Making cuts

When faced with declining income and rising expenses, everyone has to set priorities. Negotiating what we should cut in hard times is, however, not as simple and straightforward as it may seem.

Parents understand that there are only so many things that can be cut out of a family’s food budget and the rent or the mortgage payments are not really optional. Getting to work, paying the light bill are right up there too. Kids, on the other hand, often don’t understand why they cannot buy whatever it is “everybody else has.” Mothers might not have the same priorities as fathers. Deciding what to give up and what to maintain is not an easy decision.

The same is true of trimming government budgets. It is really easy to say, “We need to cut spending.” When we get to the details, however, things are not going to be easy. Do we cut budget items that have small budgets? Do we trim from only big budget items? Does it matter who benefits? Does it matter if the program has wide and far reaching benefits? What is frivolous and extravagant and what is essential?

Often the first targets for cutting on federal or state budget levels are funding for the arts and the humanities. Funding programs which encourage art, music and theater, on first glance, would seem to be obvious extravagances. These are things, we are told, that we can do without, or for which other funding can be found. And both of those arguments are somewhat true.

Direct government funding of the arts and humanities is really a small part of how we pay for culture in this country. Most of the funds which pay for the arts organizations in the US come from private sources, foundations and revenue from events.  The value of tax exemptions for giving to arts non-profits has significantly greater affect than direct grants. That does not mean, however, that the government’s share of pie is not significant. Most foundations and few individuals are eager to give money to very small and new arts organizations. Especially in rural America, the institutional grants received by arts councils are an important source of seed money which allow these organizations to begin securing other funding or to try new and creative programs.

The National Endowment for the Arts estimates that each dollar expended for the arts generates eight times the revenue. Artists are paid for their work or for teaching others. Arts councils sell tickets to events. Fund raising activities encourage giving by individuals and businesses to support local activities.

The greatest pay back is not just the dollars of economic activity that is produced by arts spending. There is no way to measure the dollar value of helping a young boy, one who struggles to keep up in school’s academic studies, learn to operate a spinning wheel. How much is it worth to encourage a shy youngster to step out on the stage of a children’s theater? Is there a measure to helping senior citizens in a nursing home learn to do something new and to listen to their stories as they use their hands to create something beautiful. What is the value of encouraging civil discussion through book discussions? Are not the insights into history gained by historical presentations helpful to understand our present challenges?

If all funding to the National Endowment for the Arts were cut from the federal budget (a mere $146 million), it will be unlikely to end all music, art and theater events in the country. There will be those who understand the importance of art in many communities. I’m not sure the money saved will make a significant difference in our national debt and the costs will be felt most acutely by small and rural communities.
Copyright © 2011 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains