THE BLOG
02/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Condoms and Art are Stimulating (to the Economy); Corporate Tax Cuts Not So Much

Congressional Republicans have picked out two small pieces of the economic stimulus package to attack--funding for the arts and for family planning and AIDS prevention to the poor--while calling for more corporate tax cuts. They're wrong on both accounts: Aside from being social goods in their own right, arts funding and family planning are good for the economy. Corporate tax cuts are not.

As The New York Times reported on Monday, the country's 100,000 nonprofit arts groups employ 6 million people and contribute $167 billion to the economy. That's more people than are employed by the auto industry. Non-profit arts organizations, which, in addition to government grants, rely on private chartable contributions to survive, are as hard hit by the economic crisis as private industry, since the foundations that support them have seen their endowments decline and individuals have less money to contribute. As Marc. A. Scorca, head of Opera America said, "Arts jobs are jobs. We see opera companies cutting health care, administrative staff--these people are taxpayers and rent payers and mortgage payers, just like every other employee." A singer or dancer or visual artist with a job uses their income to buy goods and services, stimulating the economy and helping create more jobs. An unemployed artist may draw unemployment insurance, Medicaid, food stamps, or even welfare, thus burdening the economy and diverting government resources.

Moreover, as many cities and states have learned, supporting the arts has a further economic multiplier effect. When people attend a performance or go to a museum, they often spend additional money on restaurants, nearby shopping or parking. Artists are often the pioneers of urban revitalization. First artists move into lofts in a rundown neighborhood. Then cafes and galleries start to open. Soon middle class professionals are flocking to the area, first as consumers and then to rent and buy real estate, generating tax revenue which supports city and state governments and helps pay for things like schools and police.

The New Deal provides ample precedent for using the arts as economic stimulus, as well as inspiration providing hope to struggling Americans. The Works Progress Administration, known as the WPA, was at the heart of The New Deal, providing jobs to millions of Americans. One of the WPA's most influential components was Federal Project Number One, which employed thousands of Artists through its Federal Theater Project, Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, and the Federal Writers Project.

• The Federal Theater Project presented more than 1,000 performances a month to nearly a million people. Among the people who got their start in the FTP were Orson Welles, John Houseman, Burt Lancaster, Joseph Cotton, Will Geer, Nicholas Ray and Sidney Lumet.

• The Federal Writers Project created over 1,200 books and pamphlets, including local histories, oral histories, childrens books, the first U.S. guides for states and cities, and more than 2,300 first person oral histories of former slaves that now reside in the Library of Congress. Like the Federal Theater Project, the FWP made significant and long-lasting contributions to American life, supporting writers like Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, John Cheever, John Steinbeck and Zora Neale Hurston.

• The Federal Arts Project executed more than 2,500 murals in hospitals, schools and other public places, produced nearly 108,000 paintings and 18,000 pieces of sculpture, and sent arts teachers into schools and community centers. Among the artists it gave us are Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Moses Soyer, Jacob Laurence and Ivan Albright.

• The Federal Music Project presented an estimated 5,000 performances before 3 million people a week and provided music classes in rural areas and urban neighborhoods to thousands of children and adults.

Not only did Federal Project Number One provide employment and help stimulate the economy; it enriched the life of the nation living through the Great Depression and made a lasting impact on American cultural life.

So when Congressional Republicans denounce arts spending being part of the stimulus package, they are displaying extraordinary ignorance of the economic and cultural impact of the arts. Conservatives tend to oppose government support for the arts, not because it doesn't help the economy, but for political reasons because many artists tend to be nonconventional and often politically liberal (although by no means always) and perhaps disproportionately gay. It's about the remnants of the culture wars, not about the good of the economy.
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Unfortunately, rather than rallying support behind family planning for the poor, Obama seems to have caved into Republican attacks, and twisted the arms of key Democratic Congressmen to drop it from the stimulus package. Hopefully, it will be revived in separate legislation.

Not only should poor people have the same opportunity as middle class people to decide when to have children; not only is this likely to reduce abortions; family planning also has a positive economic impact. When poor women, particularly teenagers, end up having unwanted babies, they often have to drop out of school and can't work. Instead of being students and taxpayers, they end up on welfare roles, and drain state Medicaid budgets for pre-natal care, post-natal care, and deliveries; even more so it they engage in unprotected sex and end up with AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. This takes away money that states could use for vital public services like employing police and teachers. Children having children often leads to a cycle of poverty, particularly in inner cities, poor rural areas, and among minorities. If Obama has made the political calculation to take family planning out of the stimulus package, he should be leading the fight to allow states to fund it through Medicaid in separate legislation.
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Meanwhile, while denouncing government spending on the arts and family planning, Congressional Republicans call for bigger corporate tax cuts. In fact, corporate tax cuts are among the least effective ways for the government to stimulate the economy. It is estimated that $100 billion in direct government spending increases GDP by $150 billion dollars and creates 1 million jobs. In contrast, $100 billion in corporate tax cuts increases GDP by only $30 billion and creates only 200,000 jobs.

Even if Obama waters down the stimulus package by things like dropping family planning and increasing corporate tax breaks to try to get more Republican votes (unlikely in any case), that won't stop Republicans from attacking Obama in the 2010 and 2012 elections if the economy is not recovering by then. They'll still say it was Obama's plan and at best, they reluctantly went along. It makes far better sense to have the best possible stimulus plan with the greatest chance of success. If Congressional Republicans want to oppose Obama's plan, he can go over their heads and appeal to the American people, with whom he has 68% approval ratings (including 43% approval ratings among Republicans). Obama needs grassroots bipartisanship--winning over the people--not Beltway "bipartisanship" of caving into bad ideas from Congressional Republicans

So if we want more stimulus, economic and otherwise, we need more art and more birth control/safe sex and less tax cuts for corporations.