billion, and he would still have five to ten billion dollars left to play around with.
It may be a joke when they take away the chocolate pudding at Rikers Island, but will it be funny when they say "no pudding for you"?