Crisis Reality Check

The government shut down continues and so does the handwringing. "Look what the Tea Party has done!" We hear. Workers and the poor are suffering. Public programs are being cut. To cap it all, the National Zoo’s “pandacam” is off-line. What a crisis!

It’s almost enough to make you forget that, panda aside, just about all of the above was true when the government was open. 

Take those furloughed workers. Awful. But governments have been hemorrhaging jobs for years. In fact, 800,000, the number of federal employees furloughed this week, is just 94,000 more than the number of public workers, mostly state and municipal, who’ve lost their jobs since April 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

At least while they’re furloughed, they’re not laid off.

The shut-down’s imperiling public safety, we hear, as critical agencies cut back. It sounds scary until you consider what happens when the government’s functioning normally. According to a recent report, 4,693 Americans died on the job in 2011. What’s normal? At current staffing and funding levels, a federal inspector can be expected in your workplace once every 131 years.

It’s possible that we’ll see a disaster due to government inaction while inspections are cut back, but we’ve seen plenty of disasters before. Remember the twenty-seven men killed at the Upper Big Branch mine in April 2010? Government was open when that deadly explosion happened, but when it comes to powerful corporations like Massey Energy, the fines and penalties levied by government agencies had simply been too slight to pack a punch. 

Food inspections are no better. Contaminated food illnesses affect some 48 million Americans yearly. That’s a smidgeon 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 still further the number of federal inspectors at poultry plants. Another upside of the shutdown; while the government’s shut it can’t deregulate.

But what about the poor? You could ask why there are so many of them. The loss of benefits for those who need them is terrible, but far worse is what’s causing the need: low wages. For the eleventh time in twelve years, poverty worsened in the US this year. And that’s because half the jobs in the country don't pay enough for a family to live on. A quarter don’t pay enough to get workers out of poverty.

Government can help but it mostly doesn't, because instead of a war on poverty, decades of tight fisted Republican and Democratic politicians have brought us a war on the poor instead.

The fact is, the government shut-down is not the crisis. The way we’ve permitted ourselves to be governed is. What needs to open now isn't government, but our minds, and a new chapter of political action.

Meanwhile, just think: at least panda Mei Xiang and her cub are getting some privacy. I can almost hear them cheering for the shut-down of the surveillance state.

Laura Flanders is a contributing writer to The Nation and the "local economies reporting fellow" at Yes! Magazine. She hosts The Laura Flanders Show on GRITtv.org, an online source of in-depth interviews with forward thinking people. Find her at GRITtv.org or facebook.com/grittv or follow her on twitter @GRITlaura. An audio podcast of her weekly commentaries can be found on Soundcloud at https://soundcloud.com/grittv. 

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