The Pentagon and our communities: overspending vs. vital juman needs

One in every five people in Boston’s minority communities is looking for work. In some areas, like the Blue Hill Avenue corridor, two in five are completely out of the workforce. And the city and state are in no position to help those people. They are dealing with their own budget crises.

The city is up against the limits of its property taxes. The state is losing $2.5 billion in federal aid this fiscal year, forcing cuts in many areas, from youth anti-violence programs to funding of our safety net hospitals and health centers. The state and city are being forced to cut social programs exactly when our families need them most.
We see these realities up close and daily. As the CEO of a large Dorchester health center and a senior staff member for a nationwide youth jobs program, we work with families on the edge and young people who urgently need work and direction. We know the city and the state don’t have the money to support Dorchester now. We do know where there is money, however.

The federal budget has the money to meet our needs for jobs and programs many times over. The Pentagon alone spends more each year than all the states combined. At times as tight as these, we need to ask: Is that money being spent efficiently? Is it being spent on what we need most?

Think of the federal budget as your family’s budget. You face many demands. Your roof is starting to leak. You are short on money for prescription drugs. The kids need better food than you are able to put on the table. You’re facing a layoff and you ought to go back to school so you can get a better job next time around. Meanwhile, your spouse wants to take what’s left in the bank account and spend it on something you don’t need now and that is unlikely ever to pay off.
Clearly, you need to make choices. You can’t do it all.

The federal government is in the same crunch. But it is not making the choices we would make. It is planning to freeze domestic programs – roofs, medicine, food, education – to pay for wars we don’t need and weapons we’ll never use.

The two of us have been looking at the military budget, since that’s where the big money is, and the unnecessary spending we have found shocks us. Did you know that we are paying for more than 1,000 military bases around the world, 287 in Germany alone? World War II has been over for 65 years! The Cold War has been over for almost 20. Did you know we’re spending $100 billion for the war in Afghanistan? With 100 Al Qaeda members in that country, that’s $1 billion per target – not a particularly effective use of scarce tax dollars.
It makes no sense whatsoever for the federal government to impose a spending freeze on programs we need right now while allowing the military budget to grow. It should be the other way around.

We’re not talking about cutting military pay, or supplies for troops on the front line, or benefits and care for veterans who have served our country. But we would retire high-priced, out-of-date Cold War fighters and ships. We would retire most of our 6,000 active nuclear warheads; 600 is enough to blow up the world several times. We would withdraw from Afghanistan and contain terrorist threats with aggressive, well-coordinated international police work, as retired Col. Andrew Bacevich is recommending. And how about closing half of those 1,000 military bases?

All told, we think military spending can be cut by one-quarter without endangering our security in any way, and we know that that money – our tax money – must be spent on jobs and families in our community. Massachusetts’s share of a 25 percent cut would erase the state budget gap and put us on the road to stability, if not recovery.

The choice between military spending and community needs is an argument many people would rather not have. But we can’t avoid it, any more than your family can avoid making choices between food, medicine, and utility bills. The state budget crisis is going to get worse next year. The job crisis won’t end on its own. We need use our tax money in ways that really make us secure.

Bill Walczak is the CEO of the Codman Square Health Center and Daryl Wright is a senior manager of a national youth serving organization in greater Boston. Both are Dorchester residents.