Breaking news: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak just stepped down and transferred power to Vice President Omar Suleiman and the armed forces.
As an interested observer who has watched the protests continue for the past few weeks, I have been struck most by what I understand to be the underlying impetus of this historic reform movement: two decades of economic stagnation, crippling unemployment, and the deterioration of social services for those most needy. Not free speech, not freedom of religion, not human rights, but a relatively modest and universal demand for economic opportunity for all Egyptians. And I recognize I'm oversimplifying here, but the Mubarak administration largely failed to provide such opportunity to its citizens despite tremendous developmental undertakings in recent history, such as the al-Azhar Park in the Old City.
What truly stupefies me, however, is that unless we do something about it immediately, the same type of failure is about to happen right here at home, directly under our noses, at the hands of President Obama.
Next week, the White House will release its fiscal year 2012 budget proposal, in which it will make good on Obama's promise in his State of the Union Address to enact "painful cuts." One particularly poignant example is a 50% cut in Community Service Block Grant (CSBG) funding for Community Action Programs (CAPs) -- organizations that serve the most impoverished and marginalized of our society -- with the intent to redistribute the remaining funding through a competitive bid basis that is modeled largely on the failed Race to the Top educational initiative.
If this cut in funding is actually approved by Congress, CAPs that provide essential services to people living at or below the poverty line -- including fuel assistance, workforce training, education, earned income tax credit, food pantries and Head Start -- will need to significantly cut back or stop many of these programs.
Worse still, many CAPs will be forced to completely close their doors, and the very impoverished they exist to serve will have nowhere else to turn.
In Egypt, a lack of economic opportunity under President Mubarak for the past 20-plus years fomented a mass revolution. And for good cause: people expect, if nothing else, that their government will create an environment in which economic opportunity can thrive. Currently, most Egyptians live on about $2 per day in an economy that unfortunately has experienced little to no trickle-down effect. The country is facing massive poverty, high levels of unemployment, and ever-rising food prices. And as we can now see, this dissatisfaction with the Egyptian government's failure to deliver is slowly spreading across the Middle East.
Here at home, we are still coping with our own deteriorating economic situation. People who lost their jobs during the worst times of the recession in 2008-2009 are still having trouble getting back on their feet, and increasingly are turning to Community Action Programs for assistance. Yet President Obama is proposing cuts to community services for those most in need.
But there are people fighting back. Already, U.S. Congressional representatives including Ed Markey, John Kerry, Barney Frank and Michael Capuano have submitted a letter to the President asking him to reconsider his stated intent. A few days ago, The Boston Globe ran this article highlighting the immense damage that would be caused by this funding cut. And an online petition aimed at "saving" community action programs has begun to go viral, having already collected thousands of signatures in the past twenty-four hours.
I do not mean to suggest American workers will revolt any time soon, but there is a lesson to be learned from Egypt. The failures of the Mubarak administration, as well as the outcome of the protests in Mubarak's resignation today, cannot be replicated in any way here in the United States. But if the White House budget is proposed as anticipated, and worse, approved by Congress, we will be doomed to repeat those shortcomings as a nation -- and appallingly, the poorest citizens of our society will be forced to bear the overwhelming burden of President Obama's choice.
This article was co-authored by Mimi Vu. Mimi studies public policy at Harvard University and law at the University of California at Berkeley, where she focuses on consumer protection and labor laws affecting low-income communities. Prior to returning to school, she worked for six years at Action for Boston Community Development, Inc. (ABCD), one of the nation's largest nonprofit, community action programs.
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