Now more than ever: Local Government Matters

My students are studying local government this month in my Advanced Policy course.

They’re often somewhat surprised to see it included in the course outline–it’s not in the master syllabus, certainly, and it’s not a topic that they have encountered before in their social work education.

But I argue that it’s critically important for social workers and those who care about social justice, now more than ever.

And, you know, sometimes I really hate to be right.

A debate that exploded two weeks ago drove this point home, alarmingly.

The District Attorney in Shawnee County, Kansas, home to our state capital and just an hour down the turnpike from my home, announced that his office would no longer prosecute misdemeanors, including most domestic violence complaints, due to limited financial resources. Specifically, he required a $350,000 payment from the City Council (where he argued most of these cases originated) in order to continue the prosecutions.

It’s horrifying to think that perpetrators of domestic violence could rest assured that they would not face prosecution for their crimes, not because they hadn’t done something very, very wrong, but because the government can’t afford to do the right thing.

But it’s not surprising, not really.

With the federalist relationship between states and the federal government falling apart in a flurry of massive cuts in discretionary spending and unfunded mandates and devolution gone astray, state budgets were stretched to the breaking point. Then, all too often, state governments intent on dismantling the social contract used constrained finances as an excuse to retrench, even when the bottom line improved.

And, of course, in the process, local governments got squeezed, especially given their dependence on the kinds of taxes (property and sales taxes) among the hardest-hit in this recession.

And who do they squeeze, as the folks at the end of the line?

Those most vulnerable, of course–kids, whose schools are struggling; older adults, whose fixed incomes can’t easily absorb the costs passed along; individuals who rely on the public commons, which is eroding and in sore need of investment; and victims of crime, whose search for justice can apparently be sacrificed in the name of fiscal expediency.

We absolutely must hold local governments responsible for decisions like this. Government at all levels needs to hear that it’s not acceptable to balance budgets on the backs of those most in need.

But we also have an obligation to connect the dots, and to hold the federal and state governments accountable for the impact of their decisions, and for the reprehensible attempts to pass the buck to local entities.

Local governments didn’t create these problems themselves, and they can’t solve them alone, either.

We need advocates in the local government arena, though, where the cuts come home to hurt.

Now more than ever.

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