Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Two thousand and eleven has been one of the toughest years for public workers that I can remember. Every month until this past one, the private sector has added jobs, and every month the public sector has lost them. The August employment report shows that the public sector got hit hard again—losing 17,000 jobs. In states across the country, public workers aren’t just being laid off; they’re being made into economic scapegoats. These workers deserve to be treated fairly any time. But in the wake of Hurricane Irene, as we watched teams of federal, state and local government workers tirelessly saving lives, and on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, they deserve much better.
The last decade has been marked by both peril and possibility, and in all of it there has been no shortage of American heroes. Many, if not the vast majority, worked for the government — as firefighters and police, as teachers and rescue workers. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, men and women proudly wore hats and shirts labeled “FDNY” and “NYPD.” When we wept for our nation, it was the bravery of the first responders that reminded us of our national character. There was a newfound respect for public service and a heartening change in how Americans viewed their government. Fire and police departments, and organizations such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, saw a surge in applicants. We didn’t just want to believe in those workers. We wanted to be them.
In the 10 years since, those and other public workers haven’t been any less heroic or any less essential. But they have been significantly less appreciated, even demonized. “There are a lot of government employees that need to go find a real job,”Rep. Paul Broun (Ga.), a Tea Party favorite, snorted in June. For too many on the right, a government worker isn’t a worker at all.
This, more than anything, comes from a broadening acceptance that government can do no good. Anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist infamously called for government to be made so small that it could be drowned in a bathtub. But even within the far-right fringes, it used to be the case that government, though small, was supposed to serve essential functions. Chief among them: Providing security to its citizens, doing for the people what no private corporation could.
There was a time, for example, that disaster relief money was a foregone conclusion. And yet here we are, in the wake of a hurricane that has devastated parts of New York and Vermont, being told by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) that disaster aid can come only after spending cuts.
Editor’s Note: Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.