From California to New York, massive state budget cuts are imminent. And many of these cuts directly undermine
the increased funding for domestic programs that President Obama promised voters, and that the Democratic Congress enacted early in 2009. For example, while Obama offers states billions of dollars in a Race to the Top, teachers across the nation face layoffs and new teaching jobs for idealistic young people have disappeared. From an environmental agenda imperiled by nationwide public transit cuts, to a “Jobs" agenda jeopardized by state-induced layoffs, to the lack of full implementation of the President's prized national service expansion, state budget cuts imperil progressives' electoral gains of 2008. And no group risks having their expectations more shattered than the students and recent college grads – often described as "the Obama Generation” ---whose energy and turnout helped define the 2008 election cycle.
State Fiscal Woes Undermine “Change” Agenda
When millions rallied behind Barack Obama’s call for “Change,” many hoped for major new funding to address long overdue domestic priorities. And President Obama and the Democratic Congress have passed budgets that – within the limits of the weak economy – have begun reversiing decades of neglect.
But it has been clear since early 2009 that the economy would need more than one year to turn around, and that state governments faced a fiscal reckoning come July 1, 2010. That's why progressives in Congress sought to add billions to the prior stimulus packages to provide two years of assistance to states, and why the Senate's elimination of this money from the final bill could soon have such terrible consequences.
Unless Congress acts to avert these cuts, Democrats are likely to lose much of the positive feelings the Party has regained since the passage of health insurance reform and the economy’s initial recovery.
Since core Democratic constituencies are the overwhelming targets of proposed state cuts, while Republicans back the plans, the state budget process could simultaneously deflate Democrats and galvanize Republicans on the eve of the critical midterm elections.
Progressives Saw This Coming
As I wrote on March 23, 2009
, Obama had barely taken office before a media that accepted Bush’s deficit-creating tax cuts for the wealthy began cautioning the new President about adding to the deficit by “overspending.” As a result, while the stimulus bill did a great job preserving state budgets for 2009-2010 – a recent study
found that only 18,000 state jobs were lost due to budget cutbacks nationally in the past year out of a workforce of 5.3 million – the amount was insufficient to get states through the nearly as bad 2010-11 budget cycle.
Progressives tried to get the additional money for two years of state assistance in the stimulus, but the combination of a media suddenly concerned about deficits, so-called “moderate” Senate Democrats, and a unified anti-stimulus Republican Party prevented it. President Obama, understandably concerned with getting an immediate influx of money out without being tied down over a fight over a future budget year, went along.
Now Democrats face backing major cuts to programs and workers critical to their base. And while Democrats in states like California can blame Republican Governors, the states most impacted by the fiscal crisis include Michigan, New York, and Illinois, whose state governments are Democrat-led. Another high impact state is Nevada, where Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid could lose his seat over the state’s budget cutbacks.
Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced the Keep Our Educators Working Act on April 10 to allocate $23 billion to avert state education layoffs, but it has run into opposition from conservatives masquerading as “reformers.” These opponents claim that the bill gives a “blank check” to a dysfunctional education system, and want to tie the money to the now standard attacks on teacher unions and public schools.
President Obama, who along with Education Secretary Arne Duncan has sometimes empowered these “reformers,” knows the political consequences of mass teacher layoffs. If Democrats cannot pass the Harkin bill, progressives can likely forget about trying to get federal money to protect less politically popular programs.
Sacrificing “the Obama Generation”
Remember when the millions of young people got so involved in the November 2008 presidential campaign that they were often described as “the Obama Generation?”
Now this potential long-term constituency for a progressive agenda finds itself seeking in vain for good paying jobs, all the while facing student loan bills that often exceed $50,000.
Democrats have passed the most sweeping progressive student loan reforms in history, and those aware of these measures have concrete, personal evidence of the economic value of political engagement. But for the millions of young college graduates unable to obtain jobs, and who see public sector possibilities eliminated by proposed budget cuts, the Democratic agenda for November could prove a hard sell.
Health reform was not a top priority for young people. They overwhelmingly need access to meaningful and good paying jobs, and it’s hard to see them voting in high numbers when they find themselves unemployed or poorly employed two years after Obama’s election.
I attended a graduation at Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus last week in which at least half of the graduates were African-American. A number of speakers alluded to the “challenging” job market.
No speaker mentioned that African-Americans are disproportionately employed in the public sector, including the state governments now slated to slash programs, impose layoffs, and freeze hiring. One speaker decried New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s announcement the previous day of 6000 teacher layoffs, and could have added that the New York City Teaching Fellows Program, which hires new graduates, has reduced its hiring from 6000 in 2008, to 3000 in 2009, to 300 for the 2010-11 school year.
When Republicans take control of government, they pass tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations who put them in power. The politically astute Obama team has to know that failing to help the young people whose votes and energies elected the president is political suicide – and that there can be no such thing as a “Jobs Agenda” when public services face draconian state budget cuts as soon as July.
Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, which will be out in paperback in July.