In Our Opinion: Rethinking priorities
Daily Hampshire Gazette
The federal budget deals with numbers and subjects so vast and complex it's generally outside the ken of the average person. Moreover, it's hard to put the numbers you read or hear of into any kind of context.That's where National Priorities Project comes in. The Northampton nonprofit specializes in breaking down those big budget numbers. It seeks to show people where their taxes go and what they could buy - on the national, state and local levels - with different spending decisions. The group has now been at it for over 25 years, steadily raising its profile and becoming a go-to source for growing numbers of journalists, politicians, research organizations and other nonprofits. Northampton should be proud to be the home base of a project with such a sound, national mission.NPP, which occupies a modest set of offices in the Potpourri Mall on King Street, has long focused particular attention on military spending and national security issues, in part by contrasting what some of those dollars might generate for social needs such as health care, education and housing. That scrutiny seems particularly appropriate as President Obama contemplates a request from Army officials for 44,000 additional troops for the war in Afghanistan.In fact, according to NPP, the U.S. has already spent over $232 billion on the Afghanistan conflict as of this week - enough to pay for over 800,000 four-year college scholarships for U.S. students, executive director Jo Comerford says. The amount that Massachusetts taxpayers alone have doled out for the conflict would finance health care for about 141,000 people, she notes.Coupled with the cost of invading Iraq, the U.S. has spent over $932 billion on the two conflicts. Annual U.S. military spending is now more than the defense budgets of the next 14 nations combined, NPP calculates, and represents almost 50 percent of all military spending worldwide. According to one of the group's recent reports, about 55 percent of federal discretionary spending is allocated to national defense.Even given concerns about terrorism and instability in the world, these are staggering figures at a time when an estimated 20 percent of Americans lack health insurance, unemployment has topped 10 percent and as many as 49 million people rely in part on food banks and other social agencies to eat. NPP's job, says Comerford, is to put those numbers in perspective so that people can become better informed and help influence future legislation.The group's Web site, nationalpriorities.org, explains and breaks down its research with graphs, comprehensive reports and regular news releases. The site also operates a program that allows any user to assess the cost of federal spending decisions on his or her own community. Visitors can see how much of a typical family's tax payment goes to military spending as compared to, say, housing and community development. Among those who have praised the group's work are U.S. Rep. John Olver, the Amherst Democrat, as well as Rep. Barney Frank, the Massachusetts congressman who chairs the House Financial Services Committee. NPP's research has been cited in a growing number of news outlets in recent years, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press and the BBC World News.NPP employees rightly feel they've made a difference in Washington. The group's founder and former director, Greg Speeter, who now works with other nonprofit organizations to use his group's data, has testified before Congressional committees on budget issues. The group formed back in the 1980s out of concern that federal budget cuts during Ronald Reagan's presidency were hurting local social programs. Armed with data, members confronted the late U.S. Rep. Silvio O. Conte, the area's congressman at the time, and convinced him to stop supporting the Reagan cuts."[Conte] really had taken what we had done seriously," Speeter said recently. Given the soaring costs of our overseas wars, and the prospect of yet more local municipal budget cuts next year, we hope others in Washington and across the country will also consider NPP's analysis of federal spending.