War funding could pay for wind energy, high-speed rail, Superfund cleanup and an end to hunger in the United States.
Our communities are depressingly polluted, social services are being cut left and right and hunger is very real right here in America. So hearing that the United States government spends $20 billion in Afghanistan each year on air conditioning alone stings just a little. When it comes to war, the U.S. Treasury is hemorrhaging cash, yet Congress demanded that President Obama cut things like high-speed rail, United Nations support and funds for the Environmental Protection Agency from the 2012 fiscal year budget.
Nobody seems to know exactly how much the government is currently spending on the war in Afghanistan, but various estimates place it around $8 billion per month. If we weren’t buying air conditioners, gas, equipment and personnel to wage a seemingly endless war on the other side of the world, what could our elected officials spend this money on instead?
1. Domestic Hunger Relief
The financial crisis has drastically increased the number of households that are unable to routinely put food on the table, which rose to 17.2 million in 2010. That’s the highest figure ever recorded. More than one in five children in America lives in a household with low food security. According to DoSomething.org, it would cost just $10 to $12 billion per year to virtually end hunger in America. We could solve the problem in a month.
2. High Speed Rail
$8 billion could make major headway for high speed rail in America, a highly efficient public transportation system that would relieve traffic congestion, reduce dependence on fossil fuels, eliminate thousands of tons of greenhouse gas emissions and bolster the economy in depressed areas of the nation. That was the amount originally designated for the project by President Obama in 2009, with chunks of the money going to states like California and Florida, where the first inter-city systems would have been built. Of course, Florida governor Rick Scott returned his $2.4 billion portion in a Tea Party political stunt protesting the president’s $787 billion stimulus bill, and legislators in Ohio and Wisconsin did the same.
3. Public Health Programs
Government-funded health care programs like Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) cost at least $732 billion to run each year, and millions of people across the nation rely on them for basic services like check-ups, tests, procedures and medication. Other programs that have seen drastic cuts in recent years include the Women, Infants and Children program, which provides healthy food and infant formula to new mothers, and community health centers, which serve low-income populations. Contrary to the conservative talking point that these so-called “entitlement services” go to people who don’t really need them, a recent analysis found that more than 90% of the benefit dollars spent on these programs go to people who are elderly, seriously disabled and/or members of struggling working households. Many conservatives would like to see these programs drastically cut. But if we could expand these services, we could provide life-saving care to people who don’t otherwise have access.
4. Protecting the Environment
The amount of money that pays for a single month of the war in Afghanistan could double the annual budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, enabling it to ramp up crucial initiatives like climate change research, pollution cleanup, air quality improvement and the protection of endangered species. It could also considerably pad the budget of the Department of the Interior, which preserves American wilderness and acquires new federal lands. U.S. budget cuts that have allowed more spending on defense have had a considerable impact on environmental protection efforts. Imagine if just one month of war funding could be put toward these programs instead. The effects on land preservation, including the protection of delicate ecosystems threatened by human encroachment, would be incalculable.
5. Superfund Cleanup
Costs to clean up the hundreds of heavily polluted Superfund sites around the United States outpace the funding that is available, leaving many of these sites to sit for decades before they’re even thoroughly assessed, let alone remediated. In past decades, the EPA has allocated $335 million per year for Superfund cleanup, but new estimates put the costs at $681 million per year. The average cost to clean up a Superfund site is between $25 and $30 million, so $8 billion would eliminate about 300 of the roughly 800 Superfund sites on the waiting list.
Companies are supposed to be responsible for cleaning up the sites, but they’re often bankrupt or out of business, and a tax on petroleum that used to help provide funding was eliminated in 1995. With the EPA hurting for cash, Superfund sites will continue to harm ecosystems and communities. According to the Center for Public Integrity, one in four Americans lives within three miles of a contaminated site that poses serious risks to human health and the environment.
The federal government has allocated $153 billion for education this year, which seems like a lot until you realize that teachers are woefully underpaid, classroom sizes are huge, and many schools are dilapidated to the point of water leakage, mold problems and equipment that is decades out of date. If a year’s worth of war funding were applied to education instead, it would nearly double the total budget, preserving programs like the Americorps-funded Teach for America, a program in which recent college graduates commit two years to teaching before moving on to higher-paying jobs. Or we could take a year’s worth of war funding and award $5500 Pell Grants to over 17.5 million students.
According to the Council of Great City Schools, the nation’s major city public schools have at least $15.3 billion in new construction needs, $46.7 billion in repair, renovation and modernization needs, and $14.4 billion in deferred maintenance needs.
7. Low-Income Housing and Help for the Homeless
The foreclosure crisis, coupled with high unemployment, has led to an ever-increasing number of Americans living on the streets. In addition to unemployment benefits and job creation, affordable housing and counseling for the homeless are absolutely essential to help people get back on their feet. Welfare tends to be a dirty word in American politics, but cutting social safety nets in an era of increasing poverty will only deepen the divide between the haves and the have-nots. And the fact is, because costs for things like uninsured hospitalization, imprisonment and emergency shelters are so high, permanent supportive housing for the homeless would actually reduce the financial burden on taxpayers.
8. Jobs for the Unemployed
If we could get the economy back to a healthy state – a real, viable, sustainable healthy state, not created with the illusions of easy credit and sub-prime mortgages – many of the issues we’re experiencing in America could be alleviated. And what could get us back on track better than millions of new job opportunities for the unemployed? If the government took the roughly $100 billion it costs to fund the Afghanistan war for one year and applied it to President Obama’s American Jobs Act, we could hire more teachers and first responders, get construction workers started on all of those school modernization projects, improve more roads, rehabilitate and repurpose vacant properties and extend the jobs tax credit for the long-term unemployed.
9. Scientific Research
Nearly all scientific research is funded by government grants. But while President Obama promised in a 2009 speech that he would devote more than 3 percent of our GDP to research and development, pumping billions into fields like renewable energy, the federal government has actually cut funding. In an effort to ease the deficit, the 2012 fiscal year budget eliminates $4.4 billion from the $30 billion that it typically spends on ‘basic’ research. And the House cut Obama’s requested $8.5 billion in research for energy down to $5.3. Some experts say that cutting this funding stifles the kind of research that stimulates economic growth.
10. Organic Farming
President Obama allocated $50 million of the $787 billion stimulus package to organic farming in 2009, but with the high costs associated with converting conventional farms to organic farms, that money is a drop in the bucket. This funding provides grants to start organic farms, giving farmers up to $20,000 each per year. So if $8 billion was given over to support for organic farming, 400,000 farmers could transition to chemical-free agricultural methods or start new farms in a single year.
11. Wind Energy
Three million homes could be powered by renewable energy projects on federal lands – if only Congress would approve clean-energy tax credits that support wind power, which is looking unlikely. Illinois’ once-promising wind industry could fall flat without it, eliminating nearly 2,000 jobs. The cost of the tax credit? $1.4 billion per year. Take a month of war money, extend the tax credit for five years and they’d still have enough cash left over to build a few more of their own wind farms on government-owned property.
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Photo: Wikimedia Commons