Arizona’s Governor, Jan Brewer, released a budget proposal last week that keeps in place a 2010 proposal to halve funding for the Department of Health and Human Services, reducing assistance for about 14,000 mentally ill patients. Also in the budget proposal is a plan to roll back Medicaid, which would cutback services for another 5,000 mentally ill patients.
For many it seems like a slap in the face, since the lack of mental health services in Arizona is probably one of the primary reasons Jared Laughner, the young man who committed the shooting in Tucson, never got the help he so desperately and obviously needed. But, the budget proposal claims, “Making painful decisions about how to fund and who will receive health and welfare services is critical to balancing the state budget.” In fact many governors around the country are being forced to make cutbacks in the face of growing debt. Newly elected California Governor Jerry Brown says, “Wherever I look, it’s not pretty… None of it looks good, but tell me how else to draw the lines. It’s pretty much a zero-sum game.”
Although state debt is very real right now, we would be well served to take a look at the history of mental health institutions in America. Has it always been so underfunded? And if not, then where the heck did all the money go? The answer can be found in the era of Reagonomics, or the trickle-down theory. In an era of somewhat unstable economic times, President Reagan did what no president had done in decades – he redistributed the wealth in the country to the haves in the hopes that it would jump start the economy. The age of reasonable corporate tax rates were over (they went from 70% to 28%), the age of massive corporate welfare had begun (and continues to this day), and meanwhile social programs were considered an afterthought.
Not surprisingly, mental health institutions took a big hit. One of the first things President Reagan did in office was to rescind the Mental Health Systems Act, a revolutionary piece of legislation passed by Jimmy Carter that provided federal guidelines for mental health institutions. As a result, individual states were left to come up with their own guidelines, where reforms were often only marginally addressed, if at all.
Now look where we are. Is there really no money for mental health? No, there’s not. But there is money for tens of billions of dollars of tax breaks for Fortune 500 companies every year. And, oh yeah, we better give almost a trillion dollars to some bankers, auto companies, investment firms, and insurance companies. And of course all the multi-millionaires still need their tax-cuts. And even President Obama several days ago wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal bemoaning more regulations for those poor, poor corporations (the piece, ironically enough, came out the same day that Citigroup reported their first quarterly profit since 2008).
We need to ask ourselves do these corporations REALLY need the money? Do they need the money as much as the families who lost loved ones in the shooting need their daughter, husband, father, or mother back? Do they really need the money more than the tens of thousands of people who die in this country every single year from totally preventable causes because they can’t afford healthcare?
At some point conservatives and liberals will need to make the choice of whether or not social programs should be an afterthought, or an integral part of our society.