NPR MarketWatch June 17, 2019
10 ways that doing the right thing would save us money
By SARAH ANDERSONThe Deficit Hawks versus the Big Spenders. That’s how the media typically portrays budget battles in Washington. We seldom hear about how government action to tackle our country’s most urgent social and environmental problems can actually save money.
In a new report, the Institute for Policy Studies and the Poor People’s Campaign reveal some of these underreported savings as part of a detailed analysis of the costs and benefits of transitioning to a moral economy.
We identified 10 ambitious changes we charted that would offer huge returns on investment above the status quo.
1. Comprehensive immigration reform
If we accepted more immigrants and created a pathway for more undocumented people to gain legal status, the benefits would outweigh the costs by nearly $200 billion over 10 years, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis. Why? Because once they’re allowed to come out of the shadows, immigrant workers would pay increased income and payroll taxes — above the billions they already pay.
2. Elimination of child poverty
In the richest country in the world, millions of children live in poverty because we skimp on assistance programs. The Children’s Defense Fund has estimated that the long-term costs of lost productivity, worsened health, and increased crime rates that stem from this under-investment total roughly $700 million per year. Strengthening our safety net would reduce these costs in both lost dollars and human potential.
3. Universal single-payer health care
A publicly funded, single-payer system would save money by eliminating bloat, including health industry executives’ fat paychecks and inflated pharmaceutical prices. One analysis estimates the savings at 9% of the cost of our current system, the world’s most expensive, which would save businesses and individuals as much as $310 billion per year while expanding coverage to all.
4. Free higher education
People who have the opportunity to extend their education past high school tend to earn higher salaries. This means they pay more in income taxes and rely less on public assistance. A California study found that for every $1 invested in public colleges and universities, the state gained $4.50.
5. Pentagon spending cuts
Ending our wars and shifting from militarism toward peace and diplomacy would make our world safer and free up funds for real security at home. We could cut $350 billion per year from spending on wars, our 800 overseas military bases, and lucrative contracts for weapons makers — and the Pentagon would still have more money than the combined military budgets of China, Russia, and Iran.
6. An end to mass incarceration
Currently we spend $179 billion per year on policing, courts, and private prison operators. We could slash those costs by abandoning the failed war on drugs. In 2017, police made 1.4 million drug possession arrests, about 600,000 of which were for marijuana possession. Imagine freeing up those resources for real public health programs.
7. Voting rights
Protecting basic democratic rights would be a boon for taxpayers. Just one state, Florida, has paid $385 million in estimated annual costs related to administrative and court expenses and increased recidivism resulting from restrictive voting and civil rights laws for the formerly incarcerated.
8. Safe drinking water
The Flint, Mich., debacle is just the most notorious example of how shortchanging investments in water infrastructure can have disastrous health and economic effects. In that city, the infamous “penny wise, pound foolish” decision to shift the city’s drinking water source created a lead poisoning crisis costing the city, state, and federal governments hundreds of millions of dollars, including an estimated $400 million from the long-term social consequences of lead poisoning. Rebuilding safe water infrastructure in cities like Flint would forestall these enormous economic and human costs.
9. Job creation and living wages
A major new infrastructure investment of $200 billion could create as many as 2.5 million jobs. And raising the paltry federal minimum wage — still just $7.25 an hour — to a living wage like $15 would save money by boosting tax revenue and reducing public assistance needs.
10. Climate justice
Investing in a clean-energy transition would create jobs while addressing the needs of the poor and people of color who are already suffering the worst effects of climate change. Conversely, total inaction on climate change could cost up to 15.7% of GDP per year due to increased disaster relief spending, agricultural losses, public health problems, and other related costs. That’s the equivalent of the cost of the Great Recession of 2008-2009 — multiplied fivefold. Compared to that, investments to prevent and adapt to climate change pay for themselves.
If we stop handing out tax cuts for the rich, welfare for big corporations, and lucrative weapons contracts and instead prioritize the needs of the poor and the planet, we will create more jobs, strengthen our infrastructure, and create short- and long-term benefits that will boost our economy and protect our resources for future generations.
Doing good, it turns out, is also a good bargain.
Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project and edits Inequality.org at the Institute for Policy Studies. She contributed to the joint report, “Poor People’s Moral Budget: Everybody Has The Right To Live.”
Poor People’s Campaign
This summer, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty Philip Alston presented his observations on the state of international poverty to the UN Human Rights Council.
The country at the center of his most recent report wasn’t a developing one — it was the United States. In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, Alston found, many Americans live without access to water and public sewage services.
More alarmingly, at a time when 40 million Americans live in poverty — including over 5 million experiencing “developing world” levels of poverty — congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump are jeopardizing access to the social safety net for millions, the report concluded.
Exacerbating poverty won’t “Make America Great” for anyone.
For instance, health care, which is already prohibitively expensive, could become more so. A new rule allowing small businesses to buy plans without certain “essential health benefits” required by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is expected to increase insurance costs for people who need those benefits.
Even now, ACA premiums are increasing thanks to the president’s decision to stop sharing costs with insurers.
Rising out-of-pocket costs and premiums could either push the poor out of the market or force them to contend with even higher medical expenses. And by encouraging people to opt out of pricier plans, that leaves those who remain insured confronting higher costs, and subsequent financial insecurity, themselves.
Lack of insurance either drives the uninsured into hospital emergency rooms, where they face more expensive treatment they have no hope of affording, or promises an amplified public health crisis. In a December report, Alston recalled encountering poor Americans who had lost all of their teeth because they lacked access to dental health care.
The social safety net, which plays a crucial role in reducing poverty among children, is also under threat.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) alone kept 3.8 million children and 2.1 million children out of poverty and “deep poverty,” respectively, in 2014. The Center for American Progress calculated that childhood poverty alone stunts economic output by $170 billion each year and deprives the economy of $500 billion each year.
More importantly, poverty is morally reprehensible, subjecting children to a lifetime of harm. It portends adverse health consequences, limited educational achievement, and lower rates of employment. Yet SNAP is on the chopping block for the House Farm Bill.
Poverty has also been shown to make communities fertile breeding grounds for abuse by law enforcement.
America’s homeless have been among those most vulnerable to this abuse. Instead of addressing homelessness with increased access to affordable housing, however, the Trump administration has suggested cuts to rental assistance programs. These cuts could push more Americans into homelessness — and then into the criminal justice system.
Across the country, homeless Americans are arrested and hit with an avalanche of fines and fees simply for trying to survive. The criminalization of homelessness deepens the poverty of the homeless and creates a criminal justice system that discriminates against the poor. No one benefits.
Fortunately, such hostility to the poor has been met with a wave of progressive activism.
Only a day after Alston presented his report, the Poor People’s Campaign rallied in front of the Capitol Building to cap six weeks of anti-poverty advocacy. Lawmakers are already following the campaign’s lead: Several influential senators and representatives recently heard testimony from struggling Americans.
As Republicans pursue policies that make American poverty a global concern, at least some progressives are preparing to fight back.