The Crisis in Local Government
AMERICANS' trust in government typically goes up as the size and remoteness of governmental institutions go down. City councils are favored over state legislatures, generally, and legislatures over Congress. But a sentimental preference for the small and familiar when it comes to government doesn't necessarily translate into a readiness to pay more to keep the services provided by states, counties, and towns flowing. It's at the state and local levels where the family budget and the public budget - for schools, roads, law enforcement - can most obviously collide.
Local officials all over the United States are discovering this political fact of life anew as tax revenues are pinched by recession even as the demand for services grows. In many areas, once dwindling school-age populations are again increasing, the numbers of out-of-work or indigent people are up, and state or federally mandated health-care programs are straining to embrace those who are eligible. While state and local governments may run up deficits, most can't operate with them in the way Washington
does. In most cases, states are legally bound to balance their budgets.
Whether it's mayors, county executives, school superintendents, or governors, the basic problem is often the same: a struggle to maintain essential programs in the face of static or falling income. And while the recession has deepened the problem, it hardly originated it. In the early '80s, Ronald Reagan's "new federalism" began the transfer of many formerly federal responsibilities - such as health care for the poor - to the states. Many states, in turn, shifted a heavier load onto local governments, p a
rticularly counties. At the same time, national priorities like school reform and the fight against drug abuse created a surge of new programs and spending commitments.
The upshot, during the present economic contraction, is widespread teacher layoffs, sharp cuts in public assistance, closed libraries, and so on. Which returns us to average Americans and their attitudes toward government. They face tough choices between paying out more to keep local services at accustomed levels, or deciding that they and their children can live with less.
But the options don't end there. Many people are devoting time and what money they can to projects that before might have been handled by government: launching a course on computers for local schoolchildren, building a new playground, manning a recycling operation, volunteering in a hospital, for instance. State and local governments, meanwhile, have little choice but to weed the inefficiencies from their ways of doing business.
The worst casualty from the recession would be a loss of civic spirit among Americans. That spirit has to be nurtured in these economically challenging times, especially at the local level. It's a time for greater involvement in the public's work - for strengthening the will to tackle the country's problems.