How Breaking Government Hurts Children

SOURCECampaign for America's Future

After years of electing people who declare that “government is the problem” and who avow to “drown it in a bathtub,” the results are apparent that, yeah, government might not work so well when you have people who hate it in charge.

New reports reveal that years of hating government are taking their toll on the nation’s infrastructure, and in particular those government services, such as safe drinking water and public schools, that are essential to children.

Look Who Broke Flint

Exhibit A in how breaking government hurts kids is the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

The whole nation knows the story of how the city’s water supply was changed from Lake Huron to the toxic Flint River and exposed Flint’s residents to dangerous levels of lead. But there’s a danger this story about what public officials did to Flint – particularly, the harm done to the children, with the lead causing irreversible and permanent brain damage – will be turned into another broad condemnation of “government” without explaining the motives of the people in charge.

According to a report in the New York Times, an independent panel appointed to look into how the city’s water supply became toxic traced blame to officials “who prized frugality over public safety” and who adopted a “whack a mole” attitude to beat away persistent reports of problems.

Among the culprits, according to the panel’s findings, is the state’s governor Rick Snyder. Recall that Snyder was one of among many anti-government candidates elected in the tea-party wave of 2010 elections. As Gary Legum recounts for Salon, Snyder was “a business executive and CPA with no prior experience serving in government” who went about breaking the government as soon as he got into office.

Determined to run Michigan “like a business,” Snyder put an emergency manager system in place that took away messy government things like democratic accountability and “checks and balances,” according to the Detroit Free Press, in deference to top-down authority favored by corporate CEOs. Sure enough, as the inquiry into the water crisis found, it was this devotion to corporate systems rather than clunky old government that caused the crisis to happen.

But the story from Flint is just the tip of a big ugly iceberg. New reports reveal that penny pinching on government and lack of response to the needs of ordinary Americans, particularly children, are harming communities everywhere.

As Goes Flint, So Goes The Nation

After news of the Flint crisis broke, more reports of broken water systems surfaced elsewhere.

In Newark, N.J., “findings of unsafe lead levels prompted the water to be shut off at 30 of the Newark district’s 67 schools,” according to the New York Times. In Jackson, Miss., “an astonishing 22 percent of homes … exceeded the federal ‘action’ lead level,” the Guardian reports. Across the entire state of Ohio, 13 water systems have been put on “lead advisory.”

Most recently, USA Today reports, “Some 350 water systems … failed lead tests.” Many of these water systems provide drinking water to schools and childcare centers, perhaps affecting children with life-long developmental damage to their brains and nervous systems.

”An analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data showed about 350 schools and day-care centers failed lead tests a total of about 470 times from 2012 through 2015,” the article explains. “It’s impossible to know how big” the problem is because the federal government, according to USA Today, “requires only about 10 percent of the nation’s schools and a tiny fraction of day cares … to test for lead at all.”

Lead isn’t the only problem. In North Carolina, the dangerous contaminant is coal ash.

“The national network for providing safe, clean water is falling apart,” declares a recent op-ed in the New York Times. Around the country, there are widespread examples of cities and towns where broken pipes need to be fixed, wastewater treatment systems need to be upgraded, and regulations and pricing need to be changed, the author contends.

The decay in the nation’s infrastructure hits children the hardest. Lack of investment in government services hurts children, both in terms of the direct harm of toxic water sources and the long-term less direct injury caused by attending schools that are physically falling apart.

The Sorry State Of Our Nation’s Schools

Detroit, another Michigan city under Snyder’s care, made national headlines this year for having crumbling schools plagued by broken toilets in the student’s bathrooms, leaking ceilings, moldy walls, and foul-smelling cafeterias and gyms.

“But while conditions in the Motor City are particularly deplorable, the average U.S. school is more than 40 years old,” The Washington Post reports. “Thousands of school buildings nationwide are in need of upgrades.”

The Post’s article points to a recent study finding, “The nation is spending $46 billion less each year on school construction and maintenance than is necessary to ensure safe and healthy facilities.”

The study reaches the $46 billion figure by first finding the nation has spent an average of $99 billion a year on maintenance, operations, and construction. Then, using “a tweaked version of commercial-building standards,” the study’s co-authors calculate that $145 billion are what’s needed.

Post reporter Emma Brown explains, “Poor communities in far-flung rural places and declining industrial city centers tend to be in a particularly bad situation.”

Having so many school buildings in dilapidated conditions poses obvious health and safety risks, but there are significant long-term negative consequences to children as well. As one of the study’s co-authors points out, “There is a growing body of research that shows links between the school environment and a child’s ability to learn, and yet the condition of school buildings remains little-mentioned in discussions about closing achievement gaps.”

“These things are happening,” Brown quotes a Pennsylvania state senator, “because too many public officials have turned a blind eye to what’s really going on.”

Making The ‘Blind Eye’ See

The “blind eye” the senator refers to comes from having your vision hindered by the narrow belief that spending money on government hurts the economy.

“State and local expenditures on infrastructure is at a 30-year low,” Elizabeth McNichol explains. In her report for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, she writes, “Reversing the decline in state investment in transportation, public buildings, water treatment systems, and other forms of vital infrastructure is key to creating good jobs and promoting full economic recovery – and this is an especially good time for states to do it.”

She continues, “This pattern of neglect of infrastructure … has serious consequences for the nation’s growth and quality of life as roads crumble, school buildings become obsolete, and outdated facilities jeopardize public health.”

Building new schools and refurbishing existing ones would give a particularly big boost to the nation’s economy. The economist Jared Bernstein calculates, “Construction and building repair generally create 9,000-10,000 jobs per billion dollars spent.”

So if we are to accept the above report’s $46 billion in extra spending needed every year to bring the nation’s investment in school construction in line with what’s required, we’re talking about creating and sustaining a potential of well over 400,000 jobs.

A national project focused on school construction, Bernstein contends, “could also lead to the direct hire of building maintenance workers to help slow or prevent the deterioration of buildings and building systems, while generating new savings through energy conservation.”

In addition to the positive effects of immediate job creation, there’s a long-term positive impact to the economy. As McNichol explains, “State-of-the art schools free from crowding and safety hazards improve educational opportunities for future workers” as well.

Sounding Like An Adult

Fortunately, at least one presidential candidate has put forth the idea spend government money to refurbish the nation’s crumbling public schools. As Education Week reports, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that as president she would be for resurrecting “a program from the 1990s that provided federal funds to refurbish and repair crumbling schools.”

The EdWeek reporter surmises Clinton may have been referring to a $1.3 billion school modernization program proposed by her husband, President Bill Clinton, and a “slightly smaller” $1.2 billion program to “help districts refurbish schools that served students in poverty” and to help schools “comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

That’s far below what’s needed. But it’s good to see at least one candidate is sounding rational on the subject.


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Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and the editor of the Education Opportunity Network website. Prior to joining he was one of the principal writers for Open Left. He owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C. He has written extensively about public education policy.