"Most people don't read, don't think, they only give a damn about their own personal lives."
Mary Jane Schutzius, head of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom's local chapter, apologized for her "colorful" language during our interview. Schutzius was just one of many I had called to discuss the looming $1.2 trillion in federal budget cuts that will go in effect in January 2013. The backstop measure, known as sequestration, was adopted by both parties when Congress failed to come up with a deficit-reduction plan. Now, due to mandates outlined in the Budget Control Act, across-the-board discretionary spending cuts- half from defense, half from domestic programs -are scheduled to kick in no matter who is elected president in November.
When politicians discuss the "fiscal cliff" or the affects of budget cuts on the economy, conversations usually focus on defense cuts or tax hikes. Left out of the equation is the decrease in funding for community development block grants, day care centers, food stamps for children, health and science research and cuts to programs that serve the homeless.
Up until Monday's third and final presidential debate, "sequestration" has basically been a non-issue with the presidential candidates. It was a brief topic only because of the foreign policy theme and the effect $1 trillion in cuts over 10 years will have on the military. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney 's defense plan calls for increased military spending while P resident Barack Obama argues that the military doesn't need budget increases; America should instead focus on "nation-building at home," he says.
Schutzius is among a growing chorus of voices who fear that the "defense industry and private contractors" will use influence and power to dissuade Congress from cutting defense spending, while sacrificing domestic programs:
"Good jobs, good health care, good education, good infrastructure, good roads, good bridges, good public transportation"that's all going to be cut and the military budget will-as it has been in the past-keep growing incrementally."
Recognizing that few voters really understand, or are talking about, spending reductions that will severely affect their lives and those of other disadvantaged Americans, the Cambridge MA -based New Priorities Network (NPN) and its nationwide affiliates have launched a public engagement campaign aimed at raising the issue higher on the political agenda before and after the general election. Following NPN's lead, the Peace Economy Project (PEP), which I am affiliated, has been reaching out to local agencies, such as Schutzius', to add regional concerns to the national issue.
Lara Granich, director of the St. Louis Area Jobs with Justice (JWJ) an agency that advocates "economic justice" in the region, believes elected officials need to reevaluate their positions on the nation's priorities:
"We need national leaders, including representatives from Missouri, to understand that the future of our state and our country rest in our people. That needs to be first," Granich stressed. "There are enough resources in our country to invest in people. That's what we need to figure out; how to tap the resources of our nation more effectively and continue to invest in our people-in their education, in their health, a solid workforce, all those things."
Alice Flores, inter-campus coordinator with Young Activist United St. Louis (YSTL), a local group working get young people, on and off campus, into social justice work, believes the government should make education a higher priority. With tuition hikes, limited financial aid and decreased funding for higher education, she worries that college education has become inaccessible for today's youth, especially low income students.
(Romney's) "just borrow from your folks" attitude assumes a sort of privilege that some people have and what others really don't. Some people can mortgage their houses to put their children through school but so many families don't have those kinds of resources.
"We've been hearing a lot from politicians and other folk about the importance of an educated citizenry, that's it's really key that we send kids to school and support them because that's what's going to move our country forward in many different ways. It seems like now is the time to hold them accountable to their word. If it's important, then we need to fund education."
Zach Chasnoff, director of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), a local agency in opposition to " social, economic and environmental injustice," believes a " bottom up" education/activism approach is the best way to get politicians to respond to voter's concerns.
"We have to eke out the leaders, or people who are just naturally inclined to lead and then work with them and develop empowerment tools. The idea is to exponentially grow your base and let that strong base put pressure on the political regime to make necessary changes," Chasnoff explained. "A lot of people go directly to politicians but if you're only one person, your voice is only so loud. In the sort of political landscape that we're dealing with now-where corporations are people and money talks-you really have to make your voice pretty darn loud to rise above the fray."
On Monday, October 29, PEP will host a community discussion featuring lobbyists from the Washington-DC-based Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL). Jim Cason, FNCL Associate Executive Secretary for Strategic Advocacy-who will speak at the event-said he wants St. Louisians to fully understand the gravity of the decisions made in the nation's Capital and what individuals and groups can do locally to influence those decisions.
"Part of the starting point for me is to help people understand the connection between what's happening in St. Louis and what's happening in Washington- in particular, to help people understand that choices your elected officials are making now could impact not only how much (federal) money St. Louis has next year but how much it will receive 10 years from now," Cason said. "These are really systemic changes they're talking about that could put really terrible limits on things like spending for programs that have kept people and the elderly out of poverty; that has provided health care, housing, home heating and assistance and all kinds of things for local folks.