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Crisis Reality Check

The government shut down continues and so does the partisan handwringing.  Look what the Tea Party have done! Workers and the poor are suffering. Public health and welfare programs are being cut. While spending on war continues, spending on the low income old and the young dries up.  To cap it all off, the National Zoo’s “pandacam” is offline. What a crisis!

It’s almost enough to make you forget that, panda aside, just about all that was true before the government shut. 

Take those furloughed workers. Awful. But state and municipal governments have been hemorrhaging jobs for years. In fact, 800,000 the number of federal employees furloughed this week, is only 96,000 fewer than the number of public workers, mostly state and municipal employees, who’ve their jobs since April 2009 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At least while they’re furloughed, they can’t be laid off.

The shut-down’s imperiling public safety as critical agencies cut back inspections, including OSHA, the workplace safety agency, and the FDA, which inspects our food.

It sounds scary until you consider what happens when the government’s open. According to a report  released this summer, 4,693 Americans died on the job in 2011 — when OSHA was functioning normally. What’s normal? At current staffing and funding levels, federal OSHA inspectors can be expected to inspect workplaces once every 131 years.

Want to see the effects of government inaction? Look at the twenty-seven names on the Upper Big Branch Miners memorial. An independent investigation found Massey Energy and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) directly responsible for the deadly April 2010 blast.

When it comes to powerful corporations, fines and penalties are too low to pack a punch.

Food inspections are no better. Contaminated food illnesses affect some 48 million Americans yearly. That’s about 48 million more than terrorism, yet the longest-standing trend at the USDA has been towards more self-monitoring by companies and faster moving production lines. Just last month, the agency proposed new rules slashing yet further the number of federal inspectors at poultry plants.

At least while the government’s shut it can’t (further) deregulate.

But what about the poor? You could ask why there are so many of them. The loss of unemployment benefits, Food Stamps and WIC, the food benefit program for poor women is terrible, but far worse is the fundamental problem they paper-over: low wages.

Public programs keep families from starving but wages aren’t high enough to get people out of poverty. For the eleventh time in twelve years, poverty worsened in the US this year according to the Census. Forty-six million of us live on less $18,300  year. Twenty million of us live on less than half that.

Government can help but it mostly doesn’t: after years of cut-backs, in today’s economy, for every 100 families living in poverty, just 27 receive cash assistance.  Listen to the handwringers and you’d think it was the War on Poverty that shut down October 1. It wasn’t.  Reactionary Republican and Democratic politicians sold out the War on Poverty years ago, and brought us the war on the poor instead.

What needs to open isn’t government, but a new chapter in our political history. The government shut-down is not the crisis. The way we’ve been governed is.

And just think. At least Panda Mei Xiang’s cub is getting some privacy. I can hear her cheering now for the shut-down of the surveillance state.

LAURA FLANDERS is the host and founder of GRITtv.org. Follow her on Twitter: @GRITlaura. 

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Laura Flanders interviews forward-thinking people about the key questions of our time on The Laura Flanders Show, a nationally syndicated radio and television program also available as a podcast. A contributing writer to The Nation, Flanders is also the author of six books, including The New York Times best-seller, BUSHWOMEN: Tales of a Cynical Species.  She is the recipient of a 2019 Izzy Award for excellence in independent journalism, the Pat Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award for advancing women’s and girls’ visibility in media and a 2020 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship for her reporting and advocacy for public media. lauraflanders.org

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