Monday 26 May 2003

Bush makes poor pay for military might and tax cuts

Schools and health lose out as US public services endure worst crisis since 1930s

School was definitely over for Sally Kelly last week. The Oklahoma primary school teacher was trying to cram years of accumulated experience and memories into a few cardboard boxes and get them out of the door before the building was locked up for the holidays.

Thousands of teachers across the state and the US have been doing more or less the same thing in the past few months, squeezed out by a combination of recession, tax cuts and record military spending. Oklahoma is cutting 6,000 teaching jobs in the financial year just ending and the next, and the budgetary outlook is grim. But for Ms Kelly, there is more at stake than losing her vocation. Her breast cancer is in remission but still requires monitoring and medicines. Without the health insurance that came with her job, she can afford neither.

"For me, it's a life and death situation," she said, sitting in the deserted classroom, her head covered by a yellow turban to hide the effects of chemotherapy.

After surgery, a tube was inserted under the skin just below her collar bone to serve as a "port" for the chemotherapy, but she can no longer afford the drugs to keep it open, and she thinks she will probably have to get it removed. In a wealthier state in better times, some of her treatment might be covered by Medicaid, the national health insurance scheme for the poor. But the scheme is facing its own budget crisis, and the poverty threshold for eligibility is constantly rising. Ms Kelly is jobless but owns her home so may still not be poor enough.

Once her boxes are filled, all that remains is to remove the inspirational slogans with which she decorated her classroom. The last to come down says: "Attitudes are contagious. Is yours worth catching?"

She is determined to remain upbeat. This is a "detour not a roadblock" she says, but the truth is that her chances of finding a new teaching post soon are small.

Oklahoma's job cuts are part of a deep nationwide retrenchment eating away at the public sphere. According to some analysts, the states, which control most public services, are going through their worst crisis since the Depression. While the US is at the zenith of its global power, its health and education systems would be grounds for a scandal in poorer countries.

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