The bright line that we often draw between the economic and social can lead us to ignore one at the expense of the other. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is a perfect example of that. He became a hero of the left when he helped usher through the legalization of gay marriage in July. But the rest of his agenda is so fiscally conservative that he’s currently embroiled in a fight with public sector unions over decreasing retirees’ pension payments and benefits for new workers.
In the very same year that Cuomo was lauded by the left for his stance on gay rights, he was busy implementing a budget that refused to raise taxes and filled a fiscal hole with huge cuts to services. The enacted 2011 budget reduced overall spending by 2 percent from the year before, “largely through cuts to services and State operations, as well as streamlined government actions,” the Human Services Council reports. But the enacted budget was much kinder than the one Cuomo originally proposed: he would have cut $400 million to health and human services, while the enacted budget added $271 million back. HSC concludes, however, that even with those restorations, “the final budget [did] not meet the need for services in New York’s communities.”
Those service cuts had a huge impact on what we likely categorize as a social issue: domestic violence. The current budget eliminates the TANF non-residential domestic violence initiative, leaving women seeking services but not in need of a shelter out of luck. Meanwhile, cuts to programs for the homeless will impact women fleeing domestic violence. Abuse leads to homelessness for 28 percent of families. Yet the current state budget proposes the elimination of its share of the Advantage housing subsidy program, which helps the homeless move from shelters to permanent housing. The city will also drop its commitment, meaning that $192 million in funding for housing subsidies will disappear. Both cuts mean far less support for women fleeing abusive situations.
Budget cuts have impacted other social issues in direct and indirect ways. Take crime enforcement. Cuomo’s 2011 budget proposed cutting $60 million from the state police force’s budget, constituting an 8.4 percent decline. That trend is widespread. A Justice Department report states, “The economic decline has severely affected law enforcement agencies’ operating budgets across the nation.” One-third of police department budgets have seen a drop of more than 5 percent since 2009. This has skewed the priorities for many forces: 8 percent of departments are no longer responding to car thefts, and 9 percent are ignoring burglar alarms. Yet at the same time, drug enforcement is either staying steady or rising. This is at least partly because drug arrests bring in money, particularly as a reward from federal anti-drug grants for more arrests and drug seizures. Those arrests don’t fall evenly: black adults were arrested on drug charges 2.8 to 5.5 times more often than white Americans in every year from 1980 to 2007. Cutting police budgets will have a huge impact on black Americans across the country.
The knife also cuts the other way: social issues have economic impacts. The debate around contraception is a perfect example. Not only does access to contraception boost economic productivity and save us money, it has huge fiscal implications for the women who seek it. The typical woman uses contraceptives for about thirty years to control her reproduction, which means that if she starts at age 18 she’ll end up shilling out over $66,000 over her lifetime with insurance—and almost $12,000 without. And four in ten women of reproductive age don’t have insurance. This is why over 7 million women get contraception from publicly funded family planning clinics. These women will have nowhere to turn if we cut that funding the way “fiscally conservative” Republicans would like.
Even one of the most controversial social issues, abortion, has economic aspects. A recent study, “Abortionomics: When Choice is a Necessity,” reported that abortion rates, particularly among poor women, have been on the rise during the recession due to high unemployment and lowered incomes. Even beyond the recession, abortion rates have mostly been on the decline over the past twenty years, but they’ve increased among low-income women.
Cuomo’s consistently high approval ratings are a testament to the fact that the artificial divide between social and economic issues distracts at least some progressives. One social issue victory—as historic as it was—does not a social progressive make. If he runs for national office, as he seems intent on doing, the left should be wary of rushing to his support. We have to walk and chew gum at the same time by keeping both sides of all issues in mind.