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Smart Ways to Balance a Budget

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January 13, 2011 07:57 pm

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On January 7, Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and the former Republican leader of the California State Assembly, Pat Nolan, wrote a very thought provoking op-ed in the Washington Post on the need for prison reform.  The two conservative leaders posed this not only as smart policy, but also essential for many states who are experiencing enormous budget shortfalls. Like prison reform, providing all students with a college- and career-ready education is another essential cost-saving idea states and the federal government must take up.

Indeed, deferring on these issues is no longer an option.  An analysis by the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities estimates that states will have to account for budget shortfalls approaching $100 billion in 2011 and over $130 billion in 2012, even after accounting for federal recovery funds. With states facing these realities, opening up issues like prison and education reform for discussion isn’t a liberal or conservative proposition.  It’s as practical as families gathering around a kitchen table to discuss how they will do more with less.

Gingrich and Nolan write that one way to reduce prison costs is to provide prisoners with better options.  To this point, there is a strong connection in research between lower educational attainment and crime.  Researchers refer to this unfortunate connection as the school to prison pipeline.  The notion is simple.  Basically, it says that young people and other individuals with less education have fewer constructive options in society and are correspondingly more susceptible to be involved in situations that get them in trouble with the law.  On the other hand, helping young people achieve better educational outcomes can help reduce these risks.  An analysis by the Alliance for Excellent Education shows that increasing the high school graduation rate could have substantial benefits in reducing criminal justice costs in states.  For example, if the male high school graduation rate in the state of California increased by just five percent, the state could save as much $1.1 billion a year in crime related expenses.

Of course reducing crime is not the only source of savings and revenues states could see by improving their education systems.  Researchers Henry Levin, Clive Belfield, and others have highlighted the significant economic benefits of increasing educational attainment.  Beyond lower crime expenditures, these benefits include savings on health care, welfare, and in other areas.  For years now, the Alliance has reported state-by-state numbers for these and other benefits on its state cards. More recently through the generous support of the State Farm, the Alliance has  provided data  on additional economic benefits for the nation’s fifty largest cities and their surrounding Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs). These benefits have as many implications for the long-term national debt as any budget cutting strategy members of Congress will discuss this year.

The national debt was one of the main issues on voters’ minds during this last election cycle.  Republicans and Democrats alike ran on reducing it. Now that they are in office, the question is what they will do specifically to achieve this goal—especially in light of massive state budget shortfalls.  Gingrich and Nolan’s call for prison reform and the Alliance and others’ call for education reform show that reducing the debt can be achieved in other ways beyond taking a red pen to a budget.  By addressing these issues head on, the nation can finally do right by our youth, our budgets, and our future.

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