Saturday, April 2, 2011

Hunger Strike for the Ability to Work

I’m participating in a fast today. Several thousand people across the United States are fasting to protest some of the recently proposed federal government budget cuts. It’s a purely symbolic action on my part, not really a sacrifice, as going without food today won’t have a noticeable impact on my ability to work. Probably most participants today, though, are actually suffering from the disruption in their food habits, and some are on an actual hunger strike, planning to go without food indefinitely until their concerns are addressed.

The point I personally hope to make is that it is the height of folly, even in an austerity budget, to axe the very things that are necessary for people to work and live. To a limited extent, the government must support such things as food, housing, safety, and transportation.

Let me start with transportation as an example. Broad cuts in transportation leave significant numbers of people at home, unable to get to work. When people don’t work, they don’t pay taxes. And when people don’t pay taxes, that makes the budget situation worse, not better.

It is the same with food. When people can’t eat, the quality of their work suffers almost immediately. If they are looking for work, the quality of their job search declines in the same way, and the tendency for employers to take them seriously or view them favorably all but vanishes. In the United States today, it is basically impossible for a person who looks like they are suffering from hunger to find a job. But again, as long as they aren’t working, they aren’t paying taxes. Thus, withholding food from people does not improve the budget either.

The budget talks in Portugal broke down because the ruling party wanted to make cuts that they themselves acknowledged would leave a significant fraction of the country’s citizens homeless and hungry. Portugal is in an actual fiscal crisis, but even in that situation, it makes no sense to make decisions that let a nation’s ability to work just wither away. Portugal’s budget plan was like a farmer who decided to save time by not watering any of the crops — a panic move that would make things worse, not eventually, but in the very near future.

Unlike Portugal, the United States is not in an actual fiscal crisis, but political opportunists are using the current budget pressures as an excuse to do away with some of the most essential functions of government, including food programs. The amount of money to be saved by withholding food from hungry people is so small it doesn’t matter to the budget anyway. The tax revenue lost when hungry people can’t work and food producers are forced to cut back production is larger. This may well be what the supporters of these particular cuts have in mind — not fiscal sanity at all, but using an imaginary fiscal crisis to try to squeeze whole groups of people out of the economy with aggressive cuts this year, and even more aggressive cuts next year after they have made the budget situation worse.

I won’t argue with the idea of an austerity budget, but austerity doesn’t mean starvation. A country becomes stronger and a budget is balanced by expanding people’s ability to work, not by taking it away. In the end, in an economic sense, a country is its workers. Cut the budget as much as it needs to be cut, but don’t take away the essentials of life that make people able to work. That’s the point I’m hoping to make by going hungry today.