Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Cost of a Better America

Wisconsin’s current political and civic dissonance has prompted talk radio, water cooler, and coffee shop conversations and arguments about power hungry politicians, Tea Party activism, and budget busting union contracts and benefits. I don’t live in America’s Dairyland, so I won’t opine about what they should or should not do. I am sure they will figure it out. After all, we have our own deficits and (former) state legislators on the lam here in Massachusetts.

What is interesting to me is what has not been part of the cacophony in Wisconsin and throughout the nation as Congress, governors, mayors, and Town Meeting Members struggle with a poor economy and challenging budget plans that are increasingly unable to support even basic public services. What is missing in the national conversation is the realization that we made a bargain generations ago to live in and support a safer, more just, and healthier country—and that costs money.

Beginning with the New Deal’s Social Security Act, followed by the GI Bill, Medicare, Americans with Disabilities, the Clean Water Act, No Child Left Behind, and a host of state and local initiatives and laws, Americans, as a nation, made decisions to support programs and services designed to provide secure retirements, veterans’ benefits, medical care, food vouchers, special education classes, and accessible buildings for the disabled. The combination of American prosperity, technology, entrepreneurship, education, and—yes—hard fought political battles resulted in homes, schools, neighborhoods, and cities and towns that are healthier, cleaner and safer.

Some call it progress and some call it government run amok. But who today goes to the grocery store concerned about the quality of the beef in the freezer? When was the last time you worried about the water pouring out of your tap? Who thinks twice about whether or not firemen are on duty at 3:00 in the morning in your community? Which of us questions the need for a wheelchair ramp or elevator at the local library? Who questions the value of medical care for a returning vet or premature baby? Who will deny a special education program for a struggling and disabled learner? We don’t often think about these scenarios because we have become accustomed to a standard of living and security unparalleled in history.

In many ways, of course, we have created expectations and programs far beyond our means. And, unquestionably, some of the costs associated with these services have become exorbitant. Generous medical plans, for example, with low co-pays are no longer affordable. In Wisconsin, paying a portion of pension benefits has been a source of negotiation and angst. (Note to Wisconsin teachers: Most educators—and soon all—in Massachusetts have had 11% of their paychecks going toward their retirement benefits since 1995!) We have to treat our public servants fairly and with dignity while offering competitive wages, but we have to have an adult conversation about reasonable and sustainable benefits. We simply can’t afford to do it all.

Some would argue we have supplanted individual responsibility for a nanny state that encourages indolence and an insatiable appetite for the convenient and unnecessary. I think there is some truth in that, but I sure don’t want to return to the time when students with physical or learning disabilities were locked away or kept out of the neighborhood schoolhouse. I want to feel confident that when I pick up the phone and press 911, a local dispatcher will ask me what my emergency is.

We have created a more humane and secure society that places enormous value on human life, freedom, dignity, and education. Part of this grand bargain is that we have to pay for it.

And as we struggle to balance budgets it’s easy to demonize public servants, especially at a time when state and town revenues are failing. But let’s remember why they are there in the first place and then work together to develop solutions, promote relationships, hold one another accountable, and ensure a level of service and performance that balances our aspirations as a democratic and humane society with our ability to pay for it.

By the way, that’s why I like working in Needham: At the local level town officials, public employees, and citizens are guided by core values that ensure we collaborate, communicate, and sustain great services. In Needham we work together to find efficiencies, innovate, and, at times recalibrate our needs and expectations, all in an effort to provide excellent and responsive services for students, their families, and the entire community. It’s not always easy, and sometimes there are disagreements along the way. But I think Needham can be a model for the way this hard work is done.

Our communities and our nation deserve nothing less.


  1. It's nice to talk like this when you make 6-figure salary. But look at others who are not members of union. Are they workers too? They don't get COLA pay raises at work. They don't have 3 moths vacation like teachers.

  2. I'm a long-time teacher in New York (and a Mitchell School student back from 1968-73). Teachers are being attacked left and right. We seem like an easy target these days and it is very frustrating. I do not think of myself as wealthy or greedy and I certainly didn't get into this business for the money. I understand that the economy is bad these days and there doesn't seem to be much money for teachers. But when the economy was good and the private sector workers were often getting 20% annual pay increases, teachers still had to fight to get a 3% increase. I still see all this as a way for the rich to keep their money and reduce the power of the middle class. We live in a strange society these days.